Regents approve UNR-Renown deal, faculty merit pay policy in marathon two-day meeting

The Board of Regents met for two days this week to hash out a host of higher education issues in the wake of a busy legislative session that saw operational budgets slashed even as personnel budgets were spared. 

The result was a whirlwind of new approved policies, including finalizing a major partnership deal for the UNR School of Medicine, the first dedicated merit-pay funding source for faculty since the Great Recession and the ushering in of new board leadership for the new fiscal year. 

Below are some of the major moves regents made this week. 

UNR Med-Renown Health partnership gets green light after hitting temporary snag on sale-clause

Roughly 10 months after initial negotiations began on a partnership deal between the UNR Medical School and Reno-area health care giant Renown Health, regents voted 12-1 to approve a landmark agreement that will tie the two parties together for the next 50 years. 

The final vote Friday came after a months-long process of votes across different bodies, with the deal clearing both Renown’s corporate board and the Legislature. 

Regents, administrators and Renown executives have hailed the agreement as “transformative,” and a major step in expanding the scope of UNR’s medical programs, teaching programs and clinical research. 

“We are one of the last medical schools to be community-based, as we are now,” UNR Med Dean Tom Schwenk said.

Schwenk said the lack of any public-private agreement limited the school’s ability to expand clinical research, expand class sizes and build new residency programs, all reasons why “every medical school in the country has pursued this type of health system partnership.” 

Still, some regents raised concerns over the half-century length of the deal — the first of its kind in Nevada — as well as over provisions that could trigger the sale of the medical school’s clinical research department under certain conditions. 

As written, the deal would allow Renown to terminate the agreement if the sum of state funding and student tuition money dropped by 20 percent or more in a single year. Under those conditions, the clause would give Renown a right of first offer to purchase UNR Medical School’s basic science and clinical research departments. 

Coupled with the lengthy timeline, Board Chair Mark Doubrava said that while he supported the effort from a “medical education standpoint,” the sale clause could prove to be an unintended landmine should economic downturns or unexpected inflation shifts trigger the fine print of the agreement. 

“This could potentially serve as a template for UNLV when they do their associations, so that means we have to get this one right,” Doubrava said. 

Doubrava — an ophthalmologist who earned his medical degree from UNR in 1989 — was ultimately the sole vote against approval, saying afterward that his objection was “just an issue of contracts.”

Still, all other board members expressed approval of the language as written, deferring in part to UNR President Brian Sandoval’s description of the clause as a “safety net” that would protect the school in a worst-case scenario, rather than a mechanism by which Renown would privatize the school. 

“The intent of it was that, in the very unlikely event there was a dramatic reduction in funding which would lend itself to a closure of the clinic facilities — this was an effort on behalf of Renown to try and keep the doors open,” Sandoval told regents. “And it would be subject to the review and approval of the regents, and so I think that was just a safety clause.” 

Regents OK faculty merit pay policy amid concerns over timing 

After four years of deliberations, studies and lobbying between faculty, regents and the state government, regents voted unanimously Friday to set aside a 1 percent pool of institutional funding for performance pay raises. 

It is the first such permanent funding pool since state-funded merit raises were defunded during the Great Recession. 

Faculty advocates — who have long raised concerns that the absence of merit raises was compressing salaries, worsening diversity issues and harming morale — hailed the vote as a success.

“It’s a great victory,” Doug Unger, president of the UNLV chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said. “It’s been four years of work, faculty really want it … it’s been a long time coming.”  

In approving the measure, regents also bumped up the timing for the implementation of such raises to 2023. Amid a bevy of budgetary unknowns and in the wake of steep cuts to operational budgets after the legislative session, the original measure called for implementation no later than 2024. 

Chancellor Melody Rose characterized the timeline not as a “delay tactic,” but as a due-diligence measure that would allow the system and institutions to better grasp budget limits before committing millions to institutional pay-raise pools. 

But that timeline was criticized by faculty, including Unger, who said they “just couldn’t wait any longer” after just one performance pay increase in the last 12 years. 

Friday’s vote also comes in the wake of a controversial move by legislators to approve different cost-of-living raises for unionized and non-unionized public employees. Under the pay bill passed this year, employees without a collective bargaining agreement will receive a 1 percent raise, and those with a CBA in place will see a 3 percent increase. 

Many Nevada faculty — who are not allowed to collectively bargain under Nevada law and saw a bill meant to secure such rights, SB373, die in committee this legislative session — have decried the disparity. 

“I think, as we are looking at these as campuses are distributing merit, that the issue is that we need to maintain that merit is different than cost of living increases or other forms of in-rank salary advancement that we can have,” UNR Faculty Senate Chair Amy Pason told the board. “Because compression is not going to be fixed just by performance pay alone.”

Board votes in Regents Cathy McAdoo, Patrick Carter as new chair, vice chair

Regent Cathy McAdoo will take the reins as board chair for the 2022 fiscal year, taking over for previous chair Mark Doubrava. McAdoo was the only regent nominated for the chair position, and the board elected her unanimously. 

Representing a district that includes most of rural eastern Nevada, including Elko, Nye and parts of Clark counties, McAdoo — who was elected in 2016 — is among the longest-serving regents remaining on the board.

Regent Patrick Carter, also elected in 2016, was narrowly elected to the vice chair position, beating Regent Amy Carvalho in a 7-5 vote. 

The two will take over board leadership after the fiscal year ends at the end of this month. 

Interim president for Nevada State College named for six-week summer gap

Regents appointed Nevada State College Provost Executive Vice President Vickie Shields as interim president Thursday, filling the roughly six-week gap between the retirement of outgoing President Bart Patterson at the end of June and the start-date for incoming permanent President DeRionne Pollard in mid-August. 

The appointment will pay Shields $10,426 in a prorated monthly stipend and mandate that she maintain an “in-person presence” on the NSC campus during the six-week period. The agreement also stipulates that Shields will return to her role as provost and executive vice president once Pollard takes the reins. 

Regents approve DeRionne Pollard as next Nevada State College president

The Board of Regents voted Thursday to approve the appointment of DeRionne Pollard as Nevada State College’s eighth president, marking the end of a year-long search to replace outgoing President Bart Patterson.

Regents unanimously approved a four-year contract for Pollard that would pay her $367,273 per fiscal year beginning on August 16, an amount that places her salary roughly halfway between those of the state’s community college presidents and that of the chancellor.  

Incoming Nevada State College President DeRionne Pollard. (Courtesy, NSHE)

Patterson’s near-10-year tenure in the college’s top had provided long-term stability for Nevada’s youngest college. Founded in 2002, NSC remains the system’s third-smallest institution with a student headcount of just over 7,000 students this spring, even as it saw enrollment headcounts jump more than 93 percent between 2016 and 2020. 

Pollard — who is also the first Black woman to become a permanent institution president in NSHE history — will take the reins at a crucial juncture for the college as it looks to sustain its historic enrollment growth through the severe budgeting hardships triggered by the pandemic. 

“I [applied] because this mission was compelling to me, and Nevada State College is a place that I think is unique,” Pollard told the board after the vote. “It operates in a space that needs to be elevated and amplified in the space of higher education because the students here are students that we know, for sure, are not only the present but the future of the economy, the state.”

Pollard comes to Nevada by way of Montgomery College, the largest community college in Maryland that boasts three campuses and more than 56,000 students. Pollard has served as Montgomery’s president since 2010, before which she spent two years as administrative and instructional president of Las Positas College in California. 

But Pollard’s selection this week came with one notable elephant in the room — that she allegedly misused $70,000 during her time at Montgomery in paying for travel across the U.S. between 2013 and 2016, as well as the hiring of an armed driver.

An inspector general’s report later found no wrongdoing on Pollard’s part, and Vance Peterson, a search consultant hired by the regents for Nevada State College’s national search, told the board that the matter was “fully investigated and found without merit.” 

Even so, Regent Patrick Boylan — new to the board as of this year — pressed Peterson and NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose on the issue. Boylan called Peterson’s dismissal of the allegations “flippant,” and he questioned whether Pollard’s expenses on personal protection during her time in Maryland might lead her to incur similar, additional costs as she moves to Nevada.  

Rose pushed back on Boylan’s characterizations, saying that Pollard’s conduct was “thoroughly investigated and reviewed” by independent parties that “fully cleared her of any claim of wrongdoing.”

The chancellor also broadly defended the kind of conduct criticized in media reports that spawned the allegations, saying cross-country travel was a necessary function of a college president who must seek philanthropic contributions from “far-flung” alumni. Rose added that the hiring of personal protection is often an unfortunate necessity for officials who are public-facing — a necessity she said she’s also had to personally rely on three times over the course of her career in higher education. 

Boylan was the only regent to vote against Pollard’s appointment, though he did later vote to approve her contract. 

Higher ed chancellor, institution presidents say few pandemic-related changes in store as spring semester approaches

With the fall semester coming to a close and the spring semester approaching, Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Melody Rose praised the system’s pandemic response thus far and signaled few changes to pandemic plans already in place during a meeting of the Board of Regents Friday. 

“We are nine months into this pandemic, or so, and what was once thought to be a brief acute event has become a marathon,” Rose said. 

Though there were early concerns over spread among college and university communities — especially among students — contact tracing conducted over the last few months has shown few, if any, cases of viral transmission on campus or during in-person instruction. 

Instead, a vast majority of the spread among students and faculty has occurred off-campus, where transmission has largely ebbed and flowed with broader community spread. 

“I guess the biggest message from the fall semester as we prepare for the spring is that if you follow the protocols, they actually work,” Nevada State College President Bart Patterson said. “The complication, of course, is that students don't always follow those rules, sometimes, specifically when they’re not on campus, and so that's the big challenge that we all have.”

Across the board, presidents at the state’s colleges and universities said they would continue to operate in large part as they had in the fall, utilizing, in part, limited in-person instruction, mandatory mask-usage and expanded cleaning protocols. 

Some institutions have already planned for additional mitigation steps, especially amid some concerns that the pandemic may worsen before a vaccine becomes widely available sometime next year. 

UNR announced in October that it would cancel its spring break, citing concerns of students returning while contagious, and Truckee Meadows Community College President Karin Hilgersom said that, while still optimistic, the college remained ready to switch to “100 percent” online instruction if necessary. 

Still, as the state prepares to distribute the first wave of vaccinations this month and as hopes rise for broader vaccination through the spring, some institutions are also preparing plans to ramp up on-campus activity should conditions sufficiently improve. 

“We must be prepared to pivot to a new normal,” CSN President Federico Zaragoza said. “Thus, if the environment permits, we are also planning to significantly increase our CTE [college credit] and lab-intensive courses as part of a late spring semester … if [spring] is a different environment, it will be a game changer for us, and that I think it'll allow us to also then ramp up some of the workforce efforts that we have developed.” 

As fall semester nears, community colleges prepare for ‘hybrid’ return to campus

On March 16, higher education Chancellor Thom Reilly brought down the hammer.  

As public health officials began sounding the alarm over the impending pandemic spread of the novel coronavirus in the first few days of March, Reilly had already instructed the eight institutions within the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) to prepare to move operations online by the beginning of April. 

But as Gov. Steve Sisolak sought to shutter non-essential industry in a bid to slow the spread of the virus, Reilly accelerated the timeline and ordered colleges closed within the next two days. 

In the weeks that followed and with the help of a serendipitous spring break, administrators and faculty at institutions across the state used borrowed time to erect an online classroom infrastructure capable of filling the gaps in the last few weeks of the spring semester, broadly expanding the use of online tools already available and leaning on new-but-ubiquitous software such as Zoom or BlueJeans. 

Though there were some scattered complaints from students and faculty, the quick-switch by such massive institutions was largely heralded as a success — especially considering the dire circumstances and compressed timelines. 

But now — with just weeks to go before the start of the fall semester — those same institutions are grappling with the same questions, only with a new imperative: How close can a college or university come to bringing operations back to “normal?”

“First and foremost, we've been going, ‘plan for the worst, hope for the best,” said Patty Charlton, a vice president at the College of Southern Nevada (CSN) and the college’s COVID-lead.

NSHE institutions have broadly pursued “hybrid” reopening plans, prioritizing at least some form of in-person classes in addition to expanding online resources and providing widespread training for faculty looking to make a smoother transition to an online course for the fall. 

Last Thursday, UNR unveiled a 66-page reopening plan complete with mask requirements, reporting guidelines and a commitment to at least a partial return to in-person instruction through the use of a hybrid teaching model

But at the nearby Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC), early plans were made to move roughly 70 percent of classes to online-only offerings, largely mirroring steps taken by NSHE in the spring and summer by reserving in-person instruction only where it was necessary.

“What really culminated into the decision, pretty early on, was when one of the faculty members on the [planning] committee said, ‘You know, we understand that students want to come back to a face to face classroom, but students might not be imagining a COVID face-to-face classroom,” TMCC President Karin Hilgersom said. 

Such a classroom would be defined by the health, safety and social distancing guidelines now ubiquitous in the fifth month of the pandemic: plexiglass dividers in every room, alongside masks and face-shields and a six-foot buffer between every person. 

“So when we started as a group to Imagine a COVID face-to-face classroom, it just didn't seem as fun,” she said. 

At CSN, classes will hew closer to a 50-50 split between online and in-person. According to Charlton, those in-person experiences will be dictated by “whatever is the most restrictive” public health guideline available, with an emphasis — like other institutions — on masks, distance and other infrastructure improvements. 

“We knew very early on that we needed to identify what are going to be the limitations,” Charlton said. “And so we've been looking at all of the data that we're getting from, obviously the CDC, from the state, from the World Health Organization, and our local authority.”

Amid the plans surrounding a return to in-person instruction, Charlton said, remains a balance in ensuring a “robust online component” to the transitionary period in the fall, especially for those students who she said “may not feel comfortable” with in-person classes. 

But a college experience — be it at a community college or a university — is often more than the sum of its parts, as intangible parts of the social experience may often boost student success further down the line. 

Nevada State College President Bart Patterson, who helms an institution where the incoming freshman class is 90 percent diverse and roughly 60 percent of students are first-generation, said an online-only environment could present an additional challenge among those students who lack the same kind of generational or institutional support as their peers. 

“I think, for those populations, particularly, it's so important if we can, safely, have an alternative to this in-person classroom experience, even if it's with masks and with social distancing, all the requirements that we will abide by in order to do that,” Patterson said. “Because we're really trying to create that sense of community, a sense of belonging.”

Patterson added that, from an institutional level, the expansion of online resources created an opportunity to “rethink” the student experience, though fully recreating it may prove difficult, if not impossible. 

“It's really hard to do that in an online environment,” Patterson said. “I think we'll get better at it over time, but I can't say it will be 100 percent.”

And though the administrators who spoke to The Nevada Independent remained optimistic that the preparations made for the fall will steer their colleges through the transitions, the unpredictability of the pandemic has proven a persistent blind spot, especially with the looming possibility that more public restrictions could come if trendlines worsen. 

“We do know that our students really want to come back face to face, and faculty do too, by the way,” Hilgersom said. “But we're not going to do that at the expense of their health.”

Hilgersom said that TMCC will likely make a determination on the shape of the spring semester sometime in September, while Patterson pointed to conditions in October or November as a more likely yardstick for future decisions. 

“It's very dependent on what happens in the state and nationally with the number of COVID cases, the infection rate, the hospitalizations, and the availability of a vaccine,” Patterson said. “I mean, all of those things are fluid. We know that. But we're hoping that, at least by that spring semester, we'll be back and much more in person kind of setting.”

How a new shuttle service could help close transportation gaps at Las Vegas community colleges

When Alexander Lum first enrolled at Nevada State College back in 2016, going to school meant taking a two-hour-long trip on public buses — for a trip that would have taken fifteen minutes by car. 

“And for many of my friends that I made the first year, they were coming from way further -- North Las Vegas, East Las Vegas, Summerlin and they had a much longer commute times,” Lum said. 

In the sprawling Las Vegas metro area — a sea of concrete reaching roughly 600 square miles from end to end — a lack of rail or other long-distance public transit options has long meant that the city’s colleges and universities evolved into the textbook definition of the so-called “commuter school,” with most students choosing to drive into class rather than live on campus. 

But an often slow-moving system of public buses frequently operating in areas where public safety can be at question have created a choke point for many in the Las Vegas Valley looking to kickstart their college career without ready access to reliable personal transportation. According to a study conducted by CSN, as many as 82 percent of students who dropped out before finishing their degrees cited transportation as the primary issue. 

Enter: the Campus Commuter. A new pilot program beginning this semester, the service will see three, 24-seat shuttles running fixed routes between three campuses of the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), Nevada State College (NSC) and the East Las Vegas Library. And at a cost of roughly $200,000 per semester split evenly between CSN and NSC, the shuttles will be run by a third party vendor at a cost of $3 per ride. 

Launched with the fanfare of a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the East Las Vegas Library on Monday morning, the Campus Commuter shuttles will also provide students with app that will allow tracking of the shuttles in real time, as well as complimentary Wi-Fi for those students making the 40-minute-long trek between the shuttle’s two most distant stops. 

For Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, the push to find a solution to the ongoing transportation issues at Las Vegas community colleges had quickly become one of her first long-term projects after taking office last year. Marshall told The Nevada Independent that the transportation issue had been made clear to her campaign from students at CSN and NSC, with the scope of the problem quickly confirmed by transportation officials after she took office. 

“[RTC said] it's really long standing, but we have never been able to solve it,” Marshall said. And so once I got elected, I said to my staff, we put everyone in a room. And I I told people when they came I said ‘look, if you're starting from ‘no,’ you can go. Because this is a meeting for ‘yes.’”

Marshall said that the issue was “particularly heartfelt” to her, pointing to her own experience riding two buses for more than an hour-and-a-half each day as she was ferried to a far-away Catholic school after her own high school lost its accreditation. 

And in the time since the push to address transportation issues began, more data has become available on exactly how many students are being negatively affected by a lack of transportation access. 

Still, identifying informational and logistical black holes in the creation of a college-based transportation service has long been a limiting factor in addressing the issue, according to RTC Southern Nevada CEO M.J. Maynard. 

“Whether it's this service, on demand service or introducing a new route into the community, it always takes time,” Maynard said. “Normally you'd say well, in three months, is this where the ridership is and should be in transit, but that's not really how it works in transportation. It can take up one to three years for a route to fully develop.”

But among the administrative leadership at the community college level, the need for some sort of transportation solution had become clear throughout the last year. 

“When you look at, for example, the growth of Nevada State College — and we’re the second fastest growing college in the country — almost all of that growth has been in central, east and North Las Vegas, not out in Henderson,” NSC President Bart Patterson said. “So it's kind of shocking, and we realized that in this transportation pilot, that when you look at like a bubble map of where students are located, we've doubled in student population in these areas just in four years.” 

For the next year, the Campus Commuter program will function as a testbed, an opportunity to glean where the needs of students across Las Vegas really are, and a test of the system’s ability to be scaled beyond a pair of 24-seat shuttles. 

But as the festivities of the ribbon cutting and the press conference that went along with it wound down, Patterson expressed an optimism about the project that had become pervasive among the dozen or so elected officials, school administrators and student leaders who had come to see the launch of the new shuttles. 

“I feel I'm just so impressed that you can do an intergovernmental collaboration like this, and you can actually make it happen,” Patterson said. “You know, a lot of times when you start a project of this magnitude, there's just too many roadblocks that are put in the way of making it happen, and so I love these kinds of ideas that government works together and not in silos.”

Correction, 2:00 p.m. - An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the pilot program would operate two shuttles at no cost to students. It will, in fact, run three shuttles at a charge of $3 per ride.

Nevada colleges strike a partnership with Mexican state of Tamaulipas; agreement will feature professor and student exchanges

A painted Mexican flag on a wall as seen close to the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico

Nevada and a Mexican border state will soon begin to work together on academic enrichment projects as part of a formal partnership that will include scholars from both countries learning at each others’ institutions.

The Nevada Board of Regents announced the approval of a partnership Friday between the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) and its counterpart in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

Under a memorandum of understanding (MOU), both entities will focus on creating new educational opportunities and collaborating to build a greater cultural understanding.

"We have one of the most unique programs in the United States — and they are very interested in this program — which is about how things will become automated," Western Nevada College President Vincent Solis said during a recent interview with The Nevada Independent en Español. "They want to quickly transform how they are offering their classes and that requires that all teachers in those professions switch from Spanish to English."

In addition to Solis, Federico Zaragoza, president of the College of Southern Nevada, and Bart Patterson, president of Nevada State College, worked on the agreement.

NSHE said that under the new agreement with Tamaulipas, it will try to establish student and professor exchanges, design degree programs that require cross-border participation and study abroad experiences, and offer language classes focused on increasing proficiency among professors in technical English vocabulary.

Solis, who has family ties in Tamaulipas, said that the manufacturing industry in the region is one of the most outstanding in Mexico. The exchange program with Nevada will include bilingual training for teachers and students who are interested in careers with a high demand, especially those with a strong technological component, such as mechatronics — a field in which WNC has a two-year degree program.

"There are teachers who will come here for four days," Solis said. "It's like a continuing education class. They come, they receive training and they go back."

The agreement also calls for joint symposiums and conferences.

NSHE reported that about 27 percent of the students that enrolled in their institutions identified themselves as Hispanic, and that about half of all students in the Clark County School District identify as such.

Solis said he hopes that in the future, other states of Mexico will show an interest in this international model and that they will include careers in English, economics, business, depending on the needs of each region.

"I tell students they should always prepare for this ever-changing world," Solis said.