Higher education officials ended 2021 session with mixed budget news, prospect of another fight over removing regents from constitution

Administrators, officials and lobbyists in the orbit of Nevada’s higher education system shared a common refrain coming out of this year’s legislative session: It could have been worse. 

“I think relative to where we started the process, we ended up in a much better place,” Nevada System of Higher Education CFO Andrew Clinger said. “Now, I wouldn't say that we're in a great place. We're better than we were.”

When the dust settled, NSHE escaped with roughly $76 million in cuts to operational budgets, after another $93 million had been restored to institutional coffers through federal COVID relief dollars. It was a surprise boon and last-minute addback aimed at lifting a hiring freeze and avoiding the looming prospect of faculty layoffs. 

Even now, optimism remains high that lawmakers will use some of the roughly $2.7 billion in federal aid allocated to Nevada through the American Rescue Plan to erase some or all of the outstanding $76 million cut — though exactly how or when that could happen remains unknown. 

While the budget drew much of the attention during the session, lawmakers also passed dozens of higher-education related bills, including measures that formalized land-grant university status for UNLV, created fee waivers for Native students and began the process of amending the Board of Regents out of the state Constitution. 

Budget woes blunted, but not erased

When the legislative session began in early February, vaccinations had only just begun in earnest. Among the many unknowns at the time, it remained unclear when — and by how much — the state’s precarious revenue outlook would rebound after a devastating 2020. 

Amid that uncertainty, Gov. Steve Sisolak proposed a two-year budget that skimmed 12 percent off state agency budgets. That included NSHE, where 12 percent over two years amounted to a cumulative $169 million in cuts. 

At the time, the 12 percent figure, combined with several key restorations of tens of millions in capital project funding, was seen as something of a win. Budgets fell by roughly 19 percent in 2020 by the end of last year’s special legislative session, but several administrators, system officials and lobbyists expressed relief at the time that the governor and lawmakers declined to go even further in dipping into higher education coffers to fill severe budget holes elsewhere. 

Through the course of the 2021 session, higher education advocates were concerned that legislators might use higher education budgets as a release valve. And at multiple junctures, lawmakers on key budget committees pressed higher education officials for more information on individual budget accounts, and asked why formula-based funding tied to student credit-hours, referred to as caseload growth, was increasing even as enrollment numbers fell. 

“I've said this to almost every NSHE advocate and lobbyist that I have ever met with, that I appreciate where they are, [but] that if I have a choice between kindergarteners and college kids, I'm there for the kindergarteners,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said during a May committee meeting. “They need my voice, they need our voice.”

Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton in the Legislature in Carson City on Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Clinger and system Chancellor Melody Rose argued to legislators that the increase came because formula budgets lagged the current budget cycle by roughly two years, and the increase was in essence a built-in “catch-up” mechanic. 

That question came in addition to claims from committee members that NSHE was better positioned to absorb cuts in large part because of federal aid dollars set aside specifically for colleges and universities through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). 

Created as part of the original CARES Act and boosted twice by federal relief measures in December and again as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), HEERF ultimately funneled more than $369 million to NSHE institutions, with a little less than half — $160 million — set aside for student financial aid. 

In documents presented to the committee in the waning days of the session, Clinger argued that the HEERF money had only offset deep revenue losses at individual institutions, essentially covering massive budget holes created by empty dorms, unfilled stadium seats and unbought parking passes. Clinger said the HEERF allocation would not cover the sum total of expected revenue losses and a 12 percent across-the-board cut. 

Even now, as the widespread lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the expansion of vaccination programs are buoying state and local economies, Clinger told The Nevada Independent that revenue projections have yet to change. The latest round of HEERF money allocated through the ARP will still be set aside to cover expected losses in non-state funding. 

The biggest budgetary win for NSHE came in the final days of the session, when budget committees opted to fully restore personnel budgets and added back roughly $93 million dollars in an effort to unfreeze hundreds of vacant positions across all eight institutions. 

However, lawmakers left another $76 million in operational cuts in place while also instituting a handful of fee waiver bills. Most notable among the waivers was AB262, which essentially waived tuition and fees for members and descendents of any federally-recognized Indian tribe or nation in Nevada. 

The fee waivers were hailed by Native leaders as critical expansions of educational access, and saw support from both UNR and UNLV. After AB262 was signed by the governor, Nevada Indian Commission Executive Director Stacey Montooth said the measure “exponentially broadened” the futures of the state’s Native Americans. 

But NSHE officials and members of the Board of Regents have raised concerns that such waivers were delivered to the system as “unfunded mandates” with fiscal impacts that are difficult to quantify because of the impact on future revenues, ultimately compounding operational cuts.  

“So [the Legislature] cut the budget, and then tell higher ed that they have to give certain students free or reduced tuition,” Regent Jason Geddes said in an interview. “And most of [the waivers] I'm very favorable about, and I've supported, like AB262, but it is tough to balance.”

Faculty labor priorities see mixed results

As lawmakers mulled the budget, faculty advocates sought action on a number of their own labor priorities with mixed results. 

In the win column, legislators approved language that allowed regents to implement the first permanent merit-based pay raise funding pool in more than a decade. 

Under a policy later approved by regents during an early June meeting, institutions will use a 1 percent pool from their budgets to fund performance-based pay increases, functionally replacing a state-funded 2 percent pool that was eliminated as part of Recession-era cuts 12 years ago.

Representatives with the Nevada Faculty Alliance (NFA), including UNLV’s Doug Unger, called the change “a victory” and “a long time coming,” pointing to the pool as a key factor in helping address issues of salary compression and worsening faculty morale.  

UNLV campus on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Even so, the NFA’s main priority, SB373, struck a logjam in the Senate Finance Committee, where it ultimately died without receiving a second hearing.

A measure that would have granted Nevada higher education faculty collective bargaining rights under state law, SB373, was pitched by NFA leaders as a necessary step toward removing control of the current bargaining process from NSHE and the Board of Regents. 

“The problem with that is that our employers, who are the Board of Regents, both write and interpret the rules of engagement for collective bargaining,” Kent Ervin, Vice President of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said. “And we have no way of going to an outside group for mediation or arbitration for efficient resolution of any disputes.”

Under the current system, faculty can collectively bargain under NSHE code, just as CSN faculty did last year. However, such bargaining units are unable to directly negotiate with the state for pay and benefits, leaving them unable to ask for the 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) raise offered to certain state employee unions. 

“It’s rather ironic that at the same time, our collective bargaining bill, to give us the right to negotiate under the state system, was not passing through the Legislature, we were told that, ‘well, unless you have a collective bargaining agreement with the state, you can't get this higher COLA, you have to have the agreement first,’” Ervin said. “And yet, we have no way in statute to have that agreement.”

And while faculty fears over impending layoffs were allayed by the restoration of personnel budgets, other compensation cuts remain in place. That includes deep cuts to the Public Employees Benefits Program (PEBP), including reductions in life insurance benefits and the wholesale elimination of long-term disability insurance.

The expected pain from those cuts was partially mitigated with the surprise addition of a premium holiday. But with the enrollment period for the current fiscal year already come and gone, Ervin and other faculty advocates are still “cautiously hopeful” that lawmakers could use federal relief money to plug holes for the 2023 fiscal year. 

The Accountability Question

Each of the last three legislative sessions has had a similar yet distinctive throughline: a visible lack of trust between key legislators and NSHE, its chancellor and the Board of Regents. 

The history of tension between the Legislature and the regents spans decades. Unlike many other states, the Board of Regents that govern higher education in Nevada are written directly into the Constitution with the power to control not only universities, but also community colleges. Critics of the board have often charged that it and NSHE at large have wielded that constitutional status as a legal shield, at times casting itself as a fourth branch of government in legal disputes with the Legislature. 

The relationship deteriorated quickly and severely in the wake of a 2016 scandal that saw then-Chancellor Dan Klaich ousted over the revelation that his office had misled legislators during the high-stakes revision of the system’s funding formula in 2012. 

The incident and other lingering divisions between legislators and the regents finally led to 2017's AJR5, which sought to expand legislative oversight by pulling the Board of Regents from the state Constitution entirely. 

After four years of winding through the legislative process, AJR5 became Question 1 on the 2020 ballot. But after all those years, including a year of full-throated public campaigning, Question 1 was rejected by voters by a narrow margin of just 3,877 votes out of more than 1.2 million ballots cast. 

Just five months after the ballot question failed, lawmakers introduced and passed SJR7, a legislatively-proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution, in essence mirroring Question 1 with a handful of small tweaks.

Like AJR5 before it, SJR7 would need to secure passage from both houses in another legislative session before it could head to the voters for final approval in 2024. The measure cruised easily through both the Assembly and Senate, encountering only a bit of late-session resistance from a small bloc of 11 conservative Assembly Republicans — far short of the 22 votes needed to block the measure. 

Lawmakers on the floor of the Assembly inside the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Question 1’s backers have coalesced around SJR7, now armed, they say, with the knowledge of why Question 1 failed at the ballot box. 

“I think there's just significant evidence that can't be ignored that the public was very, very confused about it,” said Warren Hardy, a former state senator and lobbyist with the nonprofit Council for a Better Nevada, which funded efforts supportive of Question 1 on the 2020 ballot. “And so being as close as it was, I feel like having a question clarified and very specific about the fact that it just simply looks at taking the regents out of the Constitution, but yet doesn't change any of the statutory provisions related to how they're elected or anything.”

The question of whether the regents should be enshrined in the state Constitution has also been linked to a related but separate question: Should the regents be elected at all? 

Both sides of that issue have argued that the possibility of appointing, rather than electing regents — which is not a policy addressed either by Question 1 or by SJR7 — should not be part of the debate over the regents’ constitutional status. 

Even so, the two issues have so-far been inextricably tied together, both in opposition rhetoric and in the Legislature. 

In the midst of the second round of discussions in 2019, then-Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse — a co-sponsor of AJR5 — proposed SB354. It was a sweeping measure that would have completely overhauled the makeup of the Board of Regents (if Question 1 on the 2020 ballot were to pass), dropping the number of regents from 13 to nine and splitting the board between just five elected regents and four appointed by the governor. 

Even though the bill failed to pass, it has since served as proof-positive among Question 1 skeptics that Legislators will likely attempt to appoint at least some regents should the legal bar be lowered and the board is removed from the Constitution. 

Vocal Question 1 critic and Regent Jason Geddes asked in an interview with The Nevada Independent, in light of moves by lawmakers to slash budgets, enforce fee waivers and audit system finances, “What is the overall intent, if not to make the board appointed, not elected?”

“I think [appointed regents] is still the through line,” Geddes said. “I don't think they should have brought [SJR7] this session. To me, it's somewhat dismissive of the electorate to say, ‘they just didn't understand it. and even though they voted it down, we're going to bring it back.’”

Proponents of SJR7 argue, just as they did with Question 1, that the entire debate is and should be about the accountability of the board to lawmakers. To that end, among the differences between last year’s failed ballot question and this year’s renewed joint-resolution is the addition of a Constitutional requirement for lawmakers to audit the higher education system every two years. 

Lawmakers would have the power to initiate an audit regardless of the passage of SJR7, and indeed moved this session to begin just such a process with AB416. But, Hardy said, the enshrinement of a legislative audit in the language of SJR7 was included because “the public overwhelmingly supported that provision.” 

“We started emphasizing a little bit because of the public interest that was in it,” Hardy said, citing internal polling and focus groups. “But certainly for the most part, when we were trying to figure out what people did and didn't understand about it, it was pretty clear that those who supported it understood [audits] and wanted it included.”

The broader question of accountability often dips deeper into something more foundational: Should Nevada overhaul the structures through which it governs higher education? 

One potential kickstart to discussions about new governance models could come from AB450, a bill backed by the governor and creating an interim committee tasked with examining whether governance and funding structures for Nevada community colleges align with broader workforce development goals. 

AB450 was the end result of a promise Sisolak made in his State of the State address in January, when he pledged to call on lawmakers to work with NSHE “to develop a framework to transition Nevada’s community colleges to a new independent authority that will focus on making Nevadans job ready.”

In the time since, the governor has at least twice called for increased community college funding — once during a post-session bill signing event, and again during a roundtable event with U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh last month. 

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, right, and Gov. Steve Sisolak announce a workforce grant during a roundtable at the College of Southern Nevada on Tuesday, June. 22, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

“I've always maintained — from my time on the Board of Regents to the [Clark] County Commission to now as governor — our community colleges are underfunded and underappreciated and overlooked, unfortunately,” Sisolak said during the roundtable.

What form such an increase would take is unclear. But should AB450 initiate new talks on a funding formula revision, higher education administrators said it is likely that any community college formula changes would ripple outward to the state’s four-year institutions, too. 

And while the bill is in a technical sense merely a study — often the death of lawmaking endeavors — Hardy said key provisions in AB450 mean the study committee will produce an actionable report come the next regular session. 

“This is the first step towards modernization,” Hardy said. “And we're very delighted that there's language included in there, this implementation language. That it is not just a study, but there's a provision that requires the group to come back with recommendations for 2023. So we think we can begin implementing these things as early as 2023.”

Land grant status, more policies pass muster

No single piece of legislation threatened to re-open regional wounds between UNLV and UNR in the early months of the legislative session like SB287

In the simplest terms, the measure sought to formalize UNLV and the Desert Research Institute as federally designated land grant institutions alongside UNR in statute, essentially firming up several legal opinions that held that UNLV and DRI were already land grant schools, as both were already part of the “University of Nevada” as described in the state Constitution. 

UNLV administrators and Southern Nevada boosters praised the measure as a necessary equalizer between north and south, a change they said could provide the state’s younger university the same opportunities afforded the venerable UNR. 

But many at UNR —  including university President Brian Sandoval, who vetoed a similar measure during his time as governor in 2017 — railed against the bill as potentially devastating to the university’s Cooperative Extension, which partners with county governments across the state to provide a host of popular programs.  

University of Nevada, Reno on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

In the end, the regional push-and-pull was for naught, as last-minute compromises gutted the original draft’s most controversial provisions. SB287’s final form left UNR’s funding for its Cooperative Extension untouched, while still allowing for formal legal recognition of UNLV and DRI as land grant institutions.

For the Council for a Better Nevada, also a major booster of the bill, Hardy said the goal for 2021 was securing formal land-grant status in Nevada law — not pursuing millions of dollars in funding made available to UNR through its operation of the Cooperative Extension, as the original draft did. 

“In retrospect, if I had to do it again, I would have only included section six that provision related to codifying land grants in the first place,” Hardy said. “Because that was the portion that we were interested in.”

The ultimate financial effect of SB287’s addition of grant application opportunities will likely take months or years to play out as UNLV and DRI faculty apply for the grants at issue. 

SB287 was only one of many higher education-related bills that survived the session. Other major legislation approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor includes: 

  • SB434: Restores $25 million in state funding for the medical education building under construction for UNLV’s nascent Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. Originally allocated in 2017 but cut during the 2020 special session, Hardy said the money will go toward furnishing the interior once construction is complete. 
  • SB347: A wide-reaching bill that, among other things, directs the regents to create a sexual misconduct task force and create a system-wide campus climate survey, and also removes citizenship requirements for the Millennium Scholarship, Silver State Opportunity Grant and the Nevada Promise Scholarship. The measure was the end result of three bills — two addressing Title IX issues and a third focused on scholarship requirements — merged into one.
  • SB342: Allows the Board of Regents to give final approval to a 50-year partnership deal between the UNR Medical School and Reno-area health care giant Renown Health. Hailed as “transformative” by proponents, the deal was approved by regents in a 12-1 vote at their June meeting. 
  • SB128: Directs the state treasurer to conduct a study on the effectiveness of publicly-funded scholarships and grant programs. The study would evaluate a range of metrics, from the administrative costs of these programs to the short and long-term viability of publicly funded scholarships. 
  • SB327: Though not wholly related to NSHE, this bill in part expands definition of racial discrimination to include ancestry, color and certain traits like hairstyles. The bill also prohibits discrimination based on “traits associated with race” for enrollment in Nevada schools, including institutions under NSHE’s umbrella. 

Updated, 7/2/21 at 11:30 a.m. - This story was updated to include additional details on the Nevada Board of Regents as among the few elected boards nationwide, and to correct a transcription error. NFA Vice President Kent Ervin said "for efficient," rather than "or efficient."

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. 

Hope, optimism and nervous energy: A look at plans to move colleges, universities back to full in-person operations

When it became clear last March that the coronavirus pandemic was the most dire public health threat in more than a century, it was a matter of days before colleges and universities across the Nevada System of Higher Education shut their doors and moved nearly all classwork online. 

Now, more than a year later, the prospect of re-entering the classroom en masse is fast-approaching reality for tens of thousands of Nevada students, including thousands who have never set foot on their own school campus. 

“We're not only getting one incoming class, we're getting two,” UNLV student Abraham Lugo said. “And a lot of these students have never even been on our campus and have been going to UNLV for quite some time now.”

As the worst health effects of the pandemic have diminished amid widespread vaccination efforts, NSHE has set a target date of July 1 for returning to full in-person operations across all eight institutions — roughly one month after most county-level social distancing measures will have been lifted. 

And though some classes, particularly STEM-based lab courses, continued in-person through the last 14 months of the pandemic, students and faculty told The Nevada Independent that it is difficult to quantify the degree to which the loss of the social core of college and university campuses hobbled the broader learning experience. 

“Half of university education actually happens outside of the classroom with students sharing with each other,” UNLV English professor Doug Unger said. “They get together, they talk about things, they laugh about the idiosyncrasies of their professors, they complain, or extol the virtues about whatever they're studying — and they bond that way … I think it's always been that way, and that's what we've lost.”

University administrators have been careful not to couch the July 1 date as a “re-opening” — a UNR spokesman told The Indy that a non-trivial number of employees have continued working on-campus throughout the past year, in addition to in-person lab courses across different institutions. 

Even so, the date marks a watershed moment in the progression of the pandemic for more than 100,000 Nevada college students and tens of thousands more employees, a tangible signpost that the fabled “return to a new normal” is now closer than ever. 

The push to mandate vaccinations

It was an otherwise nondescript Thursday evening in May when NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose made the surprise announcement that her office would begin drafting initial plans for a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all Nevada college students. 

Citing a similar move by California’s higher education systems, the announcement from Rose stopped short of making formal changes or pushing for a definite mandate, and in practice simply asked students and parents to prepare for the possibility.

“Our students cannot afford further disruptions to their education if the virus is allowed to spread unabated,” her statement read.

According to the statement, the lack of immediate action came not necessarily because of pushback from students, parents or regents, but rather a series of legal roadblocks that still remain firmly in place. 

Chief among them is the so-called “emergency use authorization” (EUA) designation currently attached to all three COVID-19 vaccines in circulation in the U.S. The measure was originally designed for use in public health emergencies as a means to bypass the normally-lengthy FDA review process and speed access to potentially life saving medication. 

However, part of the legal framework for the EUA is a federal law that provides individuals the ability to accept or refuse treatment under an EUA-approved drug, in this case the COVID-19 vaccine. 

As a result, some legal experts say the issue lives in a legal gray area, and that it is unclear how the courts might treat any mandate that goes into effect while the EUA remains in place. 

Outside of a broad acknowledgement that the EUA is an obstacle, precisely how NSHE might pursue a mandate remains unknown outside of a stated intent to “work with state and local health authorities.” 

NSHE denied several requests for interviews with system lawyers involved in the mandate drafting process, though it did say through spokesman Francis McCabe that plans were “very early in the process.” 

However, NSHE’s public statement from early May hinted at one possible avenue: an existing law that allows the State Board of Health to mandate vaccinations as a prerequisite for enrollment in Nevada schools. 

Originally devised to require immunizations for the tetanus and diphtheria (Tdap) vaccine, the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and immunizations for polio and pertussis, the law also provides wide latitude for the the State Board of Health to add additional vaccination requirements.

Exactly when the state board might act on approving such a mandate is one of many questions with no clear answer, though many university administrators have pointed to vaccines as likely the single most consequential COVID mitigation measure affecting a full in-person return to campuses. 

Cheryl Hug-English, the medical director of UNR’s Student Health Center, said that young people have generally fared better than older populations after contracting COVID, but that many young people have also seen “really significant illness,” making vaccination efforts crucial for campus situations with “lots of close contact.” 

“We need to be careful to not assume that just because they are younger, they can't be affected significantly by this disease,” Hug-English said. “Having said that, I think the other part of that is that we know that individuals with mild illness or even a symptomatic illness, or asymptomatic infections, can continue to spread COVID-19 to others. And so, not only is it important for the individual, it's also important for the spread.”

To what extent students at any institution will be or become vaccinated remains unknown, as no mechanisms for tracking vaccination status yet exist within NSHE. To that end, Hug-English said that spread of the virus among unvaccinated students — and among unvaccinated people in the community more generally — could present complications for attempts to limit viral spread overall, especially as the weather cools and the academic year begins in full. 

“While we're all so ready for good news, and it is really good news that case numbers have dropped significantly and vaccination rates have gone up, we also need to keep in the back of our mind that we still have COVID-19 cases,” she said. “And in various parts of the world we're seeing, certainly, resurgence in some cases or significant outbreaks. And so the potential is certainly there for increased case numbers on our campuses as we reopen more fully in the fall.”

Masks, the honor system and getting back in the classroom

Tangential to efforts to plan a vaccine mandate has emerged a separate debate over the continued use of mask mandates. NSHE opted late last month to adopt the most recent CDC guidance essentially eliminating mask-wearing requirements for the fully vaccinated while leaving it in place for those who are not. 

In doing so, however, the system did not provide direction on if or how institutions should verify that those without masks on campus were indeed vaccinated. 

In a statement emailed to The Indy, McCabe said that “personal and community responsibility is a fundamental value expected throughout Nevada's public higher education system,” and that “All NSHE students and employees are obligated to follow their institution's code of conduct, NSHE policies, and the law.” 

The system’s institutions, similarly, have implied the use of an honor system even as masks remain required for the unvaccinated, with UNR’s President Brian Sandoval saying in a letter to students: “Personal integrity and honesty should guide one’s judgment” on mask-wearing.  

Student leaders — who are often in charge of the events or clubs that will be at the center of in-person gatherings on campus — said they remain optimistic that a successful return remains on the table. 

“I think that when it comes to the fall semester, obviously, we want students to be safe,” UNLV student president Caren Royce Yap said. “And I think the best-case scenario would be students taking safety precautions. So whether that means all students getting the vaccine or those who choose not to get the vaccine are wearing their masks on campus — I see a really successful fall semester.”

But for many faculty, the optimism is mixed with nervousness as the prospect of new infections among unvaccinated students remains. 

At UNR, the local chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance sent Sandoval a letter asking him to go well beyond NSHE requirements, including mandating the vaccine for students at UNR and maintaining mask mandates for high-risk group settings. 

“What I'm hearing from faculty who have been teaching face-to-face classes through all of this is that it's really hard to enforce mask mandates in class,” Unger said. “They feel at risk, even if they are vaccinated. They're nervous about facing crowded classrooms, and concerned about infection, they're concerned about the virus spreading among students.”

Additional restrictions are unlikely to be enacted in the coming weeks of the summer semester, though, and Hug-English said that UNR would continue to follow CDC guidance as it is issued. 

Still, Unger said that for many faculty the prospect of a return to the classroom — even if some hybrid instruction is still in place — remains a welcome sight all the same.

“There's so much in communication that relies on gesture, and presence,” he said. “And the Zoom teaching misses all of that. A lot can be said in just an expression.”

Correction, 6/5/21 at 11:35 a.m. - An original version of this story included a transcription error in a quote from Douglas Unger as "mass mandates," instead of the correct "mask mandates."

Budget committee passes surprise ‘premium holiday’ for public employee health plans

State employees are likely in for a much more favorable situation with their health plan than the doomsday scenario predicted before the session began. 

Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), chair of the Ways and Means Committee, announced a plan during a Friday joint budget meeting to give participants in the Public Employees Benefits’ Program (PEBP) a one-month “premium holiday” during which enrollees don’t have to pay their share of their health insurance costs. That would apply to about 44,000 active and retired public employees, according to legislative staff.

Carlton said the arrangement was intended “to do something for state employees who have gone through a lot this last year and a half” while not adjusting the rates for the health plans during an ongoing open enrollment period. The expense would be covered through general fund dollars and would cost about $12 million over the biennium.

“We know how important health care is to families, especially now, and what the cost of that health care can be to a family,” Carlton said. “I still find it quite sad that we still have state employees that are on Medicaid. That's another thing that we need to fix as we move forward. But this is one thing that we can do for state employees at this moment in time.”

Carlton also proposed restoring a budgeted cut in how much the state contributes each month to the Medicare plans of retirees through a “Health Reimbursement Arrangement” (HRA). The governor had proposed reducing the contribution to the equivalent of $165 a month for employees with 15 years of service; the committee is restoring it to $195. 

That change will cost $6.6 million over the biennium, paid for through expected excess reserve fees collected by PEBP.

The motions were approved unanimously by members of a joint Senate and Assembly budget committee.

Current and retired state employees cried foul in January when PEBP proposed a slew of benefits cuts and program reductions to try to meet an initial 6 percent budget reduction target. Proposed cuts included reducing life insurance benefits from $25,000 for an active employee to $15,000 and from $12,500 for a retiree to $7,500, eliminating a long-term disability insurance program and lowering Medicare HRA contributions from $13 to $11 a month per year of service.

PEBP Executive Officer Laura Rich said in an interview that the idea of a “premium holiday” came about as a way for lawmakers and the system to mitigate some of the proposed cuts even though the system’s open enrollment period had opened last month — making it difficult to change things such as plan design, deductibles and copays for the current plan year.

“The new options that were presented were last minute options, based on the fact that there appears to be more funding available, and something that the legislators had a desire to fund,” she said.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) said he thought any discussion about a state-funded PEBP rate holiday paid through general fund dollars should come as part of a broader conversation in coming weeks on how the state should spend the extra $586 million the state expects beyond what was predicted in a December forecast

“PEBP has had significant cuts, and I'm supportive of restoring a lot of that,” Kieckhefer said. “I just think that if it's going to be through the general fund, that it might be more appropriate for that more global discussion.”

Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert, R-Reno, added that “I'm struggling in part because this is inconsistent with how we've looked at a lot of the other budgets.” In the budget for the Nevada System of Higher Education, for example, accounts were being finalized this week with significant cuts but with the understanding that many will be backfilled at a later date thanks to higher-than-anticipated general fund revenue projections and an influx of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Carlton said she understood the concern and desire to “hold very firm” to not restoring previously approved budget cuts until a “global discussion” could be held, but said she made a commitment to PEBP that she would give the system as much of a heads up as possible ahead of the start of the fiscal year in July.

“I feel very strongly that we need to be able to give guidance to PEBP moving forward on what the next two years look like so that they can plan for this, and they can account for it, and they can get the information out to the state employees as we move forward,” she said.

Several state employee representatives called into the meeting to thank lawmakers for proposing the premium holiday, but said they hoped lawmakers would take further action to reverse other benefits cuts proposed in the PEBP budget.

“The high out-of-pocket maximums in plan designs especially affect the sickest state employees, who, ironically, are bearing the most cost from the budget necessities of the pandemic economy,” said Nevada Faculty Alliance representative Doug Unger. “A global conversation is suggested by members of this committee and we believe this is needed. We hope state employee representatives can be at the table for that conversation.”

Higher education faculty push to expand collective bargaining rights

unlv campus

Faculty across the state’s higher education system are pushing for a new law this year that would expand the state’s nascent public collective bargaining infrastructure to include professors and other professional staff — a sharp break from years of control of the process by the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE).

Though faculty already maintain bargaining rights under NSHE code, they have long complained that any bargaining structure led by their employers — administrators, the Board of Regents and the chancellor — necessarily creates a power imbalance that has favored institutions in the long term. 

“That means that management writes the rules for collective bargaining and interprets the rules,” Kent Ervin, vice president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance (NFA) and UNR chemistry professor, said. 

Faculty, largely through the NFA, have spearheaded a push to create a “level playing field” through SB373, which would expand collective bargaining laws for public employees to include professional staff employed by the Nevada System of Higher Education.

The measure passed through committee early this month in a 4-1 vote, and now, having been waived through legislative deadlines, awaits a vote on the Senate floor. 

Ervin says the push to move collective bargaining out of the hands of the system and under the umbrella of state law comes after years of stop-and-start bargaining from faculty at the College of Southern Nevada that, he said, could have been avoided through a third-party labor board. 

“It took them three years to come to contract negotiations with their administration,” Ervin said. “And then with NSHE, it became apparent that the very limited rules which you can find in NSHE code are just not adequate. If either side thinks the other side is not bargaining fairly, there's nobody to go to.”

However, where many collective bargaining fights center in part on issues of salaries and pay equity, faculty who spoke to The Nevada Independent said the primary utility of a measure such as SB373 would be injecting fairness into dispute arbitration and adjudication that is, as of now, handled exclusively by the employer. 

“It really provides better due process for the faculty member involved, but also ultimately reduces the possibility of litigation and things escalating to where litigation is a possibility,” Ervin said. “I have seen the Board of Regents when they talk about settlement packages, how much money they're spending every year on settlements. Well, if you nip some of those issues in the bud and work out amicable solutions between the employee and their supervisors, you often could avoid those things.” 

Doug Unger, a UNLV English professor and the president of UNLV’s NFA chapter, said that these disputes have become even more common in the wake of the pandemic, and that core of the issue comes in redistributing some of the lingering power that has been entrenched in administrative hands since the very inception of the first universities in medieval Europe. 

“You have this medieval authority established in the universities, it’s why we have the names we have — chancellors, deans, provosts, regents — and the idea to elect a regent, someone who has absolute power over a system,” Unger said. “This idea of a medieval authority of an administrator is entrenched in the university system; they don’t want to give it up.”

Expanding the collective bargaining process, Unger said, would serve to chip away at that “medieval” authority by democratizing the process itself.  

And though salaries may not be the central issue behind the push for SB373, they still remain top-of-mind for faculty members who have gone more than a decade without a merit-based pay raise outside of promotions. 

“The only way to get annual raises is to threaten to leave,” Jeffrey Waddoups, a labor economist and chair of the UNLV economics department, said. “And if you threaten to leave, and it's a credible threat, and they want to keep you around, then they'll give you a raise. And the reason for that is because there's no system set up to give annual raises, and we have no power to establish such a system.”

Efforts to allow merit-based raises through a 1 percent pool of institutional funds have continued outside of efforts to pass SB373. But, Waddoups said, without bargaining power and without a union, efforts to return to pre-Great Recession pay raises would be hampered “because there’s no real way to do it.”  

Nevada’s system — where final rules-making authority lies with the higher education employer — is relatively rare in the U.S., according to Risa Lieberwitz, general counsel for the American Association of University Professors.

“Where a state law provides for collective bargaining for public employees that would normally state who's covered, you know, what employees and so if faculty are covered by the state, faculty in the State University are covered, they would either be under that general law, or there could be a separate law, but it would be most unusual to see that the collective bargaining system is controlled by the employer.”

Lieberwitz, who is also a professor of labor and employment law at Cornell and testified in favor of SB373, said that consistency in the way public sector bargaining agreements are carried out generally would broadly “enhance the stability of relationships” between administrators and faculty.  

In testimony so far, NSHE has remained formally neutral on the bill. In testifying on the measure on April 7, system General Counsel Joe Reynolds reiterated to lawmakers that NSHE code already provides for collective bargaining, and that they were “still reviewing this complex bill” and “do have questions about its scope, reach into board governance over personnel matters and costs.” 

Though Chancellor Melody Rose was unavailable for an interview before publication, she said in a statement late Tuesday that the board's position had not changed from neutral, and that it maintained the same concerns raised by Reynolds two weeks ago.

Still, the issue has so-far been inseparable, among some legislators, from broader issues of higher education governance and funding. 

“I think NSHE needs some major, major financial overhauls,” Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) said during a committee vote on the measure. “I think those guys have been spending money like drunken sailors with no oversight for decades … I realize this has to do with individuals, but the whole collective bargaining process, especially for those guys — financially, it’s out of control. I think we need to do some serious reining in of how they behave, so I’ll be a no.” 

Hansen’s remarks come as multiple legislators have expressed skepticism of the governance of NSHE by the Board of Regents, as well as of a renewed push to approve a constitutional amendment, SJR7, that would remove the board from the Constitution entirely. 

Though a similar measure, Question 1, was narrowly rejected by voters last year, legislators have so far broadly approved of SJR7. The measure was passed unanimously out of committee before being passed by the full state Senate, 20-0, last week

Hansen was opposed to SB373 on the grounds that collective bargaining does not “represent the taxpayer,” saying in an initial hearing on April 7 that the measure — like all public bargaining measures — creates a system in which one government agency collectively bargains with another government agency. His concerns were echoed by the Vegas Chamber, which testified against the bill on the grounds that it would create an undue tax burden, a complaint first leveled against public employee bargaining laws by the group during the 2019 session. 

Ultimately, Hansen was alone in opposing SB373 in the Senate Government Affairs Committee, whose three Democratic members all voted in favor. Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) — the committee’s only other Republican — also voted for the bill, though only with a reservation of his right to change his vote when it comes to the Senate floor. 

Outside committee Democrats, the bill also found support among a handful of other unions, including the public employee’s union AFSCME, the state teacher’s union NSEA and the service employee’s union SEIU.

Having been waived through legislative deadlines, it is not clear when SB373 will receive its first floor vote in the Senate. Delaying the bill in part: outstanding fiscal notes totaling $1.7 million through the next biennium for the attorney general’s office and the Department of Administration. 

Ervin said Tuesday that those notes will likely be removed, however, through a forthcoming amendment that acknowledges NSHE already bears the cost for bargaining infrastructure, and therefore no new costs would be created for the state.

Possible cuts still loom large as legislators begin parsing higher education budgets

Even as hopes remain high that new federal coronavirus relief could buoy state coffers, concerns over expected 12 percent cuts came to the fore Wednesday as members of the joint budget subcommittee on K-12 and higher education met for an initial overview of higher education funding. 

Budget documents from the system show those cuts would amount to roughly $85 million lost per year in both 2022 and 2023, an amount that system administrators and institutions presidents have said could hurt or otherwise stall gains made after the Great Recession. 

“Of course, I also agree that, as state agents, we all need to share the burden of revenue loss, I get it,” TMCC President Karin Hilgersom told the committee. “But I think it's not safe to assume that we have gone to the last year unscathed, because that's just not an accurate picture of what's been happening at TMCC.”

But Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), the chair of that subcommittee, later pressed Chancellor Melody Rose and the system’s chief financial officer, Andrew Clinger, on the specifics of the the Nevada System of Higher Education funding formula, asking twice why the weighted student credit hours that make up that formula had increased, even as the coronavirus had shuttered most in-person classes. 

“So when I look at the weighted student credit hours, and Mr. Clinger would be familiar with my concerns, it’s just a constant growth, it’s exponential, it doesn’t seem to ever flatten out” Carlton said.

Rose and Clinger countered in part on the basis that the funding formula was last adjusted “right at the beginning of the pandemic” — when enrollments remained relatively flat — and has not yet been updated to reflect the possibility of now-decreased enrollments in the short term. 

“I imagine if you looked at weighted student credit hours for the current fiscal year, which we won't know until June, I wouldn't be surprised if, in some cases, those numbers were negative on the campuses,” Clinger said. “So it's a matter of the timing of the look back.”

Several of Nevada’s university and college presidents, asked by Carlton to explain the impacts of the proposed 12 percent cuts, acknowledged the difficult position of legislators required to manage the budget of the entire state. 

But, in the words of UNR President Brian Sandoval — a former governor who presided over the state in the depths of the Great Recession — 12 percent cuts would be “very, very difficult.” 

“We understand that we need to have shared sacrifice, we want to work with you,” Sandoval said. “But it is going to make a mark on us … I know as well as anybody that this is a difficult time, and that we’re going to work through this, but it will be difficult for our campus.” 

The relationship between higher education administrators, regents and the Legislature has long been strained — so much so that legislators nearly removed regents from the state Constitution through a proposed amendment (that amendment failed in the 2020 general election by less than one percentage point). 

As the state’s third-largest slice of the appropriations pie behind only K-12 education and health care services, NSHE is frequently among the state agencies with the largest raw cuts during economic downturns. Such was the case just last summer, when legislators added an additional $25 million cut, on top of nearly $110 million in already-planned-for reductions. 

In Wednesday’s meeting, Carlton appeared to leave the door open for additional cuts down the line, in part by reassessing if a decrease in weighted student credit hours would shift the funding formula. 

“We're looking at a very, very tight budget schedule and I'm looking at a weighted student credit hour that, if we redid the calculation, it would be a different number for next year,” Carlton said. “And there's a possible savings there that I would like to be able to analyze and be able to wrap my arms around.” 

But as legislators mull the future of the budget specifics, some faculty raised concerns that the short term effect of such cuts would be continued position losses and workload increases, especially as institutions have already spent nearly a year leaving vacant positions open amid a system-wide hiring freeze. 

“In a concrete sense, that means that those bodies, those employees in whatever critical role that they serve, whether it's a faculty member who's teaching in the classroom, or if it's a tutor, or an advisor, or a financial aid rep or any position that we might have on campus — that work still has to get done,” Laura Naumann, chair of the Nevada State College Faculty Senate, said. 

Kent Ervin, a chemistry professor at UNR and Vice President of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said these short term hiring solutions will likely become long term issues. 

“It will take years to dig out of this,” Ervin said. “The only hope is, this is a big hope, that federal relief funding through the American Rescue Plan will come in and fill the short term gap, so that the state economic forecasters will be sufficiently encouraged by that [and] we can avoid the longer term cuts through the end of next biennium.”

Amid budget talks, faculty lobby for merit pay increases 

For 12 of the last 13 years, Nevada law has prohibited pay raises for higher education faculty, essentially freezing salaries outside one-time promotions by ending a state-funded 2 percent merit pay pool as part of emergency recession-era cuts. 

What has followed, according to faculty at Nevada colleges and universities, are a series of severe retention, salary compression and morale issues as academic and administrative faculty have been locked out of all but one pay raise, possible only when receiving a promotion.

Those problems have been particularly acute for administrative staff, who often must move from department to department to seek pay raises, according to Doug Unger, an English professor at UNLV and president of the UNLV chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance. 

“Right now, there's no way for them to raise their salaries at all, except by moving laterally and leaving their positions,” Unger said. “So what happens in the institution is, you get very, very accomplished people … administrative faculty who are doing these amazingly difficult tasks —  what will happen is they won't stay, they'll move laterally so they can take a promotion somewhere in another department.”

The prohibition was partially removed in 2019, after legislators opened the door for NSHE colleges and universities to set aside 1 percent of their institutional budget for those increases. But after an initial version of the governor’s budget unveiled in January replaced the language, effectively blocking those raises once again, faculty are once more lobbying legislators to get it pulled from the final budget.  

The likelihood of such a removal is high. Susan Brown, director of the Governor’s Finance Office, told The Nevada Independent in an email that the language was included as part of the drafting process using last biennium's language and that the prohibition was not re-added intentionally. 

Still, if and when institutions do establish such 1 percent pools for dedicated pay increases, it may be some time yet before Nevada faculty see raises across the board. 

“It's pretty clear to us this year, even though the pool will be created, nobody's getting a raise,” Unger said. “It'll be targeted at those retention, and serious compression issues that administrators have to use in order to maintain the institution.”

Proposed state employee health insurance cuts leads to state workers pushback

Amid a slew of cuts attempting to mitigate projected budget shortfalls in a state largely dependent on tourism and gaming for revenue, state employees are protesting proposed changes that would reduce health care coverage options provided by the state.

The proposed cuts in the Nevada Public Employees' Benefits Program (PEBP) budget would reduce life insurance benefits from $25,000 for an active employee to $15,000 and from $12,500 for a retiree to $7,500, eliminate long-term disability insurance and lower Medicare Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) contributions from $13 to $11 a month per year of service. Though Gov. Steve Sisolak in his State of the State address touted only a 2 percent state budget cut, programs such as PEBP are feeling the cuts more deeply than others.

The proposed cuts will affect worker retention and place an undue burden on essential workers who rely on long-term disability coverage as a safety net, College of Southern Nevada professor Maria Schellhase said during a Monday meeting of a legislative budget subcommittee.

"From September to December of 2020, three full-time faculty members in my department passed away — two related to COVID-19 complications and the other to breast cancer," Schellhase said. "Now is not the time to eliminate or reduce any aspects of faculty health benefits. Any changes affecting the health related quality of life, or well being, of any employee group would be a mistake."

The Nevada Public Employees' Benefits Program (PEBP) offers health plans for state workers, retirees and non-state entities, including municipal government and Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) employees. The program serves 72,000 active or retired employees, and did not take the proposed cuts lightly, according to PEBP Executive Officer Laura Rich.

"No one wants to make these cuts but there's only so much revenue coming into the state. The governor had a lot of really difficult decisions. I mean where do you cut? Do you cut Medicaid? Do you cut education?," Rich told The Nevada Independent. "Unfortunately you have to cut all of them. And there were very, very tough decisions to make."

During initial preparation for the budgeting process, the governor's office called for PEBP and other state agencies to prepare for 12 percent budget cuts that for PEBP would total about $72 million over the two-year budget cycle. However, when state budget projections indicated that the state was on more stable financial footing than expected, PEBP only had to reduce its budget by 6 percent.

But the cuts have received a cold reception from state employee unions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents more than 6,000 Nevada state employees, condemned the proposed budget in a public statement released on Friday. State workers were given collective bargaining rights in 2019, but health insurance is excluded from potential negotiations.

“These cuts put Nevada state employees, who don’t have Social Security protections, in real jeopardy,” said Harry Schiffman, an electrician at UNLV and president of AFSCME Local 4041. “These are significant cuts to our health plans, forcing more out-of-pocket costs and putting needed health care services out of reach for thousands of front-line heroes.”

The governor's recommended budget is not finalized and PEBP officials and legislators can still make changes, Rich said.

PEBP board members weighed in on the governor’s recommended budget during a meeting on Thursday, noting that protections to long-term disability insurance are vital for workers, and eliminating the insurance was not in the original proposal submitted to the governor’s office.

Though the board ultimately approved the governor’s recommended budget, members emphasized that PEBP did not have the authority to change the budget proposal and the budget is now in the hands of legislators.

Board members Michelle Kelley, Tom Verducci and Marsha Urban opposed approving the recommended budget. Kelley called the elimination of long-term disability insurance “short sighted” and “premature,” warning that without the support of benefits, vulnerable state employees will end up relying on other state services such as Medicaid. 

Kelley also asked staff to research the standard charge to cover every employee at 50 percent up to $5,000 for long-term disability insurance, so that information can be presented to lawmakers in future budget discussions.

Reducing barriers to access to care is at the top of the program's priority list, Rich said, explaining that restored budget items from the prepared 12 percent cuts focused on reinstating "first dollar coverage," or reducing deductibles or premiums that members have to pay right away. 

When adding money somewhere, Rich said money will inevitably also have to be subtracted, which is what happened to the long-term disability coverage. That coverage acts as a safety net for employees who, for one reason or another, become disabled and can no longer perform their job duties. There are 117 PEBP enrollees on long-term disability.

Individuals on long-term disability will continue to receive benefits. Still, no new enrollments will be allowed under the current plan, Rich said, adding that the number of people on the long-term disability program usually fluctuates by about 20-25 people and hovers around 100 each year. 

"The global perspective here is that by dedicating the dollars to medical coverage during a global pandemic, it helps everybody receive the care they need and it doesn't create additional barriers to accessing medical services," Rich said. "Unfortunately, yes, everything comes at a cost and … long-term disability benefits, there was relatively low utilization ... and it comes at a big cost."

For people who want long-term disability benefits, there is an option to purchase it through a voluntary buy-in option expected to be available by the next open enrollment period, if not sooner, Rich said. Employees can also buy it on their own or tap into PERS' disability retirement benefits as long as they have five years of service.

None of those options are ideal, Rich said, but there is not much choice given the global pandemic.

During public comment at the Monday meeting, workers participating in the program criticized the cuts.

Eliminating long-term disability insurance is "dangerous and cruel" for workers who are not covered by Social Security, said Doug Unger, a member of the Nevada Faculty Alliance and UNLV employee benefits advisory committee.

Buying voluntary insurance will consume about 1 to 3 percent of higher education faculty salaries, Unger estimated. He said there are not many options if someone gets in an accident or becomes sick and is no longer able to work. 

"This is asking teachers to do their jobs on a tightrope without a net," Unger said, adding that actuarial statistics about the number of workers on long-term disability may not account for COVID-19 side effects that could have ramifications for workers.

This story was updated at 2:02 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2021 to include details from the Thursday PEBP board meeting.

UNLV Faculty Senate votes to axe proposal to recommend extending Meana’s term as interim president

People walk the UNLV campus

The UNLV Faculty Senate voted to kill a proposed referendum Tuesday that would have recommended the Board of Regents extend the contract of interim UNLV President Marta Meana and postpone an ongoing search for a permanent replacement — a move that comes just days ahead of the first meeting Friday between the regents and the ad hoc presidential search committee. 

The vote, which comes amid lingering uncertainty over the future of key institutions within the university and the Nevada System of Higher Education, effectively calls for the search process to continue normally. 

Had the measure been approved, it would have sent a referendum to all UNLV faculty asking whether the search process should be postponed and whether Meana should be offered a three-year deal in the interim. 

UNLV has been without a permanent president since the sudden departure of ex-president Len Jessup last spring, amid ethics questions over Jessup’s conduct in securing millions of dollars in donations for a new building for UNLV’s nascent medical school and a spat with NSHE Chancellor Thom Reilly.

Meana was appointed as the university’s acting president last June, but was recently made interim president in order to allow her to apply to be UNLV’s permanent president and circumvent restrictions in NSHE bylaws that would have limited her ability to apply as “acting” president. . 

The rationale for pursuing a faculty vote on Meana’s fate came in part because of deep uncertainties over the university’s future, especially as a vacuum of top-level administrative positions — including a university provost and several dean-level positions — remains in place. 

“From our point of view, what happens when a president is replaced and goes back and forth is that all our bosses at the administrative level also change, and we begin to see a shifting series of missions and goals and tasks to do that keeps us very, very unstable and hurts our focus,” Douglas Unger, a UNLV English professor and member of the faculty senate, told The Nevada Independent.

Those in favor of the referendum called for stability and seeking a steady hand in the wake of so many open administrative positions and ahead of a referendum vote on AJR5, a 2017 bill that would give the Legislature broad statutory control of the Board of Regents. 

A constitutional amendment, AJR5, must be passed by the Legislature in two successive sessions and approved by a vote of the people before taking effect. The measure passed easily in the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions and will head to the ballot for a vote in 2020. But some say the long timeline of the amendment, coupled with a spate of high-level administrative vacancies at just the same time, has left UNLV on shaky ground. 

“This legislative agenda has, in its own way, made us feel insecure about our own future,” Unger said. “So now, without a stable leader, what position are we going to be in?” 

But a number of senators expressed concerns that the move, despite being centered on the procedure involved in selecting a new president, would be perceived as a referendum on Meana’s performance on the job regardless of the original intent of the vote. 

“If we pass it, here, and it goes to the faculty and the faculty pass it, I am afraid it may be perceived as an endorsement,” said John Filler, a UNLV professor and senator from the College of Education, during discussion on the measure. “If on the other hand, it goes the other way, I think it would be perceived as a criticism. And it is not that. It is about a proposal to delay.”

After more than a dozen senators expressed the opinions of the faculty they represented, no single reason for or against the referendum rose to the fore. At times, other divisions also flashed as senators briefly argued over a pair of amendments to the referendum, including whether to extend Meana’s contract by one year or by three, and whether they should vote to remove “interim” from her job title. Both amendments were eventually struck down by wide margins. 

The Board of Regents’ presidential search committee is set to meet for the first time on Friday. 

Higher education system to transition from traditional remediation to corequisite model by 2021

As chancellor for the Nevada System of Higher Education, Thom Reilly makes no bones about his position on traditional remediation at Nevada colleges and universities. 

“Remedial education at the community college and university level, both in Nevada and nationally, is a failure,” Reilly said. 

For Reilly and the other members of the Board of Regents, the process by which students are placed in remediation — meaning students must retake high school level math or English courses in order to catch up to their peers in college — is expensive, time consuming and has ultimately fallen flat, failing to ensure that those students eventually complete college.

“It's overpopulated with poor kids, black kids, Hispanic kids — and even if they do remediate, seldom do they go on and actually get a certificate or a degree,” Reilly said

That view is backed by a growing body of research — both in Nevada and across the country — which shows a clear connection between being placed in remediation and a failure to graduate from a college or university. Internal research from NSHE, for instance, found that students who started their college careers in remediation were between 20 to 30 percent less likely to complete a degree than their peers. 

One key driver of the low graduation rates are the costs of remediation to the student, both in time and money. Costs can be substantial depending on the number of remedial classes a student needs before being allowed to enroll in college-level math or English. 

Students placed in remedial classes receive no credit toward a degree, pushing back their advancement in a core curriculum by at least one semester and sometimes more than a year. With an average cost per credit-hour of $200, remedial classes can cost upwards of $600 or $800 — none of which can be covered by the near-ubiquitous Millennium Scholarship, a $40 to $80 per credit scholarship granted to in-state students with a high school GPA of 3.25 or above. 

In Nevada’s community colleges, institutions meant to be available to any student who wants a degree, the rate of remediation is especially acute. On average, 67 percent of students entering the state’s 2-year institutions are placed in remedial math, compared to just 27 percent at the system’s 4-year schools. 

The issue has long vexed higher education institutions, which have struggled to address the core issues behind remediation — many of which remain tied up in the K-12 system. In Nevada, NSHE has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Clark County School District — one of the largest in the country — to assess a student’s math skills early and seek to provide remediation in a junior or senior year, but the agreement is just one fix among many other issues. 

Another piece of the puzzle the way graduating high school seniors are assessed for college: standardized tests. Placement into a remedial class often hinges on performance on a test like the SAT or ACT. But some research shows those tests may not be ideal for predicting how a student will perform once in college. 

It’s for that reason that NSHE researcher Theo Meek, who helped author the system’s policy shift, says higher education will need to rely on more than a standardized test alone. 

“We know that underrepresented minorities historically don't perform as strongly on standardized placement exams, but under the multiple measures approach, you see the access gap is really minimized,” Meek said. “When you look at a student's investment into their entire career, and not just their performance on one standardized placement exam, we yield better results about who's going to be successful in a college-level course.”

Enter the corequisite model, a new-to-Nevada way of getting students up to speed with their classmates — and a switch Reilly said has been years in the making. 

“They are enrolled, like every other student, in the entry math or English course. The difference is, while they're enrolled in that basic course — that is counting for credit — they have support around them that is in real time,” Reilly said.

In short, under the new corequisite model traditional remedial classes would cease to exist and would be replaced by additional coursework through tutoring or labs that would supplement the college level curriculum, all while the once-remedial students earn credit toward a degree. 

“Instead of following a traditional pre-requisite model of remediation where you deliver the support that a student needs for a college level course a year before they're actually going to use it, you're delivering it to them at the point which they're using it in the college level course,” Meek said. “It's just-in-time delivery of academic support.”

For NSHE, a system-wide task force comprised of math and English faculty from each institution is set to develop school-specific guidelines to ease the corequisite transition before the fall semester in 2021. 

“The passage of this policy says that when you come to college, you're going to take college classes,” Meek said. “Gone are the days where the institution expects you to be ready, the institution is now ready to support the students where they're at.”

But even as the system has pushed forward on implementing a corequisite model, faculty from across NSHE’s educational institutions have pushed back, citing a range of issues exclusive to each of the system’s educational institutions. 

Chief among them is the timeline for the switch. Though the regents eventually settled on a 2021 deadline, some, including Reilly, had wanted a new system in place as soon as 2020. For Doug Unger, the former chair of the Council of Faculty Senate Chairs and an English professor at UNLV, though, it was too quick a change for a bureaucracy as large as NSHE. 

“Doing anything in higher ed is like turning a supertanker,” Unger said. “It takes 10 miles to turn it, it takes hours to plan, and once you get it going in one direction it's really hard to turn it the other way.”

Unger says it’s not just about timing, though. Every institution has unique issues based on often wildly different remedial infrastructures. At UNR, for instance, where a version of corequisite courses already exists, little will likely change in the next two years. 

At UNLV, Unger said a primary issue lies not in developing a corequisite curriculum but in ensuring remedial students are not frontloaded entirely into a fall semester, leaving instructors who teach remedial coursework in the fall without classes come spring. 

In the community colleges, where most of the system’s remedial students seek their degrees, Unger says the concerns become even more complex. At smaller schools, such as Western Nevada College and Great Basin College, small student populations with far smaller numbers of remediated students may ease the transition to a corequisite model. 

But at the College of Southern Nevada, concerns were raised to the Regents over the same kinds of classroom bottlenecks that could affect UNLV if all remedial students are placed in the same courses in the fall semester, instead of both spring and fall. 

Truckee Meadows Community College also expressed concern, arguing in a presentation to the Board of Regents that its existing programs — which are not, by definition, corequisite but have still eschewed the traditional definitions of prerequisite remediation — should not be abandoned, and sought amendments to the policy ahead of its approval in June. 

Those programs include transitional math programs, a revised version of traditional remedial math courses and a Math Skills Center, which allows students to self-pace a curriculum split between labs, instructor meetings and online work. 

“They're arguing that their remediation policy is good, and I understand,” Unger said of the school’s concerns. “They've spent a considerable amount of time and resources implementing a new kind of remediation model that they believe works, and so they're trying to figure out a way that they can use their model in an experimental way and still fit the policy.”

For the chancellor, the pushback — be it scheduling, curriculum or otherwise — was of little surprise. 

“In some respects, it's a pretty radical change,” Reilly said. “Anytime you make a significant change like this, of how things have been done for a long period of time, you're going to expect some challenges.”

From a faculty perspective, Unger said criticisms of the new policy were more practical than philosophical, and that the faculty by-and-large shared the chancellor’s goal of reforming the remediation system.

“It just takes a long time to turn the supertanker,” Unger said.