How a multi-year push to remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution failed at the ballot box

For nearly four years, a coalition of legislators, higher education advocates, faculty, students, business leaders, liberals and conservatives worked to propose and pass a measure that would become Question 1 — a statewide ballot measure that, if passed, would have removed the Board of Regents from the Nevada Constitution. 

It was the result of the long-simmering tension between lawmakers and leaders of the state’s higher education system, one fueled by decades of mutual distrust and resentment over isolated incidents as well as long-running disputes centered on issues of transparency, oversight and accountability. 

Though those within the higher education system, most notably regents and former Chancellor Thom Reilly, chafed at the question as legislative overreach, no coordinated effort to defeat it was ever mounted and nearly $1 million was ultimately raised in its favor. Those involved — both for and against — generally expected Question 1 to pass.

It came as something of a shock, then, when early Election Day returns showed Question 1 failing, driven mostly by a near 2-to-1 ratio of “No” votes in the state’s rural counties and in Washoe County. Eventual returns from Clark County buoyed the “Yes” vote by early Wednesday morning, but they still left a roughly 31,000 vote mountain to climb in late-counted mail-in votes and provisional ballots. 

After 12 days of vote-counting, it was clear that Question 1 had failed. It ultimately was rejected by voters by just 3,877 votes. 

Backed by a substantial amount of campaign money, a diverse coalition and without organized opposition, why did it fail? 

In interviews with The Nevada Independent, those involved with campaigns for and against the measure and members of the state’s higher education system pointed to one factor above all others: Question 1 was confusing. 

A densely worded, deeply technical question on one of the state’s more archaic, little-known and little-understood boards, Question 1’s ultimate impact on the Constitution was not immediately clear to voters armed only with the language of the question and the voter guide description.

Internal polling and post-election metrics from the Yes on Question 1 campaign showed a measurable favorability difference between voters who mailed ballots or early-voted before Question 1’s advertising campaign began and those who voted after. 

Andrew Woods, who managed the Yes on Question 1 campaign, said that the question fared worst among those who returned their ballots earliest — a time when no or little advertising on the question had been on-air. 

But, he said, even in areas where the ballot question performed poorly, such as Washoe and the rural counties, the margin improved noticeably among late-deciders and provisional ballots. 

“Our message was good,” Woods said. “It's just we didn't get up early enough. We missed a lot of early votes in mail-in, which we saw was close to 50 percent, almost... a lot of people I think mailed ballots early, they made up their mind early, and all they had to go on was the voter guide.”

Another metric that suggests Question 1 was confusing: more voters chose to skip it than any other ballot question.

Such end-of-ballot dropoff is not unusual. Most election cycles will see the last item on the ballot — usually a ballot question — receive far fewer votes than the races at the top. And the 2020 ballot included dozens of state-level judicial elections that vastly expanded the physical size of the ballot, including up to two full pages in Clark County. 

Still, 10.6 percent of ballots did not record a vote on Question 1, compared to a 6.4 percent dropoff for Question 2, which codified same-sex marriage in the state Constitution. 

“So voters must have known enough about what was on the ballot to have made their way past those judicial races and still made it to, say, at least Question 2, and vote one way or the other on it,” Woods said. 

For Elliot Anderson, a former state Assemblyman who drafted the resolution that would become Question 1 during his time in the Legislature, the sheer strangeness of 2020 and the resulting effects on the campaign — a limitation on fundraising, a pause on campaigning, a delay on the airwaves and more — has made moot any “grand lesson” about Question 1 and the way voters may have reacted to it. 

“I would caution anyone into trying to take too many lessons from all this in terms of, was there this grand intent from the electorate? I don't think so,” Anderson said. “I think the electorate was probably just mostly confused about what this did.” 

Still, Anderson said it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to word Question 1 in a way that would have been less confusing for voters without any prior knowledge of the governance of the state’s higher education system.   

“You're talking about overlapping statutory and constitutional provisions; you're talking about 156 years of history; you're talking about decades and decades of different scandals and court cases,” Anderson said. “How can I say, ‘remove the regents out of the Constitution’ without saying remove the regents? It's not just saying, 'do you like solar power or do you like voting rights?'”

Regent Jason Geddes, a longtime regent and vocal critic of Question 1, agreed that voters “struggled to understand what the implications were,” but added that some voters may have been turned off by the possibility that Question 1 could have led to appointed, rather than elected, regents.  

“I think that Nevada citizens will— have always been resistant to taking away the right to vote for their representatives,” Geddes said.

Geddes’ argument was one often discussed in the context of Question 1 — but never in direct relation to the question itself, which did not deal with the election of the board. 

Anderson has been dismissive of any such concerns, though, having worked to quash a legislative effort that would have reduced the number of regents and created a mixed appointed-elected board. He says it is a “separate question,” and that there are those opposed to Question 1 — most notably former Chancellor Thom Reilly — who did favor a mixed appointed-elected board. 

What was not a likely driver of the result on Question 1 — despite county-by-county results that saw Clark County embrace the question and the rest of the state reject it — were any lingering regional splits on the issue of overseeing higher education. Nevada has long been characterized by a North-South divide, and the history of its higher education system — where the “rebels” of UNLV only secured autonomy from UNR in 1968 — is no exception. 

But those involved with the Question 1 campaigns say they saw no regional split in and among the groups or people involved with its drafting, whether legislators who voted for it or faculty, students, administrators or politicians who ultimately sided one way or the other. 

“We didn't have a partisan problem, when people got our message,” Anderson said. “And we didn't have a regional problem in Washoe, when people got our message. If you look at the way that the late breaking votes went, including in Washoe County, for your same-day registrants, you know, people who got more exposure to our message, we wouldn't have seen a regional problem.” 

What happens next

The failure of Question 1 will mean little in the short term, with the status quo — a Board of Regents enshrined in the Nevada Constitution — preserved until another constitutional amendment can be proposed. 

But the failure comes at a key crossroads for both the state’s higher education system and the Legislature, which will meet early next year to make hard choices about the state’s financial future. 

After the pandemic-driven shutdowns of the spring crushed state revenues, lawmakers cut more than $1.2 billion from the state’s budget during a special session this summer, including more than $135 million from the Nevada System of Higher Education’s budget. 

Now, as the pandemic drags on and complicates Nevada’s economic recovery, the outlook for the next fiscal biennium is no less bleak than it was over the summer. Gov. Steve Sisolak asked state agencies this month to prepare for budget reductions of 12 percent for 2021-2023, and regents have already begun exploring possibilities for additional operational cuts.

For Anderson, the lack of any meaningful oversight mechanism outside the power of the purse has left the Legislature in a “vacuum” that lacks the legal and legislative tools that have kept other state agencies in check. 

“I think that there really isn't any good, clean, elegant way for the Legislature to hold the Board of Regents accountable,” Anderson said. “And so it's essentially voters-or-bust right now.”

Still, Anderson, who left the Legislature following the 2017 session, said he hopes the tight margin on Question 1 “puts them on better behavior.”

“Although we lost, there were a substantial amount of people who also voted for this as well. This wasn't like a 70-30 result, it was a very close result,” Anderson said. “So if I were the Board of Regents, I would be uncharacteristically accountable.”

Geddes, speaking from his own experience as a regent, countered that the board has asked what more the Legislature wants, and has received few clear answers in return. 

“The question that we posed last two sessions was, what more do you want? What does accountability mean to you? What specific things do you want as an outcome? And really, in the conversations, it was, ‘we'll wait for Q1 to pass and then we'll have a discussion as to what that means,’” Geddes said. “So I'm hoping, I mean, I know it failed, but I'm hoping that we can have the discussion as to what that means.”

Chancellor Melody Rose — a longtime Oregon educator and administrator who stepped into the system’s top job this summer — said in a statement to The Nevada Independent that she is “dedicated to building relationships with all stakeholders.”

“While the ballot measure narrowly failed, some of the concerns driving the measure remain. Already I am meeting with Question 1 sponsors to listen to their concerns and suggestions. I am also meeting with legislators in an effort to improve NSHE’s transparency and accountability,” Rose said. “NSHE continues to make progress in this regard, but our work is never done as we strive to meet the higher education needs of all Nevadans.”

Amid coronavirus restrictions, some Nevada college students see diminishing returns on tuition and fees

As summer turned to fall, there was a broad promise made to the college students of Nevada. Though COVID-19 had pushed so much online, many staples of the higher education experience — dorms, gyms, campus resources, even some fully in-person instruction — would still be part of the new academic year, state coronavirus guidelines permitting.

Now months into that academic year, many students say they’re still frustrated by a system that has consistently delivered less, even while charging as much or, in some cases, more. 

“It would have been nice to sort of leave and graduate sort of with a good conscience, that I got the most out of my education and the most of my five years that I've spent,” Dante Brooke, a fifth-year journalism student set to graduate this winter, said. “And I just don't feel that way, especially with having to take these last couple of classes online, where it almost seems like there just isn't as much weight on anything that I do or turn in or even the time that I spend learning.”

Faced with this criticism since even before the start of the fall semester, administrators, regents and others tasked with steering the state’s higher education system through the COVID-19 morass have pointed to a complex reality of administering such a large, sometimes unwieldy system under the realities the pandemic demands: cratered revenues, ballooning costs, the specter of a dire health crisis and the fact that, even after more than seven months of lockdowns, isolation and more, there is no neat end-date to a global pandemic. 

For Chris Heavey, interim executive vice president and provost at UNLV, the context of the early course of the pandemic remains key in deconstructing how decisions for the fall semester were made — and how they have been perceived since. 

He pointed to a once-often cited model from the University of Washington that — in the earliest days of the pandemic shutdown — showed coronavirus cases petering out by the start of the semester in August. 

“In October, we all know that that model was dramatically wrong,” Heavey said. “And so as we approach the semester, we definitely did have a substantial increase in the number of courses that we needed to offer online because of the health conditions on the ground.”

Summer grumbling over increased fees or online classes appears to have done little to affect enrollment numbers at the state’s universities. Though enrollment among international students did drop, university and college presidents from across Nevada told regents in August that overall fall enrollment remained roughly flat, while summer enrollment had actually ticked up for some institutions. 

But the frustration among students over the continued costs of a coronavirus-era degree bubbled up once again this month following an announcement by UNR President Brian Sandoval that the university would end in-person instruction early, sending students home at the conclusion of fall break, after Thanksgiving, in addition to canceling next year’s spring break. 

“I feel taken advantage of,” Brooke said. “You know, it sounds almost cynical, but it kind of sounds almost as if this was kind of, that you and I plan all along to sort of get people, you know, get their hopes up, get a few things going and then just take them away.”

Brooke’s view — that the fall semester provided a lucrative bait-and-switch for universities hobbled by state budget cuts and lost revenues — is not an uncommon one. Some students in other states have even sued, demanding in class action lawsuits that universities at all levels refund thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, in tuition or other costs for failing to provide the experience they promised to provide. 

Officials at UNR and UNLV have broadly pushed back on similar criticisms, pointing first to a mandate to increase student fees by the Board of Regents — not by individual administrations —  and second to a tuition deadline set after the resumption of classes, and therefore after it was clear what courses would and would not be available in hybrid or in-person formats. 

“The reality is that the costs of offering the education to the students at this time have not decreased, and in fact, have increased in many ways,” Heavey said. “And so we are struggling to, as an institution, maintain the quality of offerings, and to deliver them in an often a new format online, while doing everything we can to contain the costs and simultaneously absorb a substantial decrease in the funding that we received from the state.”

Heavey also stressed a number of steps taken by the university to mitigate the worst financial effects for the most vulnerable students, including, in part, waiving some fees and providing direct access to financial assistance through the CARES Act. 

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

But amid all the money concerns, there remains the ever-present health risks posed by the coronavirus. These concerns were heightened this fall at UNR, which rapidly emerged as a clear COVID hotspot among the state’s colleges and universities as it was reporting more than 100 new cases per week in the early weeks of October. 

Weekly numbers of new cases reported at the university have since fallen — just 37 cases were reported in the week ending Oct. 30 — even as cases in Washoe County have hit record highs. But the surge presented enough of a concern for Sandoval to announce the university would close its sprawling four-story gym, just days before he made the call to end in-person fall instruction early. 

For those already frustrated with the high price of a virtual semester, it was yet another marker of that which had been paid for and still taken away. 

“I just feel like if I'm paying this amount, for this amount of money — I should be getting way more than what I'm getting,” Dominique Hall, a UNR senior studying journalism and student body president, said. “It’s depressing.”

Sandoval tweeted shortly after announcing the gym closure that it was “not a punishment,” noting that contact tracers had linked at least 60 cases to the facility. Speaking to The Nevada Independent on Oct. 9, Sandoval said ongoing frustrations over price from parents and students remained a “valid concern.” 

“What I try to explain to the students is, in a normal circumstance, we wouldn't be having this conversation,” Sandoval said. “If we didn't have the pandemic, we would not be having this conversation. But any decision that is made is in the best interest of the student and their health. And we, the university, have made a big effort to have an on campus experience in the best way we can.”

Saying the campus was bound by rules from the state and Washoe County Health District, Sandoval argued that the administration had actually “[maximized] what we can do” considering all necessary limitations. 

“We have to start there, and that's what's limited our offerings,” Sandoval said. 

With generally fewer reported cases across the board, according to data compiled by the Nevada System of Higher Education, no other institution has followed in UNR’s footsteps. But even so, the sense of lost opportunity or the burden of increased fees is not exclusive to Reno. 

“With everything going on, having to pay those costs is not only very difficult for myself, but I think what's more difficult, besides the cost is kind of feeling kind of feeling helpless in the situation that most college students are in right now,” Caren Royce Yap, a junior business double major and student senator at UNLV, said. “I feel there's really nothing we can do to fight these costs, or speak our minds about them.”

In voicing frustrations over costs, services or other realities of the current college experience, many students have come to ask a similar question: who — or what — is to blame? 

Students who spoke with The Nevada Independent did not provide a singular answer, though all were reluctant to lay blame with either faculty or staff tasked with actually teaching through tools like Zoom or Canvas. 

Instead, it was a myriad of institutional or political forces at work that — in their view — had mismanaged a difficult situation that shouldered students with an increased burden at a critical time in their lives. 

For some, it was the legislators in Carson City who had failed. Abraham Lugo, a student senator and liberal arts student at UNLV, criticized lawmakers for the decision to, when offered the opportunity to seek more mining tax revenues, gouge education budgets instead. 

“Unfortunately, they still chose to take away from students during a global pandemic,” Lugo said. “And I truly believe as a representative of student voices, that it's unacceptable. Because right now more than ever, people are struggling and suffering, and it's pretty evident when you're dealing with many different students and many different stories.”

During heated discussions over the state’s hollowed-out budget at one of two special sessions this summer, legislators ultimately approved cuts of $166 million and $135 million to the state’s K-12 and higher education budgets, respectively, while also rejecting two proposals that would have adjusted taxes on the state’s mining industry.

For others, it’s largely a consequence of a decision made by the Board of Regents in April to approve across-the-board fee increases for students as a last resort to cover tens of millions in lost funding for 2020 and 2021. Joshua Padilla, UNLV’s student body president, said the additional fees were among “quite a few” budget missteps made by regents this summer. 

“I think it's just a long history of NSHE’s relationship with the state Legislature, and that's been rocky,” Padilla said. “So when we really needed help, right now, the state Legislature wasn't necessarily trusting of NSHE and we felt the consequences of that.”

Early on, regents and then-Chancellor Thom Reilly said in meetings and in interviews that budget plans were drawn with the lessons of the Great Recession in mind. Then, in 2008 and later in 2010 and beyond, unprecedented budget cuts were met with layoffs and the cutting of whole programs, leaving deep scars across the higher education system that took nearly a decade to mend. 

In 2020, such decisions have largely been delayed following a handful of emergency budget measures, including the injection of millions in one-time withdrawals from cash reserves, as well as, among other cost-cutting measures, the institution of the aforementioned fee-increase and system-wide furloughs for faculty and staff. 

What budget decisions may come in the future remain unclear. The regents have not gathered since a quarterly meeting in September, and specifics of the system’s budget for the 2021-23 biennium have yet to emerge in the body’s public meetings. 

But with no end in sight to the pandemic, Heavey said continued restrictions and the broader effects of the virus are “just a fundamentally frustrating situation for everybody who's involved in it.”

“I have a lot of empathy for students who have a vision of what they want their college experience to be like, and then it ends up being, you know, dramatically different from that,” Heavey said. “There's just a lot of disappointment and frustration, and in those conditions, it's hard for people not to say, well, whose fault is this? And I think the reality is, it's really not anybody's fault, other than we as a society are coping with a once-in-a-lifetime event that's extraordinarily difficult for everybody.”

In push to oust regents from Constitution, pro-Question 1 PAC banks more than $470,000 in third-quarter fundraising

Nevadans for a Higher Quality Education, a pro-Question 1 super PAC with ties to the business community, reported raising $470,500 in the third quarter, setting the stage for a final campaign push to pass a ballot measure that would remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution. 

According to a filing made with the secretary of state’s office last week, a majority of the PAC’s third-quarter funding came from just three sources: $235,000 from the Council for a Better Nevada, a political non-profit that backed a 2014 initiative to create a state appellate court and the controversial 2016 gun background checks initiative; $100,000 from a company linked to Stephen Cloobeck, the multimillionaire founder of the Diamond Resorts International timeshare company; and another $85,000 from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

The Council for a Better Nevada's executive director, Maureen Schafer, once served as the chief of staff for the UNLV medical school, and now works as the CEO of the development company overseeing construction and development of the medical school's long-delayed central building.

The remaining money came in a handful of five and four-figure contributions, including $25,000 from an LLC linked to Eureka Casino Resort CEO Gregory Lee and $10,000 from an LLC managed by former Cannery Casino Resorts owner Bill Paulos.

The PAC also saw contributions of $2,500 and $2,000, respectively, from the campaigns of Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager and Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, marking at least three such contributions from legislators ahead of November’s vote. Republican Sen. Keith Pickard’s campaign contributed $500 in the second quarter. 

The PAC’s third-quarter haul raises its total fundraising in the cycle to more than $596,000, with much of that money — $473,578 — having already been spent. Of that spending, about 80 percent of it, around $386,000, came in just the last three months.

Almost 90 percent of the third-quarter spending — roughly $338,000 — went to a collection of five consulting firms: California-based Winner & Mandabach Campaigns ($225,182) and Southern Nevada-based firms Woods Strategies ($63,894), Community Strategies Inc. ($35,000), The Warren Group ($10,000) and Sala Consulting ($4,000). 

The group spent an additional $34,300 on Washington, D.C.-based pollster the Mellman Group, which has a long history of polling Nevada elections (editor’s note: the firm has done past polling for The Nevada Independent). 

And though no advertising costs are listed in the PAC’s third quarter filing, at least some money has been spent on pro-Question 1 ads in the last few weeks. The group Yes on 1 for Higher Education launched an ad last week that purports Question 1 would “stop scandals and waste” and “put students first” if passed.  

A legislatively referred constitutional amendment that sailed through the legislative sessions in 2017 and 2019, Question 1 would amend the state’s Constitution by removing language referring to the Board of Regents, which governs the state’s higher education system, and placing the board under statute, instead.

Proponents of the question have argued the change would provide a necessary increase in oversight of the board by state legislators, who have for decades sparred with regents and chancellors over funding and accountability issues.

Opponents, including many regents and former Chancellor Thom Reilly, have argued that the amendment is a “solution in search of a problem” that would do little to advance the goals of higher education and that too little has been made clear about how exactly the Legislature will adjust the makeup of the higher education system should Question 1 pass. 

For more on Question 1 and for explainers of every 2020 ballot question, visit our elections page here.

Updated, 10/19/20 at 3:03 p.m. - This story was updated to include additional information about the Council for a Better Nevada.

The Indy Explains: Question 1, a measure that would strike the Board of Regents from the Constitution

The Nevada Legislature building

Question 1: The Nevada Higher Education Reform, Accountability and Oversight Amendment

Formal name: Assembly Joint Resolution No. 5 (79th Session)

Type of measure: Legislatively referred constitutional amendment

Groups organized: Yes on 1 for Higher Education

Other groups in favor: Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, Nevada AFL-CIO

Summary of what it does: Question 1 would remove language including the Board of Regents from Article 11 of the Nevada Constitution, instead requiring the Legislature to provide by law for the “governance, control, and management and the reasonable protection of individual academic freedom.” The amendment would also clarify certain legal provisions related to money provided by federal land grant funds provided as part of the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act, in part by updating the state’s legal language to match congressional amendments made in the time since and by removing references to the Board of Regents.  

What other states have done: Governance structures for higher education systems vary widely from state to state, but Nevada is among 29 states that utilize a single administrative board tasked with overseeing all higher education institutions across the state. Among those states, Nevada is the only one that elects all its regents through a general election. Most others, in part or in full, rely on appointments by their respective governors or legislatures. 

Arguments for passing Question 1: Proponents of Question 1 — a broad coalition of ex-legislators, business interests and some students and faculty — have claimed the measure is a necessary reform that will provide greater legislative oversight, and therefore greater accountability, over the Board of Regents. 

Formally citing legal cases from 1948 and 1981 and informally pointing to incidents such as a funding formula controversy under former Chancellor Dan Klaich, those in favor of Question 1 charge that past regents or chancellors too often use their “antiquated” constitutional status as a legal shield for bad behavior. 

“The regents have not made their case of why they think they’re better at holding themselves accountable than the rest of us,” Elliot Anderson, a former assemblyman and the author of AJR5, said. “Because in the rest of American government, no one gets this special protection from accountability — only the regents do.”

In testifying for the measure in 2019, Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse told lawmakers that the change was a direct response to “events of the past several years,” including efforts by NSHE to “control, alter or misrepresent” information presented to the Legislature. 

Though not explicit, Woodhouse’s testimony is a likely reference to an incident in 2012 in which Klaich and other higher education officials allegedly drafted a letter to legislators under a consultant’s letterhead, an act that lawmakers both then and now say was a deliberate attempt to mislead and obfuscate the high-stakes process of revamping the system’s byzantine funding formula.

Originally revealed through a public records request by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2016, Klaich later denied any wrongdoing and said emails construed by the RJ as malicious were intended as jokes. In a written statement later delivered to regents before his resignation, Klaich said that, though he was involved in drafting the letter, the final language was still approved by consultants before being sent to the legislative committee in question.

Anderson also stressed that the measure would not put the Legislature “in control,” of higher education — something implied by some regents during a board meeting in July. He said that, under a regulatory scheme created through Question 1, Regents would still handle regular administration of the higher education system, while the Legislature instead ensures the board remains subject to the “checks and balances and the law just like every other agency.”

“You know, the Legislature is imperfect and the Board of Regents is imperfect,” Anderson said. “And the whole idea is that imperfect, by the government, is supposed to be able to hold each other accountable and check and balance each other.” 

Also criticizing the elected nature of the Board of Regents and a lack of nimbleness and adaptability, the Yes on 1 campaign has claimed that the amendment will modernize the higher education system and “help us save taxpayer dollars from waste,” specifically taking aim at a $26 million administrative budget and a six-figure salary for new Chancellor Melody Rose. 

However, that budget figure is likely misleading, according to NSHE administrators, as it includes nearly $19 million budgeted for the so-called “system computing center,” which covers human resources, accounting and other software used by all NSHE institutions. 

There is also the issue — or in the view of some Yes-on-1 proponents, the non-issue — of what comes next should voters ultimately approve the amendment. 

The ballot question proposes no policy changes outside pulling the board from the Constitution. But Chet Burton, former NSHE CFO and former president of Western Nevada College, argued the lack of specificity provided flexibility on those specifics later down the line, adding that a vote against Question 1 was “approving the status quo.” 

“A lot of people don't know what the final product will look like,” Burton said. “But I think that at least it gives us the opportunity to put together a working group and bring the best minds together and look at how other states handle it.”

Arguments against passing Question 1: Though there are no formal or organized opponents to Question 1, several regents and former Chancellor Thom Reilly vocally opposed the measure as it worked its way through the Legislature. In public testimony and in interviews with The Nevada Independent, these critics say Question 1 does little in the way of furthering educational outcomes for students or otherwise improving higher education governance in the state. 

“How will this make the system better for students?” Reilly asked The Nevada Independent. “How will that advance our graduation rates and retention rates in our research portfolio in our workforce force output? No one has been able to answer that. So if we're going to do a pretty significant change in governance, there should be a better articulation about how that's going to advance the system.”

Reilly also cast doubt on the prospect that placing higher education in the realm of any other state agency would make it more efficient or “nimble,” calling it instead “extremely bureaucratic and onerous.” Pointing specifically to the “multiple levels of bureaucracy” required by the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee for state agencies, he said specifically that the direct distribution of coronavirus relief dollars earlier this year by NSHE “can never happen in the state” if the system operated like an agency.

Regent Trevor Hayes, likewise, called the measure a “classic example of a solution in search of a problem” and Regent Laura Perkins raised doubts about the lack of any clear definition for policies that could result from Question 1’s passage. 

“I see it as trying to build the plane while you’re flying it,” Perkins said. “There’s no numbers or positive proof that the system that may or may not come out of this is better than the system that we have now.”

Opponents have also claimed that Question 1 represents a legal backdoor that would allow the Legislature to do away — either in part or in full — with elected regents.  

Regent Jason Geddes, among the longest-serving regents on the board, pointed to SB354 — a failed 2019 bill that would have reduced the number of regents to nine, including four gubernatorial appointees — as evidence of a broader legislative end-game.

In his view, Geddes said that the elected nature of regents under the current constitutional structure — one that he believes is ultimately responsive to constituents — could not be recreated under the framework laid out by SB354, or theoretically allowed by Question 1.

“Right now there's 13 of us, we represent just shy of 300,000 people,” Geddes said. “And we drop it down to nine, and we actually would only have five representing the entire populace of the state — it's pretty much a congressional district for a part time, $80-a-[meeting] job. It just gets difficult to represent that many people kind of over the years.”

Though SB354 was passed in the Senate by a 15-6 margin, the measure was controversial and found little support in the Assembly, where it died in committee. 

Even now, not all proponents of Question 1 agree on the question of an appointed board. That includes Anderson, who worked to quash that bill and called the issue a “separate question” and a “kind of a fiction that is presented for the benefit of the public.”

Though no faculty group has as-yet taken a formal position on Question 1, some Nevada faculty have vocalized past concerns that the amendment may not adequately protect academic freedom.

In a letter sent to lawmakers during deliberations on AJR5 in 2019, the Nevada Faculty Alliance listed at least eight instances in which political pressure was used to influence the nature of appointed higher education governing bodies, including a 2016 move by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin to oust trustees and the president at the University of Louisville.

But some faculty proponents have otherwise downplayed the issue, countering that Question 1 would, to the contrary, expand protections for academic freedom through placing such protections directly into the state Constitution. 

How did Question 1 qualify for the ballot? As a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, Question 1 was overwhelmingly — though not unanimously — approved by two successive legislative sessions as Assembly Joint Resolution 5. First introduced in 2017, AJR5 was passed 38-4 in the Assembly and 18-2 in the Senate. In its second run through the Legislature in 2019, the measure was approved by margins of 36-5 in the Assembly and 20-0 in the Senate. 

Primary funders: A PAC formed in support of Question 1, Nevadans for a Higher Quality Education, reported raising $115,500 through the second quarter of 2020. Nearly all of that money, $105,000, came in two contributions from the Council for a Better Nevada, a political non-profit helmed by Maureen Schafer, the former chief of staff for the UNLV Medical School. First formed in 2006, the Council for a Better Nevada in part funded a 2014 effort to create a Nevada Court of Appeals and the 2016 gun background checks initiative

The remainder of the PAC’s fundraising came from a $10,000 contribution from the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce and $500 from Republican state Sen. Keith Pickard’s campaign committee. 

Through the second quarter, the PAC reported spending $87,500, of which nearly half — $40,000 — went to the Mellman Group, a Washington, D.C.-based pollster with a long history of polling Nevada races. (The firm has also done polling for The Nevada Independent.) The PAC also spent another $30,000 on California-based firm Winner and Mandabach, which advertises itself as a specialist in the realm of ballot-measure campaigns.  

Financial impact: Cannot be determined. Because Question 1 would likely lead to legislative changes to NSHE and its administrative structure, an analysis by the state could not determine a financial impact of the measure without knowing what, precisely, those changes would entail. 

Status: The measure was approved by legislators in both the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions, leaving November’s vote as the only hurdle remaining before the amendment would take effect. 

For more breakdowns of ballot measures, laws or other complex topics, check out other Indy explainers here.

Correction, 9/7/20 at 11:59 a.m. — A quote from Regent Jason Geddes originally misstated the compensation for regents as "$80-a-day." Regents actually receive $80 per meeting, with four quarterly meetings scheduled per year.

Updated, 9/9/20 at 10:32 a.m. — This story was updated to include an endorsement of Question 1 by the Nevada AFL-CIO announced on Wednesday, Sept. 9.

As new academic year nears, Nevada colleges are grappling with massive changes to federal sexual misconduct rules amid pandemic

Students at UNR's Joe Crowley Student Union

Sweeping changes to federal rules governing the investigation of sexual misconduct on college campuses finally took effect Friday. Sprawled across more than 2,000 pages of legal guidance, the changes cap a years-long regulatory march by the Education Department under Secretary Betsy DeVos toward reversing Obama-era rules governing such investigations. 

In the three months between the announcement of the final rules in May and the deadline to implement them this week, colleges, universities and higher education systems across the country have rushed to make the most substantial change to Title IX in decades amid the crushing weight of the coronavirus pandemic and the rippling crises that have followed in its wake. 

In Nevada specifically, the publication of the new rules in early May coincided with discussions by regents over how to cut more than $100 million from the budget as state officials watched revenues crater. Just weeks later, regents approved a measure that would allow system-wide furloughs, at the time only the latest drastic measure implemented to stem a money problem that grew worse by the week. 

Across the country, higher education institutions decried the timing. Calling the rules “enormously complex and burdensome,” the American Council on Education called for a delay in March. In Nevada, some higher education officials described the timeline as “unprecedented.”

Regent Lisa Levine, who was appointed to the board earlier this year, lamented the fact that the changes were presented with so little time before the deadline to implement them. 

“That's just totally unacceptable,” Levine said. “This is not good public policy making, if that's how it's going to be done. I think a much better way is to have it earlier on so that the public could have addressed it with NSHE, and so that regents could have learned more, instead of giving us 30 minutes on the itemized agenda a week before you had to put it forward.”

Still, not everyone in the higher ed system feels as though the process was overly rushed. Regent Patrick Carter, who chairs the board’s Audit, Compliance and Title IX committee, told The Nevada Independent that he had “plenty of time” to review the changes in committee and send those changes back to the full board for a vote. 

“It did seemingly take a little bit longer than I anticipated,” Carter said. “I had anticipated it being done in July, which would have given us a handful more weeks, but that workgroup just needed the time. It's an incredibly complex piece of legislation, as far as the amount of changes that it has in policy.”

In short, the changes make a host of key adjustments to due process rules used in the investigation of sexual harassment or other misconduct at publicly funded universities. Most notable among the changes is a new requirement that investigations include a live hearing complete with cross-examination, as well as adjudication of the matter by an “adviser.”  

That includes new rules which narrow the scope of an investigation by requiring conduct to be severe, pervasive and objectively offensive, rather than “or” objectively offensive, as well as broadly limiting the jurisdiction to incidents in the U.S. and on property owned and operated by the university. 

According to Maria Doucettperry, the Title IX coordinator at UNR, those new definitions could severely restrict the jurisdiction of UNR, where just 3,500 of more than 22,000 students live on campus during a normal academic year. 

“So what's happened, by this definition, is that knocks out a lot of the conduct that we see on a daily basis, or things that happen at private homes or in an apartment between two students,” Doucettperry said. “And now none of that would fall within that Title IX definition, or very little of it, as we have so few students on campus.”

Proponents of the new rules have argued they were a necessary adjustment from Obama-era rules that were too quick to punish those falsely accused of sexual misconduct. In an initial unveiling of the formal process to change Title IX in 2017, DeVos told a crowd at George Mason University that the rules had “clearly pushed schools to overreach.”

“The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students,” DeVos said. “Survivors, victims of a lack of due process, and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved. That’s why we must do better, because the current approach isn’t working.”

For DeVos and other critics of the Obama-era rules, allegations of low evidence standards, inconsistent application of the rules and a widespread lack of due process spurred the eventual years-long process of combing through Title IX and, in DeVos' own words, “reframing” what it does in cases of sexual harassment. 

Opponents, meanwhile, have charged that the changes will produce a chilling effect that will drive down the reporting of misconduct by raising unnecessary barriers and risking retraumatization in the process. 

Still, even after years of vigorous opposition in the public sphere, the newly released rules lived largely in obscurity following their long-awaited release in May. 

That all changed this month, when an Aug. 14 deadline to implement the changes loomed. If any system or institution failed to make the changes, the Education Department guidelines made clear that millions in federal funding could be on the line. 

Questions came to a head for the first time in public on Aug. 7, during a special meeting of the Board of Regents. With just a week left before the federal government’s deadline, the swift passage of the new guidance was all but assured. 

Still, many of the 13 regents raised a raft of questions and criticisms of the new rules, with one, Levine, going so far as to actively urge the board to vote down the item. 

“Bad laws are meant to be broken,” Levine said. “As policymakers, we have the power to halt this terrible and harmful law. I caution those who vote yes on this as you will be standing on the side of rapists, by criminals and assaulters. I'm voting on behalf of survivors and all victims of sexual violence.”

Speaking later to The Nevada Independent, Levine said the board should be “in the business of protecting students” and warned that the implementation of the rules would spawn a chilling effect at Nevada colleges and universities. 

“One in five women in college experience some kind of sexual assault, one in 16 men even experienced some kind of sexual assault while in college,” Levine said. “And so we want to try to decrease that so students don't have that emotional and physical impact on them that can be very severe, for the rest of their lives.”

Amid those criticisms, some administrators have pointed to alternative pathways for victims seeking justice through Title IX that doesn’t meet the new standards for investigations, something Doucettperry described as “one policy, two processes.”

“What would happen within our campus is it would then be looked at or viewed under that second process,” Doucettperry said. “And so for us, it may be hard to tell whether or not it truly has a chilling effect because there is a second process that kind of captures that conduct.”

In voting yes for the measure, some regents praised the addition of that secondary process as they made clear that, in their view, there was no way for NSHE to not comply with federal law without risking hundreds of millions in funding. 

For Carter, providing a concrete interpretation of the new rules from the system-level would also form a key step in ensuring compliance at the institutional level. 

“The urgency is really just in establishing, here's how we interpreted it as a system, here's how we're going to do it, and now it's in policy,” Carter said. “It's very clear, it's auditable, so we can make sure that we're following procedures internally. So if the [Department of Education’s] Office of the Civil Rights contacts our system, our chief internal auditor, or Chancellor or attorney — anybody — can say, well, here's our interpretation of how we're how we're doing this.”

But even as it became clear the measure would pass amid the looming funding threats — regents eventually approved the measure 10-3 — some board members raised yet more questions about the timing, pushing system General Counsel Joe Reynolds to explain why NSHE did not push to sue the Education Department or join one of several existing suits aiming at stopping the changes. 

Those questions eventually prompted an unusual step by Attorney General Aaron Ford who called into the meeting to explain why his office never took steps to join 17 other states in suing the federal government over Title IX. 

Though his office, in theory, would be able to take action without the approval of regents, he told the board that standard practice was to reach out to interested parties. And, in reaching out to NSHE, Ford said his office “didn’t receive a definitive response.”

“Frankly, given NSHE’s previous comment letter, which outlined a much more moderate position than taken in the multi-state lawsuit, and given the lack of attentive response and interest in joining the lawsuit, as well as the lack of information available at the time to include it in the declaration, we were unable to join the lawsuit,” Ford said.

Board Chair Mark Doubrava and system Chancellor Thom Reilly later sent a letter to Ford expressing explicit support for a lawsuit challenging the rules changes, and the board is expected to take a formal vote on litigation at a meeting on Aug. 21. 

Meanwhile, a number of other lawsuits looking to halt the rules appeared to have stalled. That includes the multistate suit mentioned by Ford, which had a request for an injunction blocked in a D.C. circuit court. In denying the request for an injunction, the judge in the case said plaintiffs could not prove they would suffer “substantial, irreparable harm” if the rules went into place pending ongoing litigation.  

With no intervention from the courts and the federal deadline officially passed, the burden falls to the institutions that must administer the new rules, all under the added pressure of an ongoing pandemic. 

For Doucettperry, the biggest hurdle remains an informational one. Making sure the new rules are followed, she said, is one thing. But ensuring victims know about all their options — especially amid scattered media coverage of the new rules — is another entirely. 

“I think initially, it's going to be confusing,” Doucettperry said. “I think that's just the honest answer, because everyone's heard, it's all in the news, ‘Title IX changed’ … and so everybody's up in arms, and that's what has people's attention. And I think even at that meeting at the Board of Regents meeting, I think it was missed by many that hey, that's not the end of the story.” 

In special meeting, Board of Regents brace for additional budget cuts; limited campus reopenings remain on-schedule

Students at UNR's Joe Crowley Student Union

As the economic and public health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic continue to ripple, several regents on Thursday excoriated millions in legislatively approved budget cuts, charging that legislators left them few options with just weeks before the state’s seven colleges and universities plan on reopening their campuses for limited in-person instruction.  

“If those 63 people are in charge of higher education in this state, God help us,” Regent Trevor Hayes said, referencing a ballot measure that would remove the regents from the Constitution. “There is no understanding in Carson City. I don't know what happens to people when they get in the building, but they do not understand the importance of higher ed funding, or they think we can just keep raising tuition on the backs of our families and our students to supplement the money that they take away.”

That ballot measure, Question 1, has been routinely framed by the regents and the chancellor as a measure that does little to reform higher education but grants the Legislature more control over the board. Proponents, however, have charged that it provides needed oversight to a body long mistrusted by the other branches of state government. 

Also among the legislative critics was Board Chair Mark Doubrava, who told regents that watching budget discussions in both legislative chambers was “quite disturbing for me to see.”

“My take on the Legislature was, ‘We’re going to hold your chancellor and your CFO [Andrew] Clinger hostage, and we’re going to say we want to take $50 million more on top of what’s already been approved, and we can cut some deal quickly and reduce it to $25 million,” Doubrava said. “I just don’t think that’s a way to run the state or Legislature.”

The Nevada System of Higher Education has been planning for steep budget cuts ever since state revenue projections plummeted in the spring — projections that prompted Gov. Steve Sisolak to request that all state agencies draw up plans for possible cuts of 6, 10 or 14 percent for the 2021 fiscal year, in addition to a mandated 4 percent cut to the near-finished 2020 fiscal year. 

In a sweeping set of initial budget reductions approved in April, NSHE slashed operating budgets, froze hiring system-wide and sought to prepare for the implementation of furloughs and increased student fees should they be required to follow the most dire of those early estimates. 

But proposed reduction measures have only expanded over time as the severity of the state’s budget crisis came into sharp focus this month. In a special legislative session meant to plug 2021’s $1.2 billion statewide budget hole, legislators and the governor approved an additional $25 million dollar cut, raising the total amount cut from NSHE’s 2021 budget to more than $135 million.

Those cuts did not sit well with Hayes, who said it was unfortunate that legislators do not understand the importance of higher education “no matter how much we try to explain.”

“We, as higher ed, are a key to the solution to the problem of an economic downturn,” Hayes said. “We’re going to help to dig that out, we’re going to help to get that even higher when we’re going through the good times. 

But Regent Lisa Levine pushed back on that notion, saying in part that calling the Legislature the problem “is just poor politics,” especially if legislators might weigh even deeper cuts in the near future. 

“People don't trust [NSHE] to do the right thing with the money, and we need to show that we're trying,” Levine said. “And I'm very grateful to hear that there are small ways that we've already shown improvement … but that is just one way that we need to be thinking.”

Levine, who was appointed to the board earlier this year to replace Regent Sam Lieberman after his unexpected death, said that she hoped future budget decisions included discussion about “transformative change” and that the board must “really think critically about how we're making these cuts.”

Thursday’s budget discussion was information-only, however, and much of the decision-making will lie in an upcoming regent’s meeting scheduled for August 7. 

Limited reopenings remain on-track, for now

Regents also heard presentations from each institution on how they planned on executing limited reopenings of individual campuses to accommodate the return of at least some in-person instruction for the fall semester. 

Following a list of 10 guidelines laid out by NSHE, those reopening plans followed similar themes. Broadly, every institution has moved most classwork online, embracing a mix of synchronous classes — those taught at regular times through video software such as Zoom or BlueJeans — and asynchronous, or more traditional online classwork that is absorbed at different times for different students. 

Institutions have also broadened resources for instructors, created guidelines for testing and contact tracing, implemented mask mandates and created additional rules for social distancing while on campus. 

Still, regents expressed some concern that — despite robust planning — in-person instruction may remain elusive or outright impossible amid spiking coronavirus cases statewide. 

“We can appreciate how these plans are fluid and nimble, but I have to say — I mean there's a chance that we may have no students on campus,” Doubrava said. 

With the start of the semester now roughly one month away, Chancellor Thom Reilly said the system will continue to monitor conditions and follow the guidelines laid out by state, local and federal health authorities, adding that each institution is “prepared to pivot” should the need arise. 

Still, even amid the drastic rise in coronavirus cases, Nevada’s higher education system is among the majority of institutions nationwide that have opted for at least a partial reopening. A tracker maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows roughly half of U.S. colleges still plan for in-person fall semesters, while another 34 percent have pushed for a hybrid model and just 12 percent decided for an online-only semester. 

Regents name Keith Whitfield as new UNLV president

regents meeting

The Nevada Board of Regents unanimously approved the appointment of Keith Whitfield as UNLV’s newest president at a special meeting Thursday, providing a replacement for interim President Marta Meana and ending the two-year vacancy triggered by the sudden departure of former President Len Jessup in 2018.

Whitfield, who will also be UNLV’s first Black president, comes by way of Wayne State University in Detroit, where he serves as provost, senior vice president of academic affairs and a professor of psychology. He previously served as a vice provost for academic affairs at Duke University, where he was also a professor of psychology and a research professor. 

UNLV President Keith Whitfield (Courtesy/NSHE)

In discussing his confirmation as president, Regent Trevor Hayes, who chaired the search committee, praised his academic work, saying in part that he couldn’t remember a candidate with as many published papers as Whitfield.

The terms of Whifield’s four-year contract stipulate a $500,000 base salary per fiscal year, as well as $8,000 per year for a car allowance, $18,000 in a housing allowance and a $5,000 host account — all effective Aug. 24.

Whitfield will be the 11th president at UNLV, but already the third to take the job since 2009, not including two acting presidents who also served over that time span. 

His predecessor, Jessup, left in an acrimonious divorce from the university in April 2018, blaming his exit on “personal and professional” attacks from regents and Chancellor Thom Reilly. Meana, at the time the dean of the university’s Honors College, took over as acting president in July of that year. 

She had expressed an interest in applying for the permanent position in the latter half of 2019, but announced in February that she was bowing out of the process. At the time, she said that her plans “did not align” with the need for a new permanent president to make a long-term commitment to UNLV.

The decision by regents to name a new president was an expedited one, spurred by the possibility that one of the three external candidates for the job could accept a new position elsewhere should the selection process drag on for too long. 

It also comes as one of three high-level replacements among top jobs at the Nevada System of Higher Education and its institutions. Regents last month selected Melody Rose to take over as system chancellor in the fall, while a decision on a new permanent president at UNR is expected later this year. 

Whitfield will take over the job at a time of ongoing uncertainty both for UNLV and for the state’s higher education system at large, as the still-rippling economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have gutted revenues and triggered widespread budget reductions that have only deepened as the pandemic continues to drag on. 

In a coda to last week’s special legislative session called to plug the state’s $1.2 billion budget hole, legislators piled on an additional $25 million cut to NSHE. It raised the total amount cut for fiscal year 2021 to roughly $135 million and, for the first time, raised the specter of layoffs at the state’s seven colleges and universities. 

Additional revenue losses at each institution caused by the pandemic have only deepened the financial crisis. At UNLV alone, administrators estimated more than $62 million in lost revenue and additional expenditures for the 2021 fiscal year.

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.”

ICE walks back rule that would have barred international students from country if colleges went online-only

People walk the UNLV campus

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials backed away from a controversial rule that would have blocked international students from staying in the U.S. if their colleges went online-only amid the pandemic, telling a federal judge Tuesday that it would “return to the status quo.”

In initial guidance issued last Monday, the agency outlined a plan that would strip some student visas if they did not take in-person classes just one month before much of America’s colleges plan on starting the fall semester.

In a statement, the Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly said the system was “pleased” to learn of the rule change and remained optimistic that no similar rules would be enacted. 

“We remain steadfastly united in our support of our immigrant, undocumented and international students, who are some of our best and brightest students,” Reilly said. 

NSHE was quick to criticize the move following its announcement last week. In a letter to the state’s congressional delegation, Reilly called for help in having the policy rescinded and said it could “adversely affect” more than 2,000 foreign students enrolled at Nevada universities. 

Michael Kagan, who heads the UNLV Boyd School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, called the decision a “relief” for the students caught in the middle. 

“I'm glad that, given what's going on with the COVID trends right now, that the institution where I work and colleges generally throughout the country can make decisions about how to hold classes based on public health and education without having this extra complication of immigration policy,” Kagan said.

The move roiled the higher education world — which had spent months implementing a myriad of plans detailing just what shape the fall semester should take — and nearly immediately spawned eight lawsuits in federal court. 

The highest-profile of those suits, filed by Harvard and MIT, charged that the rule change represented a thinly-veiled attempt by the Trump White House to force colleges and universities to re-open in full amid the pandemic — a policy widely trumpeted by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump. 

On Friday, UNLV, Reilly and all of NSHE’s institution presidents were among 180 colleges and universities to join an amicus brief in support of that lawsuit, and Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford later joined a 17-state lawsuit seeking to stop the ruling from moving forward. 

UNR, which is currently planning to implement a hybrid teaching model involving at least some in-person teaching, largely skirted the rule’s impact and — according to a report from the school’s student newspaper, The Nevada Sagebrush — told students last week that it did not anticipate it would be affected by the change. 

Representatives from UNLV did not immediately reply to requests for comment, while Maritza Machado-Williams, executive director of UNR’s Office of International Students and Scholars told The Nevada Independent that she would defer comment until after ICE had issued an official reversal of the July 6 rule change. 

While Kagan, whose immigration clinic largely deals with deportation proceedings, viewed the decision as a victory — he also pointed to a notable power disparity between those immigrants with “Harvard at their back” and those without. 

“It's gratifying in many ways to see so many powerful institutions come together to prevent a really destructive policy for students, in this case, and for the university community,” Kagan said. “At the same time, this was over so much faster than so many other battles have been, and this rule, when it came out on July 6 — it was not even the only major anti-immigrant rule that they released that week. But this has been the one that's attracted the most broad and public opposition.”

Amid the pandemic, the Trump Administration has enacted a host of administrative rule changes that have clamped down on the legal immigration system, including suspending immigration for those seeking green cards and an additional suspension of some work visas. 

“This particular policy struck at vital interest for some really powerful institutions, first of all, in the case of universities, and it also struck at a group of immigrants who are popular even with certain people who are skeptical of immigration,” Kagan said. “But I think that, obviously, one of the gaps that I do worry about is that the undocumented immigrant who's a prep chef at a Las Vegas restaurant, or who installs the drywall in the houses that we live in — you don't see the same kind of outcry and the same kind of powerful institutions line up behind them.”

Special session cuts poised to undo marquee education advances Nevada lawmakers celebrated in recent years

From a large teacher union demonstration outside the Legislative Building to a long list of advocates weighing in through public comment phone lines, frustration over hundreds of millions of dollars of planned cuts to education was a prominent theme on the first day of a special session.

The proposed cuts play out like a reversal of the past three sessions, when a state recovering from the recession added and expanded a long list of “categorical” programs meant to provide extra support to students with extra needs. But on Wednesday, legislators spoke of cutting $70 million in hard-fought “weights” for disadvantaged students, eliminating $31 million in literacy specialists in a Read by Grade 3 program and slashing millions from anti-bullying and school safety initiatives.

The "story of our response to COVID-19 could easily be about what we sacrificed and what went wrong,” state Superintendent Jhone Ebert said in opening remarks as she described in broad strokes the state’s attempt to make the best of the pandemic’s fallout. “At the same time, this is a turning point in education, and time to focus on what is suddenly possible for the future."

Protestors rally against budget cuts to education outside the Nevada Legislature on the first day of the 31st Special Session in Carson City, Nev., on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The cuts amount to $166 million for K-12 education and $110 million for the Nevada System of Higher Education. Still, lawmakers tried to look for a bright side. 

Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson pointed out that basic per-pupil support would not be cut and had been increased in 2019 by $300 per student. Categorical programs have long been her least-favorite funding arrangement because they work like grant programs and don’t give employees within them long-term job security.

But legislators also picked apart the budget proposal and highlighted the ways it could harm students. Yvette Williams of the Clark County Black Caucus said in public comment that she was pleading with lawmakers to view cuts through an equity lens because eliminating the “weights” would disproportionately affect Black students.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara said that cuts of the program, authorized through SB178 in 2017, would be tough because of the sheer size of the reduction. But he said the overall strategy, which preserves unrestricted per-pupil funding while slashing restricted funding, allows the most flexibility.

“Any cuts will negatively impact our children,” he said. “However, the overall plan presented to you this afternoon is the least damaging option.”

Some Democratic lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, lamented the end of the Teach Nevada Scholarship, which provided up to $24,000 for aspiring teachers and was created in 2015 to stave off a teacher shortage.

Republican Lisa Krasner wondered aloud about the consequences of axing school safety and anti-bullying initiatives built up over the last five years, including $3 million allocated for “social emotional learning” and social workers. Also on the chopping block: More than $10 million set aside in 2019 to help reinforce campuses against school shooters and add school resource officers to police them.

Washoe County School District Superintendent Kristen McNeill said federal funds through Title IV and programs such as Safe Voice — an anonymous tip line for bullying and school safety issues — could maintain the focus on student mental health.

"We feel very confident that we will still be able to continue a very robust program in anti-bullying,” she said. 

Rebecca Recabarren and her daughter, Hadley protests proposed budget cuts to education outside the Nevada Legislature on the first day of the 31st Special Session in Carson City, Nev., on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Others took a more pointed approach with their questioning. Democratic Assemblywoman Heidi Swank asked what steps upper management personnel in the education system were taking to share the pain of the budget cuts.

Ebert said she was taking 12 furlough days like all state employees, while McNeill said she was giving back $30,000 of her salary, or about 10 percent. Jara said the district had frozen hiring in the central office but the situation was complicated because some administrators are bound by collective bargaining agreements — an answer that Swank later said did not give her much clarity.

She asked the question again when higher education officials took the stand to describe budget plans that included 12 furlough days for all staff and per-credit surcharges of $3 for community colleges and $6 for universities. University president and chancellor base salaries, in some cases, top $400,000.

Chancellor Thom Reilly said presidents and himself were taking 18 furlough days. Swank pointed out that she made $50,000 a year when she started as an assistant professor at UNLV in 2005.

"I just think the difference, to have six more furlough days when your salary is much higher than those new assistant professors, maybe needs another look,” she said.

Democratic Assemblywoman Selena Torres, who is a teacher, asked whether the cuts would affect Nevada’s goals to improve its low-ranking public education system under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Some initiatives facing imminent depletion, such as the Read by Grade 3 literacy program, focus on giving students the foundation they need to succeed in the rest of their academic careers.

"Our goals have not shifted,” Ebert said. “How we're going to meet those goals definitely will shift."

Here’s a partial list of cuts:

  • $2.5 million for turnarounds of underperforming schools
  • $6 million for class size reduction
  • $5 million in incentives for teachers at Title I schools
  • $4.5 million to reimburse teachers for spending on school supplies
  • $6.3 million for Pre-K and early learning programs
  • $750,000 to promote financial literacy

Updated at 11:42 a.m. on July 9, 2020 to reflect that proposed cuts to NSHE are about $110 million, correcting erroneous information from an earlier budget proposal document.