Higher education research can solve problems

By Jason Geddes

There’s a reason why younger people today don’t know much about polio.

The infectious disease has been nearly eradicated from our planet. In 2017, the World Health Organization reported that there were less than 25 known cases of polio. 

But polio, which causes muscle paralysis in some and death to others, went unimpeded until the mid-20th century. 

The near end of the disease was the great victory of research by a University of Pittsburgh team lead by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1952. That team created a vaccine that has been used around the world to nearly eliminate the dreaded disease that once affected millions, including at least one U.S. president. 

Research in higher education remains as essential today as it did in 1952 and should be considered in broader terms, not just in the often-obvious realm of science or engineering. 

Nevada is lucky enough to have a research institution and two public universities that have achieved a nationally recognized research designation. 

Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the University of Nevada, Reno, and the Desert Research Institute solves community problems at the local, regional, state, national and global level. 

In 2018, for the first time in the state of Nevada, both public, doctoral-granting institutions joined 128 other universities across the nation in receiving the “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very High Research” designation from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. Along with the prestige of joining the ranks of the most notable research institutions in the nation, this classification brings wide-reaching benefits. 

From attracting top researchers from around the world, to broadening existing research efforts, this designation has the potential to attract new business, as well as contribute to strengthening the state’s economy. It also makes NSHE universities more competitive for research grants. 

However, the “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very High Research” designation from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education is not assigned for life. 

Unfortunately, $20 million in research funding for UNLV and UNR was cut from the state budget. This funding, coupled with a cut of $7.5 million in Knowledge funding from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development budget, totaled a nearly $30 million reduction in available research dollars over the next biennium. These cuts could have a significant impact on both UNLV and UNR’s ability to maintain the R1 designation by Carnegie in the future. 

There are so many examples of the research being done by our professors and students at NSHE institutions. 

At DRI, two new research projects were launched to study hydrology at The Nature Conservancy in Beatty, Nevada. These projects will help southern Nevada water managers predict hydrologic responses to climate change and improve future planning for how groundwater flows in our state and region. 

And at UNLV, the International Gaming Institute is continually teaching and promoting best practices in responsible gaming in Nevada, the U.S. and abroad at a time when gaming and hospitality growth is at an all-time high. 

Meanwhile, UNR researchers have been at the forefront of developing an early warning system for wildfires that has been used here in the Silver State and in the region. The mountaintop Alert Wildfire camera system provides early detection of wildfires and also provides fire managers with wildfire behavior intel that helps combatting them. 

These are just a few examples of the work being done. From research about space and Mars, to medical science or from history and the arts, to social and anthropological research, a broad spectrum of work is being done at NSHE’s institutions to better our community and world. 

Cutting research specific budget line items in the scramble and fervor to pass the state budget for the biennium may have been short-sighted, despite the many demands on available funds. Looking forward to the next legislative session, we can turn that story around. 

The research being done in higher education is important and relevant, but it doesn’t always draw the biggest headlines. Unless, of course, you’re curing polio. 

I’ll suggest that research on water issues, wildfires, and gaming, go a long way in keeping Nevada's residents and visitors safe and growing our state’s economy. If the nationally distinguished research efforts at Nevada's higher education institutions are going to continue to thrive, we must recognize their value and work together to ensure they are adequately funded in the future. 

Jason Geddes, Ph.D., is Chairman of the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents

Why are educated people so clueless about free speech?

Protestors interrupt Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, during his speech at the University of Nevada, Reno

To hear some tell it, the University of Nevada campus might as well be Berlin circa 1932, a “right wing” hotbed of racism and anti-semitism on the very precipice of some sort of Kristalnacht conflagration. The latest proof?  The University has (gasp!) allowed a conservative student group to host a conservative speaker who says bad things about socialism and doesn’t hate Donald Trump, and even worse, invites people who disagree with him to ask him questions.

In a letter to University President Marc Johnson attempting to get the speaker, Charlie Kirk, uninvited, hundreds of lefties blamed Johnson for being “complicit” in these dark times for not cracking down on the free speech of people they disagree with, or violating due process, or other things that actual Nazis are known for. The target of the protests is a campus-focused conservative political operation called “Turning Point USA” which is led by Kirk and which has committed the crime of being politically active in a place where lefties feel entitled to hold a monopoly. TPUSA is accused of being a “white nationalist” organization because previous employees of that group were fired for saying racist things, which is weird, but these are the times we live in.

(Those doing the accusing, by the way, have their own history of fraud, defamation, and apparently widespread misconduct against women, but they’re part of the correct tribe so no biggie.)

Here’s what these signatories, which include hundreds of people with no apparent affiliation to UNR at all, are upset about in their own words, along with some helpful annotations.

--The retraction of the Anti-Racist Student Coalition’s permission to post sandwich boards displaying, in their words, “positive messages for those who have been affected by racism.” 

Who is the “their” in “their own words”? What was the actual message? Where was the display?  Why was permission retracted, or if you are going to accuse UNR of stifling student speech, what was the excuse? Why is there not more detail provided about this incident that would let us make up our own mind about the University’s behavior? It’s almost as if further detail would not fit the narrative here…

--The arrests of a UNR student who brought a sign reading “Abolish ICE” to the UNR stadium, and who argued with campus TPUSA members and knocked over their display table. Both arrests were carried out by the Reno Police Department with no apparent attempt to resolve conflict through campus resources, and no communication with the campus community.

Yes – when you physically attack the property of others engaged in their own free speech, or heckle in an attempt to shut down the speaker, you’re committing a crime as well as attempting to violate other peoples’ civil rights, and your behavior should be stopped by the authorities.   Police have no obligation to “resolve conflicts” between criminal and victim in such a scenario, except to remove the disturbance from an otherwise peaceable assembly.

--No apparent consequences for TPUSA members tearing down anti-racist artwork and signage and verbally intimidating students of color, as occurred on October 4, 2019 in The Center

The irony here is intense. If “progressives” are allowed to kick over tables or shout down speakers without consequence, isn’t tearing down artwork a legitimate political tactic? If such a thing happened, it’s reprehensible, but the lack of detail in this statement makes me think the word “intimidating” is used here to mean “said something I disagree with.” If the conduct was really that bad, this letter wouldn’t have to be so tellingly vague on the details.

--No apparent consequences for those responsible for racist vandalism on campus, including swastikas, items with Ku Klux Klan insignia, and anti-black messages

Do you have a suspect? Didn’t think so. If there was one, do you really think such a person would not have been charged by now, if not at least shamed on social media? Without an actual perpetrator to punish, what should Johnson do? Collective punishment until the graffiti artist is found? Prison-esque tosses of dorm rooms to look for spray paint or white hoods?  

How horrifying that the left’s disdain for due process is so widespread that it extends from the President himself to judicial nominees to college students at large. Whatever harm a graffitied swastika may cause, even assuming it’s not a hoax like so many other manufactured racist incidents lately, it’s nothing compared to politically motivated mobs who insist on “doing something” to abridge civil rights in the name of a little temporary public safety. 

What’s especially disgusting is the attempt to link a standard issue right-of-center political student group with bigoted vandalism. There is zero evidence to make that connection. None. To the extent virulent anti-Semitism finds any purchase in American politics, it always seems to be found on the left

--No apparent consequences for those responsible for racist and anti-LGBTQ speech online, including video apparently showing UNR students burning a LGBTQ pride flag.

As anyone with a high school level education on American government would know, it would be illegal to mete out consequences for such conduct. As someone who supported gay marriage when Sen. Barrack Obama was still insisting that marriage was between a man and a woman, I think it takes a special kind of POS to burn a pride flag, which as a veteran is also how I feel about losers and ingrates who burn American flags. And yet as a lover of freedom, I will fight to the end to protect an individual’s right to be that POS because the consequences of censorship are always worse than whatever “wrong” idea was being censored in the first place.

Racist speech is similarly protected, which is fortunate for all my far-left friends who want to dictate what people are allowed to say, sing, dress, watch, behave, vote, or otherwise conduct themselves on the basis of race (all in the name of preventing cultural appropriation, and all for the noblest reasons, but racist nevertheless). If disgusting and offensive speech isn’t protected, no expression is protected. It’s especially ironic seeing academics, whose often absurdly privileged careers only exist because others fought so hard for these principles, failing so miserably to think through the potential consequences of getting what they say they want. 

--Failure to monitor or otherwise counter harassment of individual faculty, including attempts to infringe faculty speech and academic freedom.

“Failure to monitor?” What are we, communist China where everyone’s social media is constantly surveilled by government minders for various thoughtcrimes?  

University faculty are entitled to say what they want, even as the government employees they are. But when they say stupid things, be it in a classroom or on Twitter, any other citizen is allowed to criticize, respond to, or even mock them. If those faculty members defame others, or as agents of the government attempt to regulate the content of student speech they disagree with, then they are subject to legal action. This isn’t “harassment,” it’s an organization or individual standing up for its rights and ideas. I would love to see a single example of a university professor who has been silenced because of a right-leaning political action group. I know it hasn’t happened, because if it did, we’d have details to go with all this scare-mongering.

So far, UNR has resisted the totalitarian impulses of their more radical students and staff, such as when the school refused to illegally expel their token white nationalist loser, Peter Cvjetanovic, after he became the face of the Charlottesville, Virginia rally two years ago. I hope once again President Johnson will continue to do the right thing, and stand strong for freedom and liberty for all.

And if TPUSA is the dangerous monster its critics contend? Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Every one of us has the same free speech rights – use them to full effect. Expose what you don’t like and counter it with your own ideas. That’s how America has always worked best. In fact, I would love to get every single member of our  congressional delegation on record as to how they feel about this effort to stifle free expression at UNR, and what they plan to do to protect the rights of the conservative students there. 

***

It’s low hanging fruit to make fun of the overwrought lefties every university in the country seems to be saddled with these days. I kind of feel sorry for them, honestly – you would think that academics chose their careers based on a desire to engage in a free exchange of diverse ideas. Testing your own thoughts in the crucible of open debate is exhilarating and fun and rewarding for the intellectually honest and the open-minded. A professor unwilling to hear ideas he or she disagrees with is like a sailor in a world without oceans. What a meaningless, empty life it must be.

But this attitude is spreading throughout the political left, and has real consequences to our nation and the world at large. For example, I wonder how many people condemning TPUSA or President Trump or any other Republican leaning figure are equal in their protestations about American companies assisting China in silencing its critics or oppressing its people?  China is a communist nation which, like all communist nations, exists on the same moral plane as Nazi Germany. It’s currently cracking down on its last free conclave because Hong Kongers are insisting on keeping their God-given civil rights. And yet Americans are being kicked out of NBA games in American cities because they wore shirts or held signs supporting Hong Kong freedom activists – all in the name of either profits or not “offending” a trade partner. Nike – “Stand for something, even if it costs you everything” itself – has pulled merchandise associated with Hong Kong supporting athletes from Chinese store shelves. If you care about repression rather than partisan hackery, there are plenty of more legitimate targets for your protests than Charlie Kirk.

Spoiled UNR academics are a long way from the oppression of communist dictatorships. But why take even a single step in that direction?  Without a commitment to free speech, starting at the local level, we cannot commit to freedom in general, here or abroad. Every single American who values our extraordinary way of life must loudly and unequivocally condemn such attempts to restrict any speaker, idea, or political organization, even while we embrace their right to be heard. 

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.

Harris calls for transcripts between Trump and Xi to be released

Kamala Harris speaks to a crowd at a Reno Town Hall event at UNR

Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris on Thursday called for President Donald Trump to release transcripts of his calls with Chinese leader Xi Jinping “knowing that he has now publicly invited a foreign government to interfere in an election of president of the United States.”

“I mean, clearly the guy has not learned that you as president of the United States are subjecting yourself to impeachment when you do things like that,” Harris said to reporters after a Reno town hall. “What I am calling for….we should be sure to get a call on Donald Trump to give up any transcripts or any notes taken about any conversations that he has had with Xi to determine whether this is a conversation that he’s had more than one and had it private because clearly he is inclined to do just that.”

Harris’ remarks came before CNN published a report about Trump talking to Xi about former Vice President Joe Biden and after a town hall at the University of Nevada, Reno, that drew about 400 people to the Joe Crowley Student Union to hear the California senator push her “Dude Gotta Go” theme.

Before her town hall, Harris visited with UAW workers, who have been striking outside the GM distribution center in Northwest Reno for 17 days. She spoke to picketers about the importance of “fighting the good fight” and keeping unions strong.

With about 40 people in front of the distribution center, Harris told them her work with Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who was the Nevada attorney general at the time, to fight against predatory loans that caused the recession in 2007. Harris, Cortez Masto, and other attorneys general fought for consumer protections that could prevent another mortgage crisis. 

UNR students voice fear about campus climate after racist, discriminatory images appear at school

Students at UNR's Joe Crowley Student Union

By Stephanie Serrano | KUNR

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on the KUNR website and has been translated and adapted from its original version as part of a partnership between KUNR and The Nevada Independent.

More than a quarter of students at the University of Nevada, Reno reported that they had seriously considered leaving the school because they don’t feel a sense of belonging, according to a recent survey on school climate.

The results unveiled earlier this month at campus forums come as the university is grappling with racist and discriminatory messaging found around the university in the first few weeks of the fall semester. There have been two separate incidents of swastikas being found at Wolf Pack Tower, a residence hall housed at Circus Circus in downtown Reno, and flyers were also seen in at least five buildings on campus that promoted a white supremacist hate group. 

University officials have also expressed concerns about images circulating on Twitter showing the LGBTQ flag being burned.

"These hateful events do not reflect at all our students nor the university community," said Eloisa Gordon-Mora, the University of Nevada, Reno’s Diversity and Inclusion Officer. "We have over 300 student organizations that are all about uplifting endeavors." 

Gordon-Mora says roughly 40 percent of the student body is comprised of students of color. 

The school released the findings of its Speak Your Truth campus climate survey during two forums on Sept. 18. A little more than 200 university students and faculty showed up to the first forum to hear survey results that have been anticipated for several months.

The university contracted Rankin and Associates Consulting in 2018 to create and conduct the survey, which had questions related to campus climate overall, unwanted sexual experiences, perceptions of employment practices and work-life balance. Nearly 6,400 surveys were included in the analysis from a campus that has almost 31,000 people.

One initial finding was that a large minority of respondents feel significantly less comfortable with the overall campus climate, including women, people of color and LGBTQ+ community members.

“This campus is built for everyone; everyone who is qualified to go to school here should be a student here and be comfortable being a student here,” UNR President Marc Johnson said. “People from all socioeconomic groups, disability groups, ethnic groups, should feel as though they have a place on this campus.”

Johnson supported the request from students and faculty to conduct the survey.

One student who participated in the survey was Lucas Furrer, an undergraduate student double majoring in journalism and political science. He voluntarily took down a poster with white supremacist messages.

As for the campus climate, he says it doesn’t feel too great. He says he wishes the university would have more active policing to address hate groups, instead of condemning these actions through a mass email.

“I would say, people are fearful of what's coming next,” Furrer said. “There's been such a steady stream of activity by these groups, by these individuals, that it makes someone scared of what’s going to happen next, and you see some of the worst case scenarios on TV. You just hope that it doesn't happen here.”

Taylor Dupree is a Louisiana native and a Ph.D. student in counseling education at UNR. She started in the fall of 2017, the semester that followed the national exposure of a Nevada student who participated in the Neo-Nazi hate riot in Charlottesville.

“The incident at Charlottesville happened, and I had people from the program that I am currently in emailing me and texting me like, ‘Hey, I just want you to know this is not a representation of our campus. Please don't believe that this is the case for us,’ and I believed them,” Dupree said. “I was like, 'OK, this is an incident where something happened with someone and the university is going to take the steps that it needs to take,' and since I've been here, I've been wrong.”

Dupree was also a part of a focus group conducted by the university before the survey where she described the microaggressions she says she has faced due to her gender and race as one of two African American women in her program.

Dupree has spent the last three years in Reno. She’s had thoughts of leaving each year, but now says she’s worked too hard and wants to be proud of graduating.

A big question circulating among attendees at the forums: What is the university going to do with this data?

Johnson says the survey will help guide what committees need to be developed to improve the living and working life of the institution.

As the university starts this work, students like Furrer and Dupree want to know how their safety concerns will be addressed.

“Well, we do everything we can to investigate these incidents," Johnson said, "and then, if we can find the perpetrators, we will prosecute them, but we encourage everyone to take personal responsibility for safety — you walk in groups and you have these conversations, so we are doing education, we are doing investigation, and prosecute, if we can find perpetrators."

KUNR Reporters Andrew Mendez and Noah Glick contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The license for KUNR is owned by the board of regents to the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Circus Circus owners see benefit from interim UNR student housing deal: no hotel room tax

Students at UNR's Joe Crowley Student Union

One of Nevada’s largest casino companies is likely to slice off a significant portion of its tax bill after reaching a deal to have hundreds of University of Nevada, Reno students use the Circus Circus Sky Tower for temporary student housing.

As part of UNR’s $21.6 million deal with Circus Circus for interim student housing after explosions mangled two residential dorms, the university and casino will avoid paying the normal 13.5 percent hotel room tax that would otherwise be collected from individuals staying in those rooms.

The tax issue was discussed prior to the announcement of the arrangement between the casino and the university; according to a public records request submitted by The Nevada Independent, the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority confirmed to the school prior to the finalization of the rental agreement that it would not have to pay the lodging tax if the rooms were used for student housing.

“As the University will have ‘control’ of the portion of the Sky Tower which it leases, and because such portion of the Sky Tower will be used exclusively to house students, faculty and other University employees, such use is not included within the definition of ‘transient lodging’ and thus is not scheduled to the payment of the transient lodging tax or associated surcharge,” RSCVA Director of Finance Robert Chisel wrote in a July 26 letter to university administrator and Republican state Senator Heidi Gansert.

Gansert, through a university spokesperson, said the room tax issue was “not a consideration” for the university when looking for replacement student housing. A spokesperson for Eldorado Resorts, owner of Circus Circus, did not respond to a request for comment.

The arrangement between the state’s flagship university and Eldorado Resorts, which became the nation’s largest casino operator after a merger with Caesars Entertainment earlier this summer, came after a major explosion in early July at one of the university’s primary residential dorms, Argenta Hall. The explosion, which was later deemed to have been caused by boiler room issues, injured eight people.

Within weeks, university staff began talks with Circus Circus to house the estimated 1,300 students who would otherwise reside in Argenta and Nye Halls. The final contract, which was signed and approved by university and Nevada System of Higher Education leaders on July 31, redubs the building as “Wolf Pack Tower” and includes nicer amenities than the typical dorm room offerings, including once-a-month maid service.

“The University looked at other properties throughout Reno-Sparks. None can replicate what the West Tower can provide – 1,300 beds, complete University control of the entire building, and proximity to our campus,” the school states on its website for the new “Wolf Pack Tower.”

According to the contract, the $21.6 million to rent the tower will be paid in monthly installments, which the university has said will be partially covered through insurance claims. Students began moving into the building last month.

In addition to the rental payments from the university, Eldorado Resorts will see another benefit — at least a year of not having to pay the 13.5 percent room tax on the 907 rooms inside the tower.

It’s possible that taking the Circus Circus rooms off the hotel rental market could result in a seven-figure impact; assuming static occupancy rates and the average cost of a downtown Reno hotel room, the total amount of taxes diverted could be greater than $2 million.

But accurately projecting future tax impacts of the decision to take the 907-room tower effectively off the market is difficult. The RSCVA said it doesn’t collect statistics on individual properties, and statistics from the tourism agency indicate that the supply of rooms in downtown Reno isn’t exactly exhausted — the percentage of cash and comped room occupancy in the 2018-2019 fiscal year is just 52.4 percent, and 11 percent lower than in the previous fiscal year.

Elliott Parker, a professor and chair of UNR’s economics department, said in an email that he didn’t have specific information on how removal of the rooms would affect tax collections, but that given the current abundance of rooms in the downtown area and potential shifts in pricing, removing the typically cheaper rooms from the market could actually increase overall hotel room tax collection.

“In such circumstances, removing a building of rooms from the supply would just shift customers to other properties (or the other building in Circus Circus), and push room cash rates up,” he said in an email. “So tax collections could feasibly even rise, assuming overall visitation does not decline in response to smaller availability in one hotel.”

Groups seek to boost voter participation among Latinos, younger Nevadans who lag in registration

Two students at voter registration table

Erin Waldeck, Macie Stokuca and Keri Oruanto, three students at UNR and registered voters, were walking out of the Joe Crowley Student Union on Tuesday when they saw the boxes of DoughBoys doughnuts at a voter registration table and walked over.

Associated Students of the University of Nevada (ASUN), the university’s student government, was holding an event to register students to vote and educate them on the 2020 presidential candidates. 

“Free DoughBoys doughnuts for democracy!” one registration volunteer shouted to a crowd of students walking past a table. 

Joko Cailles, director of legislative affairs for the Associated Students of the University of Nevada gives away donuts while helping register voters on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 at the University of Nevada, Reno during national voter registration day. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Gov. Steve Sisolak proclaimed September 2019 as Nevada’s Voter Registration Month, carrying on a tradition launched in 2002 by secretaries of state across the country. It’s a particularly urgent call because one in three eligible citizens in Nevada is not registered to vote, according to the nonprofit and nonpartisan Voter Participation Center

Comparably, only about 64 percent of the U.S. voting-age population was registered to vote in 2016, according to data from the Pew Research Center. 

That rate is highest among Latinos — 49 percent of eligible Hispanic voters are unregistered in the state of Nevada — with millennials and Gen Z residents close behind at 47.7 percent unregistered. 

“Our democracy should reflect the diverse people who live in our nation,” said Page Gardner, founder and president of the Voter Participation Center, which is mailing 262,383 registration applications to residents in Nevada.

NV Dems met in the morning of National Voter Registration Day to trade notes and get ready to start going door to door in neighborhoods and areas across Las Vegas, NV on September 24, 2019. Photo by Mikayla Whitmore.

Mi Familia Vota, a non-profit organization, focuses on mobilizing eligible Latino voters to register ahead of elections. Jazmin Villagomez, a voter registration organizer with the group, said eligible Latino citizens may feel discouraged from voting, leading to low registration rates.

“When I'm talking to our Latinx community, some of the reasons that they give for not voting and not participating is because they don't think it's going to make a difference,” Villagomez said. “They don't think that literally their one vote would matter.” 

Mi Familia Vota says it helped register 10,712 new voters in the Las Vegas area in 2018. Villagomez said encouraging eligible Latino citizens to register is important because elections have consequences that affect them directly, too. 

“I don't think everyone realizes what happens in the local elections affects every single person here,” she said. “So that's why it's important for them to participate. So they have a say in the matter. And so we can actually elect officials that are going to represent us and represent our values.” 

University of Nevada student, Peng Chen registers voters on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 at the University of Nevada, Reno during national voter registration day. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Nevadans can expect significant changes to the voter registration process in coming months that proponents hope will raise the number of people participating in elections.

Sisolak in June signed AB345, a bill that authorizes a same-day voter registration system in Nevada, which means eligible voters will not be turned away from the polls because they missed a voting registration deadline. It also calls for implementation of automatic voter registration at the DMV. The major provisions of the law are set to take effect Jan. 1.

Millennials and Gen Z, or 18 to 38-year-olds, are the largest eligible group of citizens to vote in the state, and yet are the second-most likely, behind Latinos, to be unregistered, making up almost 48 percent of unregistered voters in Nevada, according to the Voter Participation Center.

Joko Cailles, director of legislative affairs in ASUN at UNR, said ASUN was able to make something of a dent in those numbers. The organization registered 139 students in their efforts on National Voter Registration Day. 

“We have a chance to govern ourselves,” Cailles said. “That's why it's important to do this — so that people have a chance to make sure that their voice is heard in the process. That's what counts.” 

Esther Franks tries to get people to register to vote during a voter registration drive on the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus on September 24, 2019. Photo by Mikayla Whitmore.

Although college students are typically among the least-registered group of voters, a Tufts University study shows that voter turnout among UNR students increased in the 2018 midterm election compared to the 2014 election by 27.8 percent, according to a press release from the university. 

Data from the university shows the turnout rates among Hispanic students jumped 30.6 percentage points from 2014 to 2018. 

“Our early voting initiatives and targeted initiatives worked,” Sandra Rodriguez, director of ASUN and the University’s Center for Student Engagement, said in a statement. “We had increases in voter turnout in many categories that had fallen alarmingly low in 2014. This report will help ASUN and the Center for Student Engagement, and our campus partners, to continue to bridge the gap in voter registration and turnout.”

Bryce Gitzen, a linguistics student at UNR, said he registered to vote the first day he could after he turned 18 because voting is an important civic duty. 

“If you don’t know what’s going on in your local area, then how would you even begin to understand things in a larger sphere of influence?” Gitzen said after inquiring about his Nevada registration status at the ASUN table; he is registered in Alaska. “It’s just one step along the way of understanding and influencing what goes on on Earth.”

A button promoting voting at the University of Nevada on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019 during national voter registration day. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Universities collect big royalties while students pay higher banking fees

It may not rank as high as new bath towels or retro movie posters for the dorm, but an important item on many students’ pre-college checklist is setting up a new banking account.

For students at UNR and UNLV, there’s an easy answer — both schools encourage students to set up free banking accounts linked to their student IDs, backed by major financial institutions including Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank.

But the relationship benefits more than students  — each educational institution is paid more than six figures annually from the large banks, which in turn assess higher-than-average fees on the students.

Allowing college student ID cards to double as a prepaid banking card for on and off-campus expenses isn’t a new idea, but the practice has come under more scrutiny in recent years amid reports of colleges and universities inking lucrative deals with big banks that later slap students with hefty overdraft fees and other fines.

Federal studies have indicated that average fees on linked accounts for college students are higher at schools paid to promote the cards. It’s true at Nevada’s universities, where average fees on linked accounts ($49.17 for UNR and $21 at UNLV) are higher than the average fees paid by students at colleges without a bank marketing agreement.

A woman does business at an U.S. Bank inside the Student Union building at UNLV on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)

A 2017 Wall Street Journal investigation into the relationship between banks and colleges found that 112 universities took in a combined $18.7 million in the 2017 fiscal year, largely from bank royalties paid to schools. The newspaper's investigation found that 20 of the 30 colleges with the highest average fees assessed on students had partnered with Wells Fargo — a fact the bank said was because of “complex banking needs” such as meeting the financial needs of international students.

Additional scrutiny of the relationship between large banks and higher education institutions came in a February 2018 report by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which found students using college-backed banking accounts paid more than $27.6 million in fees over the 2016-17 academic year.

Notably, the study found fees were almost universally higher for students if they attended a school being paid by the banks to promote the accounts. Roughly 839,000 students paid an average of $11.93 a year in fees while attending schools without a paid promotion agreement, but the 482,000 students at schools with college-linked accounts paid an average of $36.52 in fees.

Wells Fargo was again found to assess the highest fees of any financial institution, accounting for more than half of fees paid out despite only holding about a quarter of all college-backed accounts.

“The Bureau and other government entities have expressed concern over the relationship between revenue sharing provisions in contracts and fees charged to student account holders,” the report stated. “In particular, these provisions raise questions about potential conflicts of interest, including whether revenue sharing encourages higher-fee financial products that crowd out competition from providers of accounts for which student account holders would avoid high fees and/or accounts where all student account holders overall would pay less in fees.”

The report was only made public in December 2018 via a Freedom of Information Act request submitted from a national progressive group and was not publicly published by the bureau itself. Former CFPB student loan ombudsman Seth Frotman, who resigned his post in February, accused the bureau’s new leadership under President Donald Trump of suppressing the report.

“Anyone that looks at this data and the extent to which large banks continue to team up with colleges and universities to gouge the student body with overdraft fees should be outraged,” he said in a statement published by MarketWatch.

Congressional leadership has also questioned the practice. Following the announcement of a slew of sanctions, including a restriction on growth by the Federal Reserve over years of bank misconduct, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois (the Senate Democratic Whip) sent a letter to bank CEO Tim Sloan in March asking him to halt expansion to future college campuses.

An aide to Durbin told The Nevada Independent via email that the senator is still concerned about the bank and “believes students deserve to know the dangers associated with Wells Fargo, including being sanctioned by the Federal Reserve, and how it has taken advantage of consumers by aggressive financial marketing on college campuses.”

UNR has contracted with Wells Fargo for linked “WolfCard” ID cards since 2006, and the school reported having 14,415 linked banking accounts with students and faculty registered with the program in the most recent school year.

The average fee paid by a UNR student on their Wells Fargo account was $49.17, well above the national average of fees paid by Wells Fargo cardholders with college-linked accounts nationwide and at the high end nationwide. The median fee paid by students was $5.

The university has benefited financially from the relationship, receiving more than $610,000 from the bank since 2006, including a $75,000 royalty payment and more than $6,700 in card fees in 2018 calendar year. Like other schools, UNR’s royalty payment is a variable rate based on the percentage of students and faculty with linked accounts.

The agreement between Wells Fargo also includes a $10,000 annual marketing budget, as well as the right to present the bank’s services and open bank accounts during new student orientation, as well as the right to use the university’s logo in certain marketing materials and on the cards themselves.

Penny Leathley, the director of the university’s WolfCard program, said she hadn’t noticed many student complaints with the program, stressing that it was free for students and that parents found the program useful to track spending and to allow freshmen students new to Reno to do their banking on campus.

“I know that Wells Fargo has had some bad PR over the last few years, but I think we have a very good program, they’re very good to the students,” she said. “So, I’m pretty happy with it.”

Leathley said she was aware of the CFPB report on high fees charged to college students, including the higher fees charged by Wells Fargo, but couldn’t speak to the fee amounts given that much of the account-holder proprietary information was kept by the bank.

“I know that information is out there, but our account is free, so I don’t worry about it too much, I guess,” she said.

Wells Fargo spokesman Tony Timmons said in an email that the bank was proud of the services offered to university students, stating that about four out of every five students continued banking with Wells Fargo after graduation.

"Before and since the CFPB’s review on this topic, we have been pursuing customer-friendly actions that support students, such as sending automatic zero balance alerts, and removing monthly service fees on our Everyday Checking accounts for customers ages 17-24, a benefit we had already offered to our Campus Card customers," he said in an email. "We will continue to take additional steps to better serve our student customers and help them succeed financially."

UNLV holds a similar contractual agreement with U.S. Bank, which offers a “RebelCard” to college students, faculty and staff. The university was given a $70,000 “signing bonus,” after signing the contract, and like UNR is given an escalating annual payment based on the percentage of students with linked cards, as well as royalty payments from an on-campus ATM, a $40,000 athletic scholarship, and $15,000 each to the card program and office.

In total, the bank paid $115,680 to the university in the 2017-18 school year.

In the 2017-18 school year, 752 students held “RebelCard” linked accounts, with an average annual fee of $21 and a median fee of $0. U.S. Bank spokesman Evan Lapiska said looking at the average fee was “misleading” due to the “number of variables and customer choices that can result in a fee being assessed.”

UNLV spokeswoman Cindy Brown said in an email that the banking services offered convenience to students, and that the linked accounts were overwhelmingly similar to the fee and benefit structure of the bank’s other offerings.

There are no monthly maintenance fees, no minimum balance requirements, and all transactions at U.S. Bank ATMs are free,” she wrote in an email. “Charges are consistent and typical of any type of bank account, including overdraft fees and transactions at non-US Bank ATMs.”