Constitutional Amendment Seeks to Increase Legislative Oversight of Nevada Higher Education

Truckee Meadows Community College
Image: TMCC

Faculty at Nevada’s colleges and universities are closely watching a proposal that would remove the Board of Regents of the Nevada System of Higher Education from a position in the state’s constitution.

The measure, which faces voters in 2020, instead would place the Nevada System of Higher Education — “NSHE,” for short — under the supervision of the State Legislature. The board of regents and NSHE would continue to oversee day-to-day operation of the system.

The Board of Regents opposes the proposal.

The big question for leaders of the Nevada Faculty Alliance: Would the change mean that administrators of the higher education system would be more accountable?

The Faculty Alliance represents faculty on the campuses of eight colleges and universities in the state and acts as the collective bargaining unit at Truckee Meadows Community College, UNLV and Nevada State College.

Under the current system, Faculty Alliance President Shari Lyman said administrators on campuses as well as those on the NSHE staff don’t appear to be bound by their own rules — or even by federal law, in some cases.

“The policies are applied at the whim of the administration,” Lyman said. “There is no accountability.”

She cited, for example, a faculty member at a state school who was told by a physician that the faculty member needed a type of accommodation in the workplace — an accommodation required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Despite the federal requirement, Lyman said administrators chose to ignore the need for accommodation of the faculty member.

She said the lack of accountability may be deeply ingrained in the structure of NSHE.

Because the educational system is implanted in the Nevada Constitution, some have dubbed it the fourth branch of state government, co-equal to the Legislature, governor and state courts systems.

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That’s a misguided belief — although it’s widely held.

The constitution in fact gives NSHE and its Board of Regents oversight of only UNR, UNLV and the Desert Research Institute without interference from the Legislature, government analysts at UNLV have noted. The other powers of NSHE, such as oversight of TMCC, come through the Legislature.

All that would change with the constitutional amendment, ACR5, that the Legislature sent to the voters to be decided next year.

That measure would remove the Board of Regents as a constitutional body. Voters still would elect regents, and regents still would run higher education in the state. But the Legislature would play a greater role.

The ballot measure also requires that the Legislature establish rules to protect academic freedom for faculty and campuses at state schools.

The Board of Regents voted in April to oppose the measure.

In a prepared statement last week, a NSHE spokesman said, “(This measure) removes the Regents from the Nevada Constitution.  This would not only be contrary to the intent of the framers of the Constitution, but would open the door for the Legislature to provide for an appointed, rather than elected Board of Regents and take away the citizens’ right to vote for their elected officials.”

At a legislative hearing in February, the Faculty Alliance opposed the proposal.

Kent Ervin, legislative liaison for the Faculty Alliance, told lawmakers the organization fears the measure would open the door to meddling in higher education by the governor and would require that the Legislature take more responsibility for colleges and universities.

Lyman said she personally wonders if the proposal would do enough by itself to improve the accountability of college administrators.

Another proposal to reorganize NSHE died in the State Assembly this year.

That bill called for creation of an Administrative Services Office in NSHE and replacement of the NSHE chancellor with the director of the Administrative Services Office.

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Also included in that bill was creation of an advisory board at every college and university in the state to provide feedback to administrators.

Lyman said she was skeptical about that bill, which looked to her like more bureaucracy without much improvement to the system.

Instead, she said greater involvement by members of the Board of Regents is one key to greater accountability. For years, Lyman said, regents have acted largely on the basis of information provided to them by one chancellor after another. That limits their knowledge of actual conditions on campuses.

She said conflicts between faculty and administrators have been particularly sharp at TMCC — one of the schools where the Faculty Alliance is the bargaining unit for faculty.

Lyman complains that TMCC President Dr. Karin Hilgersom has retaliated against Faculty Alliance leaders and has been unwilling to discuss issues raised by the faculty.

“It’s become almost impossible to have a meeting with the administration,” Lyman says. “She doesn’t want any challenges. It’s ‘my way or the highway.’”

TMCC faculty members have complained that administrators have unilaterally taken action against faculty members rather than follow required processes in cases involving issues such as free speech, merit pay raises for faculty members disliked by members of the administration and the handling of grievances.

But Lyman’s characterization was strongly contested by the president of TMCC, who called it blatantly false and a serious misrepresentation of the institution.

TMCC’s Hilgersom said the school’s students have succeeded through collaborative work of faculty and administration, and she said faculty and administrators regularly communicate in a shared-governance environment that focuses on innovation and collaboration.

Moreover, Lyman’s comments drew opposition even from Julie Muhle, the vice president of the Faculty Alliance chapter at TMCC.

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“As a member of NFA, I, nor my fellow NFA members have been consulted regarding Ms. Lymon’s recent comments and to my knowledge we, the members, were not asked to vet the content of what she reports and did not request that she comment on our behalf,” Muhle said. “I regularly work with all of the TMCC administrators and find President Hilgersom approachable, available and willing to sit down and talk about issues with people who care about TMCC.”  

Lyman said part of the problem she perceives at TMCC as well as other NSHE institutions arises from weak human resources departments. She said HR executives view themselves as representing administrators exclusively rather than advocating for faculty or staff members as well.

That, in turn, leads to what Lyman called a “strange process” for resolution of grievances. A faculty or staff member with a grievance first addresses it with a supervisor — who often is the cause of the grievance in the first place — before the issue heads up the supervisory ladder, perhaps even to the chancellor.

For all the legislative activity to restructure NSHE and the board of regents, Lyman said the most important — if far more difficult — step remains a results-oriented commitment to accountability among faculty and administrators alike.

“The status quo is hurting students. It is detrimental to students,” she said. “We need to have accountability across the board. We need to actually put the students first.”

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John Seelmeyer
About John Seelmeyer 29 Articles
John Seelmeyer is a business writer and editor in Reno. In his 40-year career, he has edited publications in Nevada, Colorado and California and written several thousand published articles about business and finance.