Truckee Meadows Community College President Karin Hilgersom last week received a four-year contract extension despite ongoing turmoil at the school, unfavorable reviews concerning her communication and sharp criticism from two members of the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents during her evaluation process.
Hilgersom has been president of TMCC since 2016 and has been criticized by some faculty and students, including being named as a defendant in lawsuits brought by TMCC instructors.
Prior to Hilgersom’s contract approval, the Nevada Faculty Alliance—which represents faculty at all eight institutions told This Is Reno:
“If President Hilgersom’s contract is extended, the NFA will be monitoring whether she takes the evaluation to heart and whether there is an improvement in true shared governance and academic leadership at TMCC. NFA will continue to support faculty members and hold the administration accountable.”
NSHE Chancellor Thom Reilly’s recommendation to approve four-year contracts for presidents of three of Nevada’s eight higher education institutions sparked a debate among regents about presidential contract lengths in general during the June 12 meeting—with some regents arguing in favor of longer terms and others dissenting.
“When I first got on the board, I thought that three years seemed awful short, especially since we’re 18 months in doing a review of them,” said Regent Trevor Hayes, who represents Clark County’s District 2. “We all know the cycle by now. The first six months or so, they’re figuring out what’s going on and listening to people. The next six months, they’re getting their plan together and rolling it out.
“We’ve only seen about six months of a plan, usually, at that point…Let’s not have them constantly running for their job,” Hayes continued. “This isn’t Congress where every two years they need to be up for reelection and spending all of their time campaigning, as opposed to actually doing the job.”
Regent Carol Del Carlo said she thinks the board of regents needs to put together an ad hoc committee to evaluate and perhaps change NSHE’s policy concerning the length of initial contracts for new presidents.
“I agree that a three-year contract is really too soon,” Del Carlo said. “It takes time to be effective. And then those that go in that are cleaning up messes, it’s a cultural change—and there’s a lot of resistance to people that are trying to change a culture. That’s the hardest thing in an organization.”
Regent Patrick Carter noted that the average length of a university president’s term in the U.S. is five years. And Regent Lisa Levine wondered if shorter initial contracts might dissuade strong national candidates from applying to head up Nevada’s colleges and universities.
“I understand that there are concerns about the lengths, and I come at this with a fresh set of eyes,” she said. “I don’t think it’s helpful toward student achievement or academic success for our university and college presidents to have to go through this evaluation process constantly—because that just seems like it opens the door for too much politics, taking away from the jobs at hand.”
Regent Cathy McAdoo said she supports four-year contracts but wanted one-time, merit-based pay increases to be approved by the board in addition to the chancellor.
After McAdoo’s comments, Hilgersom asked for the opportunity to address the matter of pay increases.
“Several of you really summarized the life of a president and how difficult it is,” Hilgersom said. “I also want to say that I personally support the amendment that Cathy MacAdoo just expressed. And to go even further—and speaking only for myself and only for the one presidential contract—I would be happy to forego any pay increase in the next four years because I don’t think any of us would feel good about getting a pay increase when our employees, faculty, staff and even students continue to suffer as we try to bounce back from this budget crisis.”
Second contract renewal for Hilgersom
Last week’s decision marks the second time Hilgersom’s contract with NSHE has been renewed. In 2018, her contract was approved following a faculty survey and NSHE evaluation that resulted in her being ordered to attend mediation to resolve communication issues. Regent Levine asked about the outcome of this mediation during the board meeting—also asking why Hilgersom thought there are “so many politics surrounding your relationship with some of these folks more than others?”
After verifying with NSHE legal counsel Joe Reynolds that it was appropriate to answer the question, Hilgersom answered Levine’s questions.
Regarding the mediation, Hilgersom said that she thought her administration’s leadership and members of the faculty senate got more out of the experience than attendees representing the NFA.
Hilgersom also said she’s tried “very hard to work on listening, communication. We do shared governance of the faculty senate, and the executive leadership recently revised the document—which the faculty senate voted on. Faculty are represented in almost every committee and, oftentimes, in fairly good numbers.”
As to the “politics” surrounding her time at the helm of TMCC—and how this was reflected in the faculty survey—Hilgersom said she wanted to note the conditions under which the school has been operating. This year, 175 faculty members received the survey and 38 percent—a total of 66—responded. In 2018, the survey was distributed to 317 faculty and 178, about 56 percent, responded.
“About half of those love me and about half of those, not so much,” Hilgersom said, adding that she thought the “large middle” of faculty members were not among those represented in the survey. She cited the turmoil caused COVID-19 and the necessity to switch to distance learning via online courses for the poor response rate of TMCC faculty.
Hilgersom said most of the faculty with whom she’s had ongoing difficulties are members of the NFA.
“It breaks my heart—because when I was a faculty member, not only was I active in my local faculty association, but I was a state and national union rep for academic faculty,” Hilgersom said. “So, it really breaks my heart that I haven’t been able to bridge the gap with about a dozen individuals on my campus. But I will continue to do my very, very best to try to bridge that gap. I also want to say that being a president is not a popularity contest. I think if things are 100 percent perfect, there’s probably not a lot of change going on.”
Regents Jason Geddes and Rick Trachok, both northern Nevada regents, made it clear in the board’s meeting the previous day that they planned to oppose a contract renewal for Hilgersom.
During Friday’s meeting, Trachok took the opportunity to reiterate his reasons, citing the critical numbers found in Hilgersom’s 2020 faculty survey results—and going on to reread many of them.
“For us to approve this contract and sign a four-year extension of this contract would send a message to the faculty of TMCC that we’re ignoring their calls and their pleas,” he said. “I think the situation on the campus is divided. It’s a divisive place to work if you can rely on the information that was provided in the individual faculty responses to the survey. So, I would—and I will—oppose the extension of this contract.”
Regent Del Carlo begged to differ with Trachok, saying that she’d received a letter the night before from a TMCC faculty member and it had reinforced her decision to vote in favor of Hilgersom’s contract renewal.
“I do not have the permission to read it, but I just thought I would highlight this,” Del Carlo said. “It says, ‘Dear, Regent Del Carlo. After 21 years at TMCC, never have I seen a display against a president like I have witnessed today. Never have I reached out to board members like I am today.’”
Del Carlo went on to say that the unnamed employee wanted to point out that the survey was administered using a different platform this year, was delivered shortly before Spring Break and came as faculty was busy dealing with adapting classes to the virtual environment.
Hilgersom’s contract was renewed, with both Geddes and Trachok voting against renewal. Her term will expire in 2024.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.