71.2 F

Legislature takes aim at how Nevada’s higher education system is managed


Bills introduced in this year’s legislative session seek to undo the way the Nevada System of Higher Education manages itself. 

The language of one bill calls out NSHE relying “on its constitutional status and its authority to control and manage the affairs of the State University as a defensive shield and cloak against the people’s legislative check of accountability…”

That bill, a senate joint resolution – SJR7 – is up for the second session for consideration at the legislature. It will remove certain parts of the state constitution related to the Nevada Board of Regents, which oversees NSHE.

It is the legislature’s attempt to have more control over NSHE in the wake of a failed ballot initiative – Question 1 – that would have also altered NSHE’s governance structure. 

Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Clark County), the bill’s sponsor, said the change was prompted by what she called NSHE officials misrepresenting information to the legislature. 

Nevada Senator Marilyn Dondero Loop.
Nevada Senator Marilyn Dondero Loop.

“In the lead-up to previous sessions, NSHE has sometimes tried to alter, control or misrepresent information provided to policymakers, including the Nevada Legislature,” she recently testified. “Obviously, this is unacceptable.”

The resolution, she added, would make NSHE similar to the way other boards in state law are governed. Regents would still be elected, but the board would be more beholden to the legislature.

“I want to stress that SJR7 does not repeal any existing statutory provisions governing this Board of Regents including those that provide for the election of board members,” she said. “It simply puts the Board of Regents and NSHE on par with every other governing board and state agency created pursuant to statute.”

Public records, as an example, are frequently denied by NSHE and its institutions under the guise that NSHE rules “have the force of law,” as NSHE attorneys have claimed. 

The Las Vegas Review-Journal and USA Today have both had public records denied by NSHE institutions in what the publications asserted are violations of the Nevada Public Records Act.

“The Nevada System of Higher Education more often asserts its constitutional authority over personnel issues and its own power structure than in defense of academic freedom or educational policy.”

– Kent Ervin, Nevada Faculty Alliance

“Too often, governmental entities take court rulings that allow the withholding of portions of records in limited circumstances and cite the decisions as a lawful basis for withholding vast categories of records,” the Review-Journal’s legal counsel, Benjamin Lipman, said. 

SJR7 specifically mentions how NSHE’s regents claim exceptions to Nevada laws. 

“Although the Nevada Supreme Court has rejected the Board of Regents’ broad assertion of autonomy and immunity from laws and policies enacted by the Legislature, the Nevada Supreme Court has recognized that the Board of Regents’ constitutional status prevents the Legislature from enacting certain legislation that directly ‘interferes with the Board’s essential management and control of the University.’”

The Nevada Faculty Alliance issued a statement of neutrality – but potential concern – over SJR7. 

“The NFA is very concerned about academic freedom and the potential for political and partisan interference in curriculum and academic standards,” said NFA’s Kent Ervin, who added that NFA more members are considering support of SJR7. 

“The Nevada System of Higher Education more often asserts its constitutional authority over personnel issues and its own power structure than in defense of academic freedom or educational policy,” Ervin added. “Our hope is that we can protect our principles in the future through collective bargaining agreements and contract law.”

The Las Vegas Chamber and the Council for a Better Nevada recently testified in support of the resolution. Scott Huber, a Truckee Meadows Community College instructor, also spoke in support. He said NSHE is dysfunctional.

“I’ve seen too many presidential hiring committees that really serve the needs of the system, and not the institution’s. I’ve seen too many presidential evaluations that were corrupted,” he said. “I’ve seen too many of them whitewashed. That does not serve the needs of the system … nor does it really serve the needs of the institutions. I think the general counsels don’t serve the needs of the system well. Bad apples are paid off and moved aside.”

Regents opposed to changes

Regent Joe Arrascada testified in opposition to the bill saying it conflicts with the will of the voters, who narrowly shot down Question 1.

“This new resolution is blatantly questioning the voters’ will,” he said. “To many of your constituents this do-over is similar to an election denier of the same 2020 cycle. This measure creates uncertainty that could significantly lower the morale of those working on each campus and obstruct Nevada’s System of Higher Education immediate and long term strategic plan.”

“All three of these [bills] don’t address the real challenges that we face with higher education. Why are we not talking about that?”

-Nevada Board of Regents Chair Byron Brooks

Regent and board chair Byron Brooks similarly called SJR7 a bad idea. He further said problems with NSHE and its regents are “in the past.”

Byron Brooks, Nevada Board of Regents.
Byron Brooks, Nevada Board of Regents.

“We should be judged and held accountable for things that we’re doing from the moment we enter the board and forward,” he said. “We are doing everything that we can to operate in the confines in which we have to be able to provide policy and procedures to support our students, the campuses and the way things move … inside the system.”

He added that the regents and NSHE staff “are doing what they are supposed to be doing” and the bills proposed by legislators will not improve higher education in Nevada.

“I’m opposed to SJR7 because … primarily, I think it’s a bad idea,” he said. “And it’s a bad idea, because this isn’t just about removing regents from the Constitution. We’re really setting up a precursor for appointments rather than elections.”

Appointed regents, critics fear, could then politicize NSHE and its campus, as Ervin noted. Other states have appointed regents, elected or a combination of both. The subject has been debated for decades.

Brooks, however, insisted that citizens should continue to be able to elect higher education regents.

“This entire state is built on that citizen governance. This is why we have elections,” he said.

A new bill, introduced last week, wants to give each university and college their own boards of trustees. Senate Bill 347 would separate the various NSHE institutions and give the governor the ability to appoint members of each institution’s board.

Another bill, AB118, would reduce the number of regents from 13 to nine and the length of their terms – from six to four years.

“When we take a look at the Board of Regents, and we’re taking a look at governance of higher education for the entire state, how are we determining that 13 is too many when we have 63 in [the legislature’s] assembly and senate representing constituents,” Brooks said. 

“All three of these [bills] don’t address the real challenges that we face with higher education. Why are we not talking about that?”

Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR.