49 F
Reno

Higher ed regents bicker, faculty dismayed by presentation from right-wing policy center

Date:

A handful of members of the Nevada Board of Regents last week spoke out against a presentation on a workshop agenda they said was inappropriate and overly political. The comments drew warnings from legal counsel of potential open meeting law violations.

Regents were scheduled to hear a presentation from Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, on board governance. The conservative North Carolina-based nonprofit bills itself as working to improve higher education. Its critics say the organization’s far-right ideology erodes faculty rights, encourages “draconian policies” and limits academic freedoms. 

Before regents made statements, faculty leaders from multiple Nevada System of Higher Education institutions voiced concerns about the planned presentation. 

Nevada Faculty Alliance President Jim New shared letters of concern about the planned presentation with regents and NSHE institution presidents before the meeting. During public comment, he voiced those same concerns.

“Despite assurances that Dr. Robinson’s presentation has been vetted with no ‘slides pertaining to political ideology or anti-faculty chaos,’ the organization has existed for several years under various names with one objective: to empower partisans in government by restricting the rights of faculty,” he said. “Giving her a platform implicitly validates her organization’s work and its ideological approach to ‘renew’ higher education.”

Others made similar statements and mentioned Martin Center’s anti-diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) rhetoric. 

George Leef, a director at the Martin Center, writes extensively for the National Review in a column filed under “woke culture.” In multiple posts, he calls DEI efforts a “ridiculous obsession,” “ideological junk” and a “waste of time and money.”  

Multiple regents, including Carol Del Carlo, Laura Perkins, Patrick Boylan, Michelee Cruz-Crawford and Amy Carvalho said they were uncomfortable with the presentation and questioned who had selected it. Several began to cite concerns over the Martin Center’s political ideology and rejection of DEI initiatives.

Their comments spurred the board’s legal counsel to stop them multiple times and issue warnings that they were heading toward violations of Nevada’s open meeting law for making disparaging comments toward Robinson and her organization. Such comments are not allowed if the person or organization being discussed hasn’t been given notice. 

Regent Del Carlo said regents should hear from advisory associations to which NSHE pays membership dues rather than an outside group.

“I’m concerned that we at NSHE belong to two national, highly thought-of organizations … and both of them are the gold standard in our industry of higher education,” she said. “I would like to know why we’re not having them—we’re members, why aren’t they coming in? I too am disturbed. And who picked this group to come in? I just don’t think it’s appropriate.” 

Regent Perkins agreed.

“This group, although they may have a great presentation, I don’t feel that we should be aligning ourselves with a group that is directly in conflict with what we post on our website about being inclusive and belonging,” she said. “How does this make the students feel when this group is coming to talk with us? Does this include the students and make them have a sense of belonging?”

Board Chair Byron Brooks expressed frustration with board members, saying they could have asked him about the presentation before the meeting rather than airing their concerns during comments. He added that board members were breaking with decorum and called their comments hostile and aggressive.

Regent Boylan echoed Del Carlo, then went a step further with his comments to Brooks.

“It’s useless asking you when the agenda has been made to give us any answers or change anything because you never do,” he said. Boylan was chastised by counsel for his comments about Brooks. 

Brooks said he chose the Martin Center for the presentation to get a different perspective on board governance and that the presentation was free. 

“From my perspective, we could use some support,” he said. “While there are other organizations that certainly we could have asked when I was thinking about this … I was thinking about something perhaps different because what we have had seems to not stick.”

Carvalho said she was uncomfortable with the presentation and asked that the topic be tabled and another presenter be found for a future meeting. Brooks refused to postpone the presentation and told board members to take what they wanted from what they heard and leave the rest.

Robinson began her presentation with a review of the board’s powers and authority as outlined in Nevada’s constitution and law. She also discussed how regents should divide their focus, with 60% of their time spent on policies, 30% on oversight, and 10% on administration. 

She asserted that regents have the authority to create or discontinue academic programs, including program direction and priorities. Both of the advisory associations to which NSHE belongs disagree with Robinson’s assessment. 

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges notes that “academic administrators and faculty members are responsible for setting learning goals, developing and offering academic courses and programs, and assessing the quality of those courses and programs.” 

At many higher education institutions, provosts and upper-level campus administrators lead academic program development.

The Association of Community College Trustees adds that boards are responsible for “strategic plans, policies, and standards for college operations, including educational programs,” but doesn’t go so far as to say regents should create or cancel programs.

NFA past president Kent Ervin said he was taken aback by Robinson’s assertion that academic programs and departments, including their content, should be created by regents. 

“Of course, the regents have fiduciary oversight over the viability of programs,” he said. “They should review data on student outcomes, and they should hold campuses accountable for conducting regular program reviews. But, an elected body like the Board of Regents should not be in the business of deciding what course and degree content is appropriate. That’s the job of the disciplinary experts, the faculty. We’ve seen the negative consequences in states like Florida and Texas when politicians start mandating what can and cannot be taught.”

In Florida, a state in which Martin Center representatives said they have done work, New College of Florida has seen its board of trustees eliminate programs and majors related to gender studies and race, calling them “left-wing racialist ideology.”

Robinson also said hiring upper-level administrators for institutions should be a priority. 

“Those are some of the most important decisions you will make,” she said. “Personnel is policy.”

Hiring decisions, with the exception of presidents, are usually made by individual campuses.

But Robinson said regents should consider how much authority should be delegated to university presidents and staff, and then how much authority those presidents have to delegate to their staff. Her top-down approach to authority differs from the model of shared governance advocated by national faculty associations. 

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) suggests, “differences in the weight of each group’s voice on a particular issue should be determined by the extent of its responsibility for and expertise on that issue.” 

Ervin said shared governance is part of academic freedom for faculty. 

“The Board of Regents needs to incorporate the principles of shared governance into its own rules of governance and in holding presidents accountable for their campus operations,” he said.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

TRENDING

RENO EVENTS

MORE RENO NEWS

Nevada Faculty Alliance calls for the resignation of Regent Patrick Boylan over discriminatory comments

The Nevada Faculty Alliance on Sunday called for higher education Regent Patrick Boylan to resign. The faculty group said his comments at Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents meetings are transphobic, discriminatory and harassing.