Bill to ‘deconsolidate’ Nevada higher ed likely to be gutted
A sweeping higher education bill that sought to dismantle the Nevada System of Higher Education’s (NSHE) governing structure is likely being turned into a study, according to a proposed amendment presented to a legislative committee Wednesday — but would still aim to create new, individual governing boards for the state’s community colleges.
The measure comes after years of legislative friction with higher education leaders and internal turmoil within NSHE, including the messy departures of a former UNLV president and NSHE chancellor within the last five years.
“Is this bill a direct attack on the governance structure of the Board of Regents and will it begin to rein back the problems that we have seen over the last few years?” bill sponsor Sen. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas) said, presenting the bill with a collage of media headlines from the last decade critical of the regents. “The answer to that is yes, absolutely.”
The over-350-page SB347 originally sought to fundamentally overhaul higher education governance in Nevada by “deconsolidating” existing governance structures. Under current law, a constitutionally created 13-member elected Board of Regents governs NSHE — a system which includes two universities, a research institute, a state college, four community colleges and the central system office.
Under the original language of the bill, the regents’ jurisdiction would have been limited only to the constitutionally created “state university” — UNR, UNLV and the Desert Research Institute (DRI). Community colleges and Nevada State College would instead be governed individually by appointed boards of trustees, with membership appointed by the governor.
But under a conceptual amendment proposed by Doñate, all provisions in the bill unrelated to the creation of college boards of trustees would be eliminated, including the creation of a new office of higher education to functionally replace NSHE.
Instead, the bill would create an interim study tasked with reviewing “appropriate governance structures” and funding mechanisms for different types of institutions, creating provisions to ease credit transfers between community colleges and universities, and create procedures to transfer land owned by NSHE to individual institutions.
Doñate added that whatever new governance structures are created under SB347 could still be changed in the future, under the recommendations of the proposed study.
Still, creation of the community college board of trustees would be a victory for longtime NSHE critics, including some legislators, business groups, philanthropists and Southern Nevada think tanks that have for years pushed lawmakers to embrace a more decentralized or multi-pronged governance model, such as those in California, Utah or Arizona.
A legal analysis presented to lawmakers Wednesday suggested that because the constitutional provisions of the regents applied narrowly to the “state university,” the community colleges remained under the purview, exclusively, of the Legislature.
However, the creation of individual boards for each institution goes beyond systems in California or Utah, for instance, where community colleges and technical colleges, respectively, are governed by boards separate from those for universities. The boards created by SB347 would also be vested with hiring and firing power over institution presidents, as well as disbursement of state money appropriated to those institutions.
David Damore, a UNLV professor and interim director of the Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West who helped present the bill, said the amendment came in part to alleviate concerns that the original bill language would “break up NSHE.” The amendment removes the proposed “office of higher education,” leaving NSHE as the governing superstructure of the new college boards.
But it was not immediately clear how the bill would be implemented, nor was it clear how the deletion of references to the now-removed office of higher education would materially change the power of those new boards.
Lawmakers on the committee pressed Doñate and Damore on the specifics — and received few answers on how the bill language as amended would operate under existing policies, such as the state’s funding formula.
“These are current issues,” Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas) said, referring to pay inequity between institutions. “They're not going to disappear just because you create a different governance structure.”
Sen. Robin Titus (R-Wellington) separately raised anxieties over meddling with what she described as “pretty respectably” ranked universities and colleges over personnel issues.
“The personnel stuff, which happens everywhere — happens in this building — but that, in my mind, doesn't even come close to the justification of splitting up the system,” Titus said.
Still, SB347 saw the backing Wednesday of several business groups, including the Council for a Better Nevada — a philanthropic group that backed an effort to remove the regents from the constitution in 2020 — and the Vegas Chamber, which openly criticized regents during an investigation into a hostile work environment complaint from former Chancellor Melody Rose.
In opposition was NSHE and the Board of Regents, which raised concerns that the bill, even as amended, would upend existing system governing policies such as tenure or employment contracts and leave students in limbo.
“My concern with the conceptual amendment is that it maintains the new governance structure and those boards while studying the governance structure,” NSHE Chancellor Dale Erquiaga said. “I'm not sure that would work.”
Erquiaga suggested the system would be open, however, to a bill focused solely on studying the governance structure and that did not immediately shift college governance, particularly if it comes in tandem with a planned funding formula study proposed by the governor’s office earlier this year.
Also in opposition was the Nevada Faculty Alliance, whose head, Kent Ervin, told lawmakers that the amended bill language was “simply unworkable” with no timeline and no clear implementation measures.
It was also not immediately clear how lawmakers on the committee would vote on the measure ahead of a major deadline on Friday for bills to pass out of committee. However, Doñate and Damore suggested the bill could continue to see additional amendments if sent to the Senate Finance Committee, under a potential fiscal note.
This would mark the second time in as many sessions that legislative efforts to overhaul higher education governance have been reduced to an interim study. In 2021, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak pledged in his State of the State to “develop a framework to transition Nevada’s community colleges to a new independent authority” within the next two years.
That effort was ultimately boiled down into AB450, a measure narrowly tailored to interrogating misalignments between the state’s workforce development goals and the higher education system — and whether or not a change in governance would change such a misalignment.
The committee last met in June 2022, and neither Sisolak nor state lawmakers had moved since its creation to adopt many of its recommendations — bar one $5 million exploratory program last March aimed at expanding access to low-cost or free community college programs. The committee had also called for a new funding formula study, predating Lombardo’s request by about seven months.
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