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Debate over land grant status has renewed the north-south divide in Nevada higher education

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis

Since the inception of UNLV in the 1950s as Nevada Southern, a pervasive narrative has persisted among higher education advocates in the South: UNLV is the stepchild to UNR, constantly given short shrift in budget negotiations and suffering in the long term as a consequence, even as Las Vegas has emerged as the state's economic center over that same time period.

But is that perception a reality? 

The truth of the matter, according to more than a dozen interviews with those involved with higher education policy past and present, is in the eye of the beholder. There are vast — often uncontrollable, sometimes highly personal — forces putting different pressures on different actors. Regents, lawmakers, university presidents, faculty advocates and even the voting public all push and pull on a system that starts at the ballot box and ends in byzantine negotiations over full-time equivalent headcounts, weighted student credit hours and multi-million dollar budgets. 

Heading into this year’s legislative session, however, there was an outward display of unity in the face of devastating budget cuts triggered by the pandemic. Between UNR, UNLV, system administrators, community colleges and even regents, there was little daylight on major issues from scholarships to sexual harassment policy to the need for “shared sacrifice” in the face of yet more budget cuts.

And thus far, more than halfway through the session, that unity has disappeared on just one issue: SB287, a bill sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) that would formally acknowledge existing legal opinions that say UNLV and the Desert Research Institute are included alongside UNR as federally recognized land grant institutions. 

Originally created under the Morrill Act of 1862 and later expanded through additional federal legislation, the land grant program was meant to spur the development of universities nationwide through the wide availability and sale of federal land. Today, the designation has morphed into a historic signifier of a college's commitment to agricultural education or programming, and more broadly allows land grant schools to apply for specialized grants through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Education Committee Friday — a committee with no Northern Nevada members — clearing the first hurdle on its way toward becoming law. With it has come a renewed focus on decades of history and perceptions of that history that, advocates said, have placed UNR on a pedestal to the detriment of UNLV. 

The land grant question

The primary purpose of SB287 is a formal recognition of what several legal opinions, including those at the Legislative Counsel Bureau and the Nevada System of Higher Education, have already concluded: that the Constitution names Nevada’s “State University” as a land grant institution, and that university — the University of Nevada — includes not only UNR, but also UNLV and DRI. 

Proponents have said that because the federal government only formally recognizes UNR as the state’s sole land grant school — it was founded 147 years ago as a result of the Morrill Land Grant Act, the foundational federal law from which this entire issue derives — SB287 has become a necessity in providing UNLV equal access to apply to competitive federal grants in land grant-specific fields. 

Eric Chronister, Dean of the College of Sciences at UNLV, said the current system has created a legal limbo where, even though the university’s faculty want to contribute research under land grant-specific grants offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “they’re not able to participate.” 

“I'm sort of an absolutist,” Chronister said. “Either someone needs to say, ‘UNLV can never be a land grant institution,’ and our faculty need to know they can never apply for these things, or someone needs to say that, in fact, we are, so that they can. It's really that simple.”

When it became clear that lawmakers would pursue a formal recognition of land grant status for UNLV and DRI this year, university administrators and key donors jumped at the chance to secure access to more research funding at a time when the institution is seeking to solidify and maintain a status as a top-tier research university. 

In a letter sent to the Senate Education Committee Thursday and co-signed by UNLV President Keith Whitfield and major business leaders from the Vegas Chamber, the Council for a Better Nevada and the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, UNLV argued that the issue is primarily about providing “equal and fair” access to federal resources. 

“By expanding accessibility to federal grants that have land-grant requirements, this legislation  allows UNLV to grow the research pie by bringing additional federal dollars to Southern Nevada  and the state as a whole,” the letter said. “It is our commitment that existing programs will continue to serve the Southern Nevada community.” 

But the proposal has triggered deep skepticism from some administrators and faculty at UNR, where the criticism of SB287 has been most fierce. Most northern critics, including UNR President and former Gov. Brian Sandoval, have contended that this is not about denying UNLV land grant status or enshrining UNR as the sole land grant institution. Instead, they say, it’s about the financial gutting of crucial programs already entrenched at UNR for little gain elsewhere. 

Key to this point of the debate is the other half of having land grant status: the Cooperative Extension. Federal land grant money, supplemented with county-level taxes, supports a number of well-liked county-level agricultural and educational programs, including 4-H and other youth programs. 

Extension funding has become the core of the issue for UNR, just as it was when the issue last emerged in 2017. Then, as governor, Sandoval vetoed a similar bill, AB407, in part on the grounds that it would endanger program funding at UNR without providing the means to replace those programs at UNLV. 

“There's a fixed amount of money that we receive, that the state receives, and then the university receives programmatic money associated with this land grant status,” Sandoval said in an interview with The Nevada Independent Monday. “As a result of this bill, it will split that three ways and dilute that money which will make a two-thirds reduction, I guess you could say, from UNR’s budget in that regard, which will obviously have an effect on services.”

Indeed, as Southern Nevada lawmakers have moved to raise the land grant issue again this year, Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick co-authored an op-ed with UNR Extension Director Ivory Lyles in The Nevada Independent arguing for additional state funding for Extension programs, not less. 

“Now more than ever, residents in all corners of Nevada need access to the educational programs and services provided by Extension, to help grow their businesses, educate their children, improve their health and nutrition, preserve our natural resources, and more,” the pair wrote. “It is an essential time to begin returning to the formerly equitable state-county partnership.”

As originally worded, SB287 would have severely restricted Extension funding almost overnight, essentially splitting limited programmatic funding three-ways with little consideration for existing programs. 

That provision will likely be changed in the final bill language under an amendment proposed by the Nevada Association of Counties, which has suggested leaving the formal process of divvying up land-grant related funding to the discretion of the NSHE chancellor, Melody Rose. 

The chancellor would then become the chief arbiter of the issue in creating a committee of land grant stakeholders, including the director of the Extension, with the end goal of creating an equitable funding structure for all parties to be approved later by regents and, finally, by legislators in the 2023 session. 

Even so, Rose said the Nevada System of Higher Education is formally remaining neutral on SB287, in keeping with Board of Regents policy established when the issue arose in 2017. 

“We respect the Legislature's authority to engage in this policy analysis, and my role as chancellor is to advance all of the institutions within the NSHE system,” Rose said. “And under the current configuration of the bill, if it passes, the implementation committee would provide me an opportunity to convene the stakeholders, and in a moment of pause, consider all of the options, all of the implications and craft agreements between the presidents and bring them forward after careful consideration.”

But even as the amendment has emerged as a compromise among system and county administrators, concerns remain at UNR that SB287 could hobble the institution’s Extension funding by the time the dust has settled. 

“That amendment does nothing to cure the issue of whether the dilution of those scarce federal funds by designating DRI and UNLV as land grant institutions does not increase the pie,” Sandoval said. “It doesn't allow for more eligibility for more of those programmatic funds. That is fixed. That's a formula that says that it's fixed on the amount of agriculture that's going on in the state and some other factors. And the counties provide the matches to that program, to the Cooperative Extension, so all those formulas and things would be affected.”

And as much as the issue of the Extension has become the political hot potato at the core of the debate over SB287, it is not the only factor driving northern opposition to the otherwise simple recognition of land grant status. 

Land grant institutions across the country are deeply rooted in the history of higher education itself, developed as part of a plan in the mid-19th century to lay the groundwork for a nationwide public agricultural and “mechanic arts” education as the U.S. rapidly settled the West. 

Tracing its roots back to a class of just seven students in Elko in 1874, what would become the University of Nevada, Reno was the sole university in the state — let alone the sole land grant institution — for almost 100 years (the then-Nevada Southern University in Las Vegas only graduated its first class in 1964, and the name “UNLV” was not adopted until 1969).

The national history, observers said, has become a powerful point of pride and prestige for any and all long-time land grant schools, not just UNR. But it also has developed a sense of specialization, one driven by more than a century of focus on agricultural and mining education and research, that has given rise to an argument that no school is better positioned to deliver land-grant related agricultural programs in Nevada than UNR.  

“I think for us, it's more that we have years of history of building programs specific to agriculture, specific to our mining industry or ranching industry — those things right,” UNR Faculty Senate Chair Amy Pason said. “That's why we exist, that's why UNR, as an institution, exists.”

Pason said that part of the issue for faculty is a concern that their efforts in establishing and developing such programs would be rendered “meaningless” if “anybody can be named land grant without having to do the same kind of programs or responsibilities that we do.” 

More than that, faculty and administrators at UNR have questioned the real-world benefit of UNLV’s land grant designation in terms of access to federal grants, suggesting it would endanger the Extension at the risk of doing little to change the federal-grant landscape in Nevada. 

Sandoval said “it wouldn’t really change anything” and that UNLV and DRI would “still be able to go after the grants” they already are pursuing. Pason, similarly, said it was a minimal change, that “it doesn’t actually do anything if we just start naming our institutions ‘land grant.’”

Chronister pushed back on those characterizations as “just wrong,” pointing in part to work being done in conjunction with mining companies from the university’s geoscience department and adding that “not enough people know about UNLV.” 

“In a way, it's sort of indicative of — there's a reason why people don't know enough about UNLV, because we're not given the [land grant] status that we should,” Chronister said.

He added that he would not be “so conservative” about the raw dollar amounts that could be at stake should UNLV be recognized federally as a land grant institution, saying in part that “we know we can’t go to the state and ask for more dollars, we just want the opportunity to compete for the federal dollars that support the things we’re expert at.”

But even outside the wonky arguments over legal intent, funding and research, there remain deeper concerns over the politics of a policy like SB287 — namely who is pushing such a proposal, and why they are looking to get it passed now. 

There is open suspicion among some SB287 critics of the decidedly business-oriented backers of SB287, namely the Council for a Better Nevada (CBN), which has backed and presented several pieces of higher education legislation this session alone.

SB287 is the only measure proposed by the group this session that would directly and explicitly benefit UNLV, but critics point to a pattern of involvement that suggests the donors maintain more control of such policy decisions than UNLV itself. 

“My understanding is that, although UNLV isn't sponsoring the bill, they do support the bill, but it isn't sponsoring the bill,” Sandoval said. “The bill was presented by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) and then through testimony of Maureen Schafer on behalf of the Council for a Better Nevada, which in my understanding, is the entity that is pushing this bill aggressively. ”

CBN — a non-profit funded by Clark County business leaders seeking to “improve the quality of life in Nevada” — has for several years been openly involved in a number of high profile higher education policies and projects, including a push to remove regents from the Constitution through Question 1 last year.

Schafer, executive director of CBN and the former founding chief of staff at the UNLV School of Medicine, pushed back on CBN’s Northern Nevada critics in part by saying “there’s a lot of them who are never going to realize that there’s a Southern Nevada to Northern Nevada.”

“Change is really hard, and we're just taking the hill right now, you know,” Schafer said. “But I don't mean to demagogue Northern Nevada, it's just that 100 or so people in those positions who just think it's always going to be this way.”

The North-South divide

Schafer’s argument, and to an extent UNLV’s argument over equity with SB287, emerge from an entrenched history of disparities between universities North and South, in which one institution time-and-time again arose as the perceived “has,” while the other was relegated to the perceived “has-not.”

These arguments emerge in part, however, as a matter of perspective. Robert Dickens spent three decades lobbying for UNR, and in that time witnessed the shift of a north-south rivalry from athletics, “where that kind of rivalry is endemic in higher education,” to politics, economics and academics, where he said it had become a destructive force. 

Dickens said that as new Las Vegans — having come from elsewhere — looked to enmesh themselves in a new city, they sought the “Rebels” of UNLV as a key cornerstone of that urban community. 

“In the process, over time, of becoming a Southern Nevadan, you also drank the Kool Aid about the sectionalism,” Dickens said. “And it's rampant … And that creates a conflicting challenge for all decision makers, because you have two different institutions doing the same kind of business, both performing well … and they want to move on and take care of the things that are their missions. And, frankly, when this stuff enters the Nevada Legislature or the executive branch, it becomes deleterious.”

But, Dickens said, that sectionalism arose for a bevy of reasons, from the origins of UNLV as Nevada Southern to the geographic proximity of UNR to the Legislature in Carson City to the relationships between some UNR presidents and lawmakers to the high turnover of leadership at UNLV. 

Also key to this dynamic, he said, was the frequently complex and opaque manner in which the state’s budget was finalized by lawmakers. That process was for years led in the Senate by Republican Sen. Bill Raggio, a famed friend of UNR (his name now adorns the university’s College of Education) who chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee from 1993 until 2005. 

Barbara Buckley, a former Democratic assemblywoman from Clark County who served from 1994 to 2011, including a stint as Assembly speaker from 2007 to 2011, said “it was no secret” that Raggio played a major role in how higher education funding was distributed.

“In the 90s and the 2000s, there were not as many representatives from Southern Nevada as there are today, and the Senate leadership positions were controlled by legislators in Northern Nevada,” Buckley said. “And so historically, there was a perception, and many say a reality, that UNR received greater funding than UNLV.”

Buckley said the budgeting process then was as it is now, frequently “quick and frenzied,” leaving little time to assess detailed budgets like higher education. 

But even in Raggio’s absence, most observers agree that the most substantial budgeting differences between UNR and UNLV were not ironed out until the passage of an entirely new funding formula — one based on so-called weighted student credit hours rather than full-time equivalent headcounts — in 2011 and 2013. 

Even then, controversy reignited once a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation revealed in 2016 then-Chancellor Dan Klaich had misled lawmakers during the formula revision process by presenting a letter to a committee under a consultant’s letterhead. 

Klaich denied wrongdoing and said that some emails presented by the Review-Journal story were meant as jokes, though he did eventually resign. Shortly after his exit, legislators drafted AJR5, a measure that would pull the regents from the Constitution as a means of increasing legislative oversight over the higher education system (that measure ultimately failed at the ballot box last year, though a similar bill has been revived this year as SJR7, a bill backed in part by CBN).

These examples are only a small slice of decades of political fighting over limited state resources for UNLV and UNR, fighting that included years of haggling over the future of the UNLV medical school or, following the Great Recession, the very survival of higher education in the face of briefly proposed 50 percent cuts

Today, it’s unclear whether regionalism extends beyond the realm of sports and such niche funding issues as SB287. Last year saw the appointment of new presidents at UNR and UNLV and a new chancellor, and the trio — alongside the other college presidents and the regents — have so far signaled unity on major issues being proposed by legislators. 

Even on budget cuts, the universities have toed a similar line, stating on one hand that the 12 percent cuts being pursued by lawmakers as part of the governor’s recommended budget will be devastating in the short term, but on the other hand that they understand the need for shared sacrifice if it means long term survival. 

SB287 will next head to a floor vote by the state Senate sometime before the first house passage deadline on April 20.


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