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Dismaying disarray in higher ed breeds unneeded uncertainty 

Jill Derby
Jill Derby

As someone who spent 18 years on the Nevada Board of Regents in various leadership roles, including three terms as chair, I am disheartened by the public state of disarray the Nevada System of Higher Education leadership team is experiencing. Without weighing in on any culpability, which I am not qualified to assess, but having stayed active at the national level in higher education governance, I can speak to the cost of such public and rancorous vetting of internal disputes.

We are living in an era when public confidence in higher education leadership has been shaken by a confluence of factors: rising tuition, a seemingly irreversible ballooning student debt burden, a growing sense that a college education may not lead to a middle class lifestyle after all and the toxic intrusion of divisive partisan politics into education at all levels. Added to those currents, COVID-19 has disrupted the way our colleges and universities educate students, with many feeling short-changed by missing out on the campus and classroom experience, all while having to pay the same fees. It has been a turbulent time for students and their families navigating an altered higher education landscape. 

In the midst of this unsettled dynamic, having a public stand off between those in charge of governing our campuses potentially adds skepticism to the “who’s in charge here” question and also to the “can we count on them to look after our public investment in Nevada’s colleges and universities?” question. The current dispute between Board of Regents leadership and the chancellor has drawn national attention, and only adds to the weight of damage assessment. Nevada’s colleges and universities have much to be proud of in terms enrollment growth, stature and campus expansion, but this cloud of dissension spreads a layer of musty uncertainty and stain over the whole system. It will likely be the provocation that leads to a positive vote for an appointed board of regents.

I realize the majority of the current board members are relatively new. Among the 13, there are only two, I believe, who have served multiple terms. The disruptive impact of the pandemic over the past two years has worked against the opportunity to build bonds of cohesion and collegiality among them. Zoom meetings are great but only go so far in building interpersonal connection and trust. Learning the appropriate role of a regent and of the board in the Nevada system is not automatically apparent. The dividing line between governance and management is not clear cut and takes time to absorb — including the difference in lanes of authority and the board culture that has developed around those distinct leadership responsibilities. 

There isn’t much institutional memory and guidance available when nearly all members of a board are in their first term. This matters because not much happens on the board that some iteration of hasn’t previously occurred. The knowledge that veteran board members can or could bring to the table can make a difference in tough deliberations. My three terms of service on the board, as with that of several other multi-term regents, brought institutional memory, continuity and stability that a board of mostly new regents does not have readily available. Most of those elected to serve, in my experience, bring the best of intentions to their service on behalf of our state’s colleges and universities. At the same time, the push and pull of internal and external politics can challenge the best of intentions. 

If one were to ask me whether there was and is sexism in the system, I would reply, “Where isn’t there?” But the system and its campuses, since my time pointing it out in the 1990s, have been finding ways to address inequities, “chilly climates” and an uneven playing field for minority and diverse populations, as well as to make our entire system more inclusive and welcoming. There is much more work to be done, and NSHE must double its efforts in the nation-wide imperative for justice, inclusion and equity that has become a central and existentially vital, higher education priority.

Our colleges and universities have always been held in high esteem by a supportive public who knows their value in pursuit of personal advancement; and, just as importantly, the vital role they play in a democracy that can only thrive with an educated citizenry. Poorly-educated societies are vulnerable to ungrounded narratives and demagogic voices that can subvert the common good of its citizens.

One of my favorite characterizations of board governance is that it is a team sport but all the players are quarterbacks. In the name of constructive engagement, I hope the leaders of our higher education community in Nevada can work through the honest differences they face. While each in good faith believes in a particular view, consensus can only arise from give and take and a willingness to negotiate a path forward that moves beyond the impasse. 

Jill Derby is a fourth generation Nevadan, a former chair of the Nevada Board of Regents and former chairwoman of the Nevada Democratic Party (March 2007 to February 2008).


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