Emails show regents, chancellor relationship souring over COVID strategy
Melody Rose’s departure Friday from her perch as chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) comes as the latest turmoil at the top of the state’s higher education system, which has seen two chancellors and a UNLV president exit amid tension with regents over the last six years.
Though her resignation was controversial — for some because of the $610,000 severance, for others because of the chancellor’s exit at all — it came last week as something of a mutual separation.
At least three regents had pushed for a personnel session, a public meeting in which regents could have voted on her employment and theoretically fire her without any payout. Instead, the resignation ended months of conflict both public and private between Rose and members of the board, and did so while preserving more than half the value of the chancellor’s remaining contract.
But Rose’s exit from the system was months in the making.
Emails obtained by The Nevada Independent through public records requests shed new light on the internal debates within the Board of Regents and the NSHE leadership over how to handle the increasingly divisive political football of a COVID vaccine mandate for students and employees.
In a records request that spanned from the initial availability of COVID vaccines in December 2020, to the ultimate move by the state Board of Health to create a mandate for college students in August 2021, The Nevada Independent sought emails from regents, the chancellor and several members of an internal COVID task force.
Those emails show early tension between Chancellor Melody Rose and top regents that would eventually spill out into the open in Rose’s hostile work environment complaint filed last October.
Internally, NSHE leadership scrambled behind the scenes last summer as the possibility of a mandate swung from legally unclear to a virtual certainty in less than a week’s time.
As it did, spats over communication and the system’s public image increased tensions between two people — the elected head of the governing board and the appointed executive running the administration — jockeying for control.
At one point, chairwoman Cathy McAdoo told Rose that communications with the press made it look as though the Board of Regents “does not look informed and worse yet, that we don’t care.”
“I think the article paints the same picture of you and NSHE overall,” McAdoo wrote in an email.
Though the investigation into Rose’s workplace complaint found no actionable wrongdoing by the regents, it revealed a system hierarchy plagued by miscommunication and worsening factionalism, factors that deepened divisions between higher education leaders as time dragged on.
Email records show that higher education officials, including faculty representatives, were briefed on the state’s vaccination plan as early as December 2020. However, this early phase was defined by the logistical challenge of getting shots into the arms of the most vulnerable people or into workforces most likely to face repeated COVID exposures.
Educators were among the first “buckets” of vaccine-eligible groups to receive access to the shots by January.
But with vaccine supplies still relatively limited, and the legal ramifications of vaccine requirements unknown, the question of requiring vaccines for tens of thousands of Nevada college students lay dormant.
That changed on May 6 — roughly one month after vaccines became widely available — when NSHE announced that it was “currently drafting plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for students, with some limited exceptions, who are returning to campus in the fall semester.”
That press release caused an immediate, visceral reaction among a vocal group of students, parents and regents who interpreted it not as a statement of intent, but as a declaration of fact.
That was not true, and it would not become true until months later. But it nonetheless created new tensions behind the scenes at NSHE, which had otherwise sought only to comply with the directives from the governor’s office.
The tranche of emails obtained by The Nevada Independent does not contain any direct communication between the chancellor and regents or institution presidents in the wake of the press release, but does contain a series of memos released in its aftermath.
The first, sent by Rose the day of the announcement, was sent to all 13 regents and eight institution presidents and described the release as “responsive to escalating media, legislator and public inquiries” about a possible vaccine mandate for students.
“Some reports may not accurately capture the statement that was issued, and so I want to take this opportunity to provide you more clarity,” she wrote.
The emailed memo that came after it listed a dozen talking points intended to clarify the original communication, but also backpedaled on the primary implication: that a vaccine mandate was imminent.
Rose wrote that “no plan has yet been developed,” though she had asked an internal COVID task force to begin developing a vaccine mandate plan for approval by the regents “in the event the opportunity arises prior to the start of the Fall 2021 Semester.”
And in a follow-up memo sent the next day to presidents and regents, Rose laid out the miscommunication in more clear terms, before ultimately apologizing “for the confusion and angst the release caused yesterday.”
Indeed, Rose said that a mandate for students approved by regents “is currently not a viable legal option,” though she cautioned that the State Board of Health could act on a vaccine requirement separate from NSHE.
Still, records show Regents Carol Del Carlo and Cathy McAdoo — both representatives of largely rural districts — forwarded constituent emails (without comment) to Rose that railed against the possibility of a vaccine mandate.
However, the chancellor’s memos did indicate the vaccine issue would not arise again until “July or August.” It was a period so late into the year, she wrote, that it would be “too late for meaningful implementation” for the looming fall semester.
With COVID cases dropping and vaccination numbers still rising, the urgency to draft these emergencies fell away.
A barrier to a mandate falls
Though there had been little movement toward a mandate since the May press release, one key change came in a memo from the Department of Justice released in early July that clarified the emergency regulations that allowed the vaccines to be distributed in the first place.
An emergency bypass to the normally time-consuming FDA pharmaceutical approval process, the vaccine’s emergency use authorization (EUA) had become a legal question mark for public and private institutions looking at the possibility of a mandate.
Back in May, Rose’s statement came with an all-important caveat: That a mandate hinged entirely on the vaccine no longer relying on the EUA. The DOJ’s clarification that the EUA was in fact not a legal barrier to mandates essentially cleared the way for such requirements.
But it also came in early July, when COVID was still largely a secondary consideration, a near-afterthought for a system that was steaming full-speed toward a full in-person return to campuses.
Then came Delta.
More contagious, deadlier and an unknown test for the still-new vaccines, concerns mounted fast through the summer.
By mid-July, cases were rising in every Nevada county, and Gov. Steve Sisolak re-imposed a statewide mask mandate in public spaces. And as vaccination rates lagged nationwide among the college aged, mandates were once again on the table.
‘The board does not look informed’
For NSHE, a vaccine requirement surged from an afterthought to a near-certainty in the span of less than a week last summer.
In addition to the renewed mask mandate, a story published by The Nevada Independent on July 30 added pressure on the conversation about a vaccine requirement.
For that story, all 13 regents and the chancellor were asked on July 29 if they supported a hypothetical mandate, and if they supported urging the Board of Health to create a mandate in the event regents lacked the legal authority.
Though two regents did provide their positions — Regents Jason Geddes in favor and Patrick Boylan against — Board Chair Cathy McAdoo, Vice Chair Patrick Carter and Rose did not provide direct responses.
A meeting on the very topic between McAdoo, Carter and the chancellor was scheduled for 4 p.m. on July 30.
On the agenda were presentations by Vice Chancellor Caleb Cage (the former state COVID emergency management director) and NSHE Chief General Counsel Joe Reynolds, who led the internal COVID task force. The pair were set to discuss mask mandates, the state testing plan and “DOJ ruling & future of vaccines,” though meeting materials were not included in the records request.
Other regents who asked Rose for guidance were told that her office would handle the media request.
“Joe [Reynolds] is working today on a memo that would answer all of these questions,” she wrote in an email to Regent Amy Carvalho. “Lots coming at us at the moment — appreciate you reaching out!”
Rose had emailed Regent Joe Arrascada the day before, copying McAdoo, Carter and Reynolds, and telling him that “our office spoke with the Indy today, and provided guidance about the legal primacy of the Nevada Department of Health over the vaccine question.”
The Nevada Independent did speak with representatives of NSHE ahead of publication, but no on-the-record statements were given. Neither the chancellor, nor the regents nor a spokesman for the system responded to the original questions. A memo outlining NSHE’s beliefs on mandates would not be made public until Aug. 2 — two days after The Nevada Independent published the initial story.
McAdoo pointed out on July 31 that the story did not contain an on-the-record response from NSHE and requested that she also receive media statements “when they are created, before being sent to the media.”
“I/we could have used this to respond to Jacob,” McAdoo wrote in an email. “It is not helpful to get the memo after the story is printed. Instead, the board does not look informed and worse yet, that we don't care. I think the article paints the same picture of you and NSHE overall.”
An hour and a half later, Rose replied, saying in part that “our messaging has not changed.”
“NSHE will continue to stay aligned with federal, state and local guidelines,” she wrote. “Until and unless you wish to agendize the covid topic and contemplate Board action for a different direction, this will remain our position.”
But other emails show board leaders doubted at least some of the information provided by Rose regarding communication with The Indy, as Carter asked McAdoo: “Do you think they did reach out to the Indy?”
The lawyers, the governor, the mandate and the complaint
On Aug. 2, NSHE released the long-awaited legal memo on vaccine requirements with a long-expected opinion: That the State Board of Health, not the Board of Regents, held the power to create and enforce a student vaccine mandate.
Emails also show the new pipeline for press releases was in effect, and apparently running smoothly, as a system spokesman forwarded a release about the legal opinion through McAdoo before its release.
“Teamwork … I like it,” McAdoo wrote.
“Teamwork makes the dream work,” Rose replied, punctuating the sentence with a heart emoji.
A day later, on Aug. 3, Rose emailed McAdoo to consider calling an emergency regents meeting “explicitly to discuss (and hopefully approve) an official NSHE request” that the Board of Health, meeting seven days later on Aug. 10, issue guidance on college student vaccine requirements.
“I believe we have an opportunity to request that the Health Board, as the legal authority with jurisdiction in this arena, take up the issue and provide our campus communities with some clarity prior to the start of fall term,” Rose wrote.
It appears McAdoo did not immediately respond to this request. However, according to Rose’s later-filed hostile work environment complaint, McAdoo that day called an NSHE executive (anonymized in the complaint as Cabinet Member #5).
In that call, according to a secondhand account from Rose’s complaint, “[McAdoo] made reference to some illusive plan that I supposedly had with the governor regarding student vaccines (false), and that she ‘wants nothing to do with it.’”
The next day, Aug. 4, NSHE’s internal COVID task force unanimously recommended the imposition of a vaccine mandate in a private memo to the chancellor, writing in part that “we believe that this action is necessary to protect the health and safety of NSHE students and faculty.”
Acknowledging Reynolds’ memo from three days prior, it also recommended “that outreach occur” to the Board of Health on creating a mandate.
Rose then emailed McAdoo again, this time detailing conversations between herself, Reynolds and Cage with the governor’s chief of staff — conversations that suggested not only was the governor “considering additional safety measures” for schools amid the COVID surge, but that he would be “announcing his preferred direction tomorrow.”
Records show that McAdoo again did not respond to the email.
But in her hostile workplace complaint, Rose said that McAdoo had called a vice chancellor — identified as Cabinet Member #2 but likely Cage, according to a cross-referencing of contemporaneous internal meeting agendas — who told her secondhand that McAdoo had “called and told them ‘God gave her a plan’ for resolving the student vaccine issue, and she asked them to provide her with the governor’s number so she could share it with him.”
One day later, on Aug. 5, Sisolak called a press conference and announced that he had directed his team to explore the possibility of a mandate and send that recommendation to the Board of Health.
After Sisolak’s press conference, McAdoo forwarded Rose, Reynolds and Cage two constituent emails opposing the mandate, including one from a group of 14 students at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law.
She would forward several more such emails to Rose and Reynolds over the next several weeks, including constituent emails that invoked the Civil Rights Act and decried the requirement of an “experimental vaccine” as part of some wider conspiracy.
That includes one letter in which the writer compared those seeking mandates to Nazis and Jim Crow segregationists, writing in part: “Are you all ok with the Corona apps being the new yellow star?”
The Board of Health finally voted to create a student vaccine requirement on Aug. 20, with an implementation deadline of Nov. 1.
It effectively created a mandate for the spring semester — a far cry from student and faculty calling for a mandate in the fall — but it cemented the policy and provided a win for pro-vaccine elements within NSHE, including Rose.
According to Rose’s workplace complaint, this period continued tensions between herself and McAdoo. That includes an informal meeting held Aug. 6 — a day after Sisolak’s press conference — between Rose, board leaders and Reynolds and Cage.
At that meeting, McAdoo allegedly directed Reynolds to draft a mandate for employees to be ready “within moments” of the governor’s announcement, and said, according to Rose’s account, “that if the governor was going to ‘punish’ students with required vaccines, that it was ‘only fair’ to do the same to employees.”
In her complaint, Rose says she pushed back on the timeline of an employee mandate. However, records involving these discussions were not included in the documents obtained by The Indy.
In any case, regents approved the drafting of an employee mandate at the end of August, and one month later, regents approved the mandate itself in a vote that secured McAdoo’s support.
Speaking ahead of the vote on Sept. 30, McAdoo described the creation of the mandate as “the only right thing to do,” especially in the wake of the creation of the student mandate.
The landscape of today, and tomorrow
The student mandate has been a moot point for months, effectively lifted after six Republican lawmakers voted against making the original emergency regulation from the Board of Health permanent.
As of Friday, Rose has formally resigned from the system. McAdoo and Carter remain chair and vice chair, but neither will run for re-election this fall.
In her exit, it is unclear how the factionalism portrayed in her complaint and in these emails will shift.
External forces long arrayed against the regents — especially a business community that has for years sought to minimize their influence both at the Legislature and at the ballot box.
These groups and individuals have backed Rose throughout the investigation into Rose’s complaint, and in so doing portrayed regents as rudderless and ineffectual.
Among them: Gov. Steve Sisolak, a former regent himself.
“Your leadership, or lack thereof, could very well shape the future of our state,” Sisolak wrote in a letter to regents defending Rose in February.