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Indy Q+A: Higher ed chancellor on workforce 'misalignment,' diversifying faculty and whether Nevada was late to student vaccine mandate

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Higher Education

After more than a year and a half of a thus-far unending global pandemic, colleges and universities in Nevada have slowly tipped the scales back toward the “new normal,” with the in-person college experience largely resurrected amid widespread vaccine access.  

But one year after taking the Nevada System of Higher Education’s top job, Chancellor Melody Rose says “we have to remember that we are still not in normal circumstances.” 

“I think about managing COVID as this incredibly high degree of difficulty,” Rose said. “And there's no playbook for it. No one has ever done this before in our lives. We can't go to our mentors, we can't go to other institutions and say, ‘Gosh, when you did this 20 years ago, how did it work out? What are the lessons advice for me?’ We are making up the playbook as we go”.

The Nevada Independent sat down with Rose on Monday to discuss the system’s response to COVID, her thoughts on efforts to create vaccination requirements for students and faculty, and how some major legislative changes from 2021 could shape the future of Nevada’s higher education system. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Let’s start with COVID, and certainly what’s on a lot of people’s minds, and that is the COVID vaccine mandate. In the run up to the decision by the Board of Health to mandate vaccines for students enrolling for in-person classes in the spring, we heard a lot of criticism from some students and faculty that there was no action on a mandate for the fall semester.

Was the vaccine mandate for students implemented too late? Should there have been some effort to get some kind of mandate in place for the fall, rather than the spring? 

I would say that on the day that the Board of Health voted to create a required student vaccine, 80 percent of American colleges and universities had not made a decision about the vaccine for students. So that puts us in the early adopters of that decision — not behind, not delayed — but in the early adopter camp. 

[When the Board of Health voted for a student vaccine requirement on Aug. 20, 740 colleges and universities had moved to implement similar mandates, according to a tracker of such mandates from the Chronicle of Higher Education. As of Aug. 31, that number had increased to 831. Those numbers are roughly 19 and 21 percent, respectively, of the more than 3,900 degree granting institutions recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.]

And so I think it's important to recognize that while there may have been some coverage of the colleges and universities that were really leading that conversation early, they were always doing so with an asterisk. Every one of them was saying, “we would like to have required vaccines for students if the following conditions are met,” right? And you're well aware of those conditions — action by the FDA to fully approve, action by either a board of health or a board of regents, depending on what your state statutes say around that issue. 

So those earliest systems that were getting headlines, I think we, somewhere in the narrative, we forgot to look at the fine print, and recognize that they were still taking very cautious steps in that direction. So today, we're among that first 20 [percent] who have gone that direction.

Relative to that fine print, your statements early on did reference the FDA approval as a potential legal roadblock. But that approval still was not in place when the Board of Health took its vote, so what was it about early August that the system was ready to move forward? 

I think we have to remember how fluid the situation is. If you look at what was happening in June, what was happening in the early days of July, we really understood nationally that we were in a pretty good position for fall semester, that the virus felt under control, and then bam, you get the Delta variant. And you get the Department of Justice, stepping in to signal that the FDA might move toward full implementation. 

So the landscape during a pandemic changes very quickly and in some cases, very dramatically. And you have to be prepared to pivot. And I think that's exactly what happened over the summer.

Are there any concerns at the system level that a significant number of students might disenroll because of the mandate? 

Oh, gosh, I would hope not. 

I'm a first-generation college student, and I've spent my life encouraging young people to get a degree, and to have the kind of transformational experience that I was fortunate enough to have. So I have a tremendous amount of compassion for those who have vaccine hesitancy, whether they're students, faculty, staff, general public, [I] really feel for folks that are going through those sentiments. 

But I think we've also arrived at a timeline that allows for implementation that isn't hurried, that can be thoughtful and measured and well supported by the evidence. So certainly, my hope is that we don't lose a single student over the vaccine requirement. 

And I think on the other side of the fence, you might retain some students who were worried about the campus not being vaccinated. 

The agenda for next week’s regents meeting includes an item that, if approved, would give your office the ability to draft a system wide COVID vaccine mandate for employees. But state employees, including NSHE employees, are already included under a state policy that requires either proof of vaccination or weekly COVID testing. 

Do you think there should be a faculty mandate? And if so, why do you think that NSHE should go one step further in implementing such a mandate? 

I'd actually like to back up your question and speak first to the governor's plan for employees. Because as we all know, for the past year and a half, most of the COVID policy has been guided by our governor and our role at NSHE has been to interpret that guidance for a campus application and provide guidance and make sure that we are in alignment with his direction. 

So I just want to pause because I have to give credit to my colleagues who are literally working around the clock right now to implement the governor's vision for “vax or test” for employees. And there's a tremendous amount of infrastructure that has to be created in order to fully adhere to that directive.

In fact, today, all employees across NSHE institutions will be receiving a confidential notice from their HR department about their vaccine status that we have on file to allow us to clean up that data, if there are any errors in that, before we move forward to asking unvaccinated folks to test. 

[An initial state deadline to require vaccination proof or testing for NSHE employees was delayed to the end of August, back from Aug. 15, to accommodate internal HR changes.]

So with that as the backdrop, and we certainly hope that through that direction from the governor, that more Nevadans on our campuses will get themselves vaccinated and will be safe and be able to protect face to face learning, as well as our economy. But the issue of employee vaccines is again, one that is a national conversation. 

This is uncharted waters. And it's important to recognize that when a governing body is considering something that is unprecedented, doing so through shared governance, through inclusion, listening to all stakeholders is a vital component to getting the policy. 

I think having this on the board's agenda in September is appropriate. It is timely, given the decision around students, that if we were going to say, “Gosh, we all need to be in this together,” doing so on the same timeline is prudent. 

The system’s budgets came out of this year’s legislative session a bit mixed, with more than $93 million in restored money for positions held-vacant through the pandemic, but another $76 million in cuts to operating budgets. 

One outstanding piece of the state’s budget picture is hundreds of millions in additional federal aid provided through the American Rescue Plan. What is your sense that that money could be used to make NSHE’s budget whole? And why, if it all, should lawmakers consider increasing higher ed budgets when they come back in 2023?   

I am a fierce advocate for making our budgets whole, and let me give a few more pieces of context to our budgets. So I have always said in higher education, a flat budget is a down budget, because your expenses are going to increase. So we need to recover that $76 million, because those are dollars that go to student services directly. This is money for advising, this is money for health centers, this is money for more instruction, so that you have a good student teacher ratio across the board. These dollars are about student success. 

It's also important to understand that our expenditures went up during the pandemic, not down because of all of the mitigation efforts that we had to go through. Student revenues went down, of course, and auxiliary revenues went down. 

And beyond that, to remember that another one of our functions is research and development. So there's a multiplier effect, when you invest in our research infrastructure, our labs, etc., our research faculty, they create tech transfer, they create new aspects of our economy that diversify our economy, so that the next time we're faced with a downturn of this magnitude, we have a more diversified economy than the one we had entering march of 2020. 

So those are some of the reasons. And I would say about the one-time monies that you're referring to, our conversation internally within the Council of Presidents is really, “How do we approach those one-time monies,” whether they're coming in through the state, or whether they're potential federal earmark opportunities. This is a once-in-a-career opportunity for us to create lasting investment in our students, staff and faculty — oftentimes through infrastructure,  because one-time dollars typically can't be used for operating, because that money is going to eventually evaporate. 

Lawmakers have long criticized the transparency of NSHE’s budget, including in the 2021 session, when Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) described the system’s budget frequently as “behind a curtain.” How would you respond to those criticisms?

I would push back to some degree because I also think Assemblywoman Carlton gave us a lot of compliments this session. And in fact, on the record, complimented [NSHE Chief Financial Officer] Andrew Clinger, who did a masterful job presenting our budget, and thanked him for his additional transparency and availability. And the feedback we got from many legislators was that it felt like a new day at NSHE, that there were new relationships forming, and that this was a positive direction that we would need to continue to move into. 

And in point of fact, I actually welcome the state's audit of NSHE [this year, lawmakers passed a bill, AB416, that authorized an audit of non-state funded NSHE budgets dating back to 2019]. In fact, I was present about a month ago for the initial meeting with the auditors and my NSHE team, and I really welcome their exploration. We're looking forward to that, and participating in that audit, because I think that that will be the definitive word. I think that having that audit completed collaboratively, will put this question to rest.

As a function of another bill, AB450, it’s possible that lawmakers may seek to revise the system’s funding formula in 2023. The last time the funding formula was debated in Carson City, those deliberations became a major source of tension between NSHE and legislators. If we do have that discussion again in 2023, what’s changed?

First of all, redoing a funding formula is not for the faint of heart, no matter who does it, and no matter when they do it — I've been through that in another state. It's a challenging environment. 

So I think we just have to appreciate the fact that that's complex. It's tense, because institutions don't want to lose out in the changes. And obviously, I would be a fierce advocate for all of the institutions advancing their position. 

So I think we just have to appreciate the circumstances. What I would say is that so much has changed in the 10 years since the funding formula was established. We've gone through the two worst economic downturns of our entire lives in 100 years, we've gone through a pandemic, the industry of higher education is going through humongous disruption and transformation. And we're really being called, appropriately called, to advance our workforce efforts and elevate them to a new position. 

A few things that I think are very hopeful about how the conversation would go. One, of course, is that we do have AB450. And that committee may, in fact, ask for a funding formula revision. I don't know yet, I mean, we haven't populated the committee, and it hasn't met yet. But certainly that is a potential outcome. 

Secondly, I will be presenting to the board in a couple of weeks, also, our vision for statewide strategic planning. And I think this is a critical component in answering your question of, you know, why would people get along better? Part of the beauty of going through a strategic planning process is you invite everyone to the table. So the vision for strategic planning that I'll present to the board and seek their input on in a few weeks, is what I would affectionately refer to as a “y'all come” strategic planning process. 

We will also, as an ancillary benefit, be developing friends and advocates. And so that if we went into the ‘23 [legislative] session with a request, say, for a funding formula revision or any other request, the concept would be that we would have developed the advocacy and the support for that request very intentionally in advance. 

AB450 is broadly tasked with putting together an interim committee to study the alignment between NSHE’s community colleges, their funding and their governance, and the state’s workforce development goals. However, the language of “alignment” presents a question of the negative, that there’s a misalignment in existing programs. Do you think that is the case? 

I think that our [community college] campuses, and I would include Nevada State College in this as well, which was formed for the very purpose of workforce, teachers and nurses predominantly, I would say that there are tremendous things happening in workforce on all of our campuses. What has not been done, to my knowledge, is really aligning the data about what is needed for workforce, and doing a gap analysis with that data against what we are currently offering. 

Under [Vice Chancellor for Workforce Development Caleb Cage’s] direction, we are already processing some of that data working very closely with [the Governor’s Office of Economic Development] to collect what they have and surfacing that so that we can map it onto our existing certificates, badges, associate's degrees and beyond. And that crosswalk is the essential component to understanding if there's a gap somewhere. 

And so if there are gaps that are surfaced through that data collection, that will provide us the direction we need to refocus or add things that are new for new industries that are just coming online. But it also will inform the funding conversation. And I think this is a critical component, that's important for the public to understand is that many of our workforce efforts that are non-credit bearing, they don't result in a degree [and] are not funded through the state appropriation. 

And so if we want to change that, if we want to increase our supply of those opportunities, those learning opportunities, one solution for doing that is to fund it. 

Looking at the system’s diversity, there is a wide gap between the diversity of faculty and students at NSHE institutions. As of 2018, NSHE’s own data show 67 percent of all employees were white, while just 43 percent of students were white. What’s the mechanism by which the system actually closes that gap?

Well, part of it is about changing the conversation and creating intentionality. I've seen this successfully happen at other institutions. And I think creating an intentionality and creating a plan, where we are holding ourselves accountable to the outcomes will be absolutely critical. 

And [it’s] recognizing that these things don't happen overnight. And we have a team from NSHE, participating in a national-level conversation with other systems to share best practices. And the first thing we're doing, of course, is collecting the data so that we know exactly where are the gaps, so that we can hold ourselves accountable for measurable improvements over time. 

And so then that gets to the strategies, right? How do you get there? How do you get a faculty and a staff that again, mirror our student bodies today and our student bodies of the future, because they're going to continue to become increasingly diverse. And that's, you know, there's no silver bullet, right? 

What I'll tell you is one of the techniques that I saw work very effectively at one of the institutions in Oregon, when I was Chancellor there, and that was on one campus, we had, at the time, a [Carnegie R1 very high research activity] institution focused on hiring senior faculty of color. So these are folks who are hired in with tenure. And then they become mentors, to the young folks coming up behind them, which I think changes the conversation. 

Now, I will tell you, that's an expensive strategy. And it's expensive because it costs a lot more to hire a senior professor than an assistant professor. So those are the kinds of things that our task force will be looking at, and analyzing and evaluating what makes sense for Nevada, what makes sense for our institutions. 

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