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UNR President Marc Johnson sits down with The Nevada Independent for the IndyMatters podcast in Reno on Dec. 17, 2018. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

UNR President Marc Johnson is not planning on going anywhere.

Johnson, who was officially appointed to the university’s top leadership role in 2012 after stints as interim president and provost, told The Nevada Independent on Monday that he’s focused on providing stable leadership to bolster the school’s research programs amid rising enrollment.

“Leadership stability is very important to any organization,” he said. “And I want to ensure that we have stable leadership here. One of UNLV’s issues has been that they’ve had four university presidents in the time that I’ve been here. And it’s very difficult to develop a long-term plan — a long-term set of goals — and fulfill those goals with unstable leadership or rapid turnover of leadership. So I’m really hopeful that UNLV will provide stability in their leadership coming soon.”

During the episode of the IndyMatters podcast, Johnson talked about a number of topics facing the university, from student population growth to affordability to cultural issues on UNR’s campus.

Growth and the Gateway District

At the center of many of UNR’s issues is regional growth and increased enrollment. This fall, 21,463 students enrolled at the university. In the fall of 2012, enrollment for undergraduate and graduate students was at 18,227. That’s an increase of about 17 percent over six years.

“Our enrollment has gone up quite successfully in the last few years,” Johnson said. “And then that [has been] the cause of the greatest challenge during these last few years — to identify the resources necessary to build buildings, to hire faculty, to hire other support staff in order to absorb a rapid rise in enrollment.”

In addition to dealing with increased enrollment, Johnson highlighted the need to invest in ensuring that UNR receives a designation as a top-level research university, as UNLV did on Wednesday.

“A top research university produces knowledge,” he said. “It attracts really serious scientists. And the third thing I would say: It builds the reputation of the university, the city and the state.”

But UNR’s need to grow has forced the university to make difficult decisions in recent years.

The most evident example is the debate over a dozen historic homes in UNR’s Gateway District. Community groups have pushed for years to have the homes, constructed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, preserved.

In the interview on Monday, Johnson said the university would like to see them preserved too, but he added that UNR also needed to make use of the land for facilities, including a parking garage and a life sciences building.

In April, the university solicited bids to move the 12 homes from land it owns south of campus to another location in the region. It received a few offers, but after a deal with Common Ground Urban Development fell apart in November, ten homes remain slated for possible demolition.

“The reason it has become more controversial now is because there is this worry that these houses will be demolished,” Johnson said.

University officials are now focused on saving six of the 10 homes that were identified by a documentarian as having historic value, and they are talking to some potential partners.

At a certain point, Johnson stressed that the university will need to begin fundraising and designing for the new facilities, a process that can take at least a year before construction starts.

“We have to be assured of a building footprint now that is not under a cloud of uncertainty because of a lot of public pressure so that we can start moving to fulfill the [campus] master plan that our Board of Regents has approved,” he said.

Campus climate issues

Like many other college campuses over the past two years, UNR has been forced to contend with the fine boundaries between protecting unfettered free speech and protecting groups targeted by hate speech. A UNR student was featured in the infamous photograph of white nationalists holding tiki torches at the Charlottesville rally in 2017.

Many of these incidents have involved former UNR quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was drafted to the NFL and began sitting out the national anthem in 2016 to protest social injustice. In October, a police officer dressed up as Kaepernick for Halloween, wearing black paint on his face. UNR’s chief of police apologized for the incident, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported.

“What I’ve certainly learned over the last year is that it’s very important that you separate the First Amendment right from the content of the message,” Johnson said. “And when a person is in an emotional state of reaction there is no ability to separate those two concepts.”

But Johnson said that didn’t mean the president of the university could not take a stance on the content of the speech, expressing his own speech to combat hateful messages.

“What we have done as a university is respond to the message,” he said. “First we say people have a right to free expression. Then sometimes we respond to the message. When it’s a white supremacist message, then we can say very clearly that our university is open to everyone.”

Johnson said that he remains aware that issues involving the campus climate remain a high priority for students. Earlier this year, a swastika was found carved into a university residence hall the same day a gunman open-fired on a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Last month, the Nevada Sagebrush published a fraternity document from Tau Kappa Epsilon that included songs portraying violent assaults with explicit sexual imagery. UNR suspended the fraternity, pending an investigation, which Johnson said was ongoing.

“The process is continuing,” he said. “We take these things very seriously. They’re very hurtful. And they’re just stupid. Our president used the excuse at one point of, ‘Oh, that’s just locker room talk.’  Well locker-room talk, if it generates any response from the members in the way they treat other people, then it’s actively harmful messaging. So we we take this very seriously.”

College affordability

The Nevada System of Higher Education is weighing two policy proposals to provide students with more ability to budget their registration fees.

One is a “Registration Fee Guarantee” that would freeze a student’s rates for their four years at a university. The other proposal is a “Predictable Pricing Program” that would be established on a four-year cycle, according to information released by NSHE.

“I certainly think it’s a really good idea to give predictable pricing so that families can plan,” he said. “I’d also say that the registration fees, for what it costs to go to college, is not the biggest expense of going to college. The biggest expense is forgoing the income that you would get from a job, plus housing costs and meals and all of that while you’re not in a full-career job.”

These are challenges, he said, because they are things the university often can’t control. With regional growth, housing costs have increased. Johnson noted that graduate students have complained that their stipends no longer cover what it costs to live near the university.

“That’s a challenge for faculty and students,” Johnson said.

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