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UNR, UNLV set to keep designation as top research universities

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Higher Education
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Despite more than a year and a half of fiscal and academic chaos spurred by the pandemic, two Nevada universities are set to maintain their status as Carnegie “R1” research universities under a preliminary classification announced late Wednesday. 

Determined by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, the R1 or “very high research” classification was first given to both UNR and UNLV in 2018. It was a first, at the time, for any Nevada institution. 

Carnegie classifications are updated on a three-year cycle based on a range of institutional metrics, with the latest cycle designating 137 institutions out of nearly 4,000 as R1. 

In an interview Thursday, UNR President Brian Sandoval likened the classification to “making the Super Bowl.”

“This is as big as it gets,” he said. “We're in a very small group of institutions that receive this designation. So it really strengthens our reputation nationally and internationally. and gives us a designation that really makes us a destination university for students and faculty.”

UNLV President Keith Whitfield also characterized the rapid expansion of the university’s research efforts as “a big deal,” in large part because of its relatively young age — UNLV did not become a separate institution from UNR until 1968, then as Nevada Southern — and an early history based largely on education, rather than research.

“I've been at universities that are 100, 150 years old, and from them, you'd expect it,” Whitfield said. “But from one that is so young, and [that] started off at a different trajectory … We have built into this, kind of, research enterprise — it’s amazing.”

Both universities have accelerated the pace and funding of major research ventures over the past decade, securing millions in new grants, notching hundreds of millions per year in research expenditures and touting major breakthroughs along the way. 

But the pandemic presented new uncertainties, as enrollments stalled amid a forced switch to online learning and state budgets were slashed. Though enrollments have since stabilized, in some cases even increasing into fall 2021, the state budget cuts have remained. 

Amid cratered gaming revenues and uncertain future projections, lawmakers earlier this year slashed higher education budgets by nearly $76 million over two years

Those cuts — despite federal relief money granted to the state government through the expansive American Rescue Plan funds — had worried some top administrators this spring, creating worries about the continued success of the state’s top-tier research status. 

“You are only an R1 university as long as the last ranking that came out ranked you as an R1 university,” UNLV Provost Chris Heavey told The Nevada Independent in May, before legislators had finalized budgets. “Our goal now, obviously, is to stay there, but it's extremely difficult to stay there when you're seeing reduced funding.”

Still, administrators have also argued that COVID revenue shocks have affected all colleges and universities — if often unevenly, and in different ways. 

“We were always confident that we would maintain our status as a Carnegie high research institution,” Sandoval said. “The COVID situation, the pandemic speaks more to the quality of the work of faculty, staff and students in what they accomplished even in the most difficult times.”

This week’s Carnegie announcement will be followed by a six-week review process, making Wednesday’s announcement, for the moment, preliminary. An official designation is expected in late January. 

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