Indy Q&A: DeRionne Pollard on why it’s ‘high time’ for Nevada State University name change
In September 2022, Nevada State College administrators came to the Board of Regents in charge of Nevada’s higher education system with a pitch: What if it was Nevada State University instead?
Nestled in Henderson, the institution is the newest member of the Nevada System of Higher Education, founded only in 2002. The only four-year public college in the state, Nevada State occupied the gap between the state’s four community colleges and its two major universities.
The public renaming push came after years of internal efforts, sorting through what a potential name change would look like and what it would require. Administrators, namely President DeRionne Pollard, touted it as a boon both for the institution and for its students, arguing that the “university” label provided tangible and intangible benefits beyond the “college” moniker.
Pollard also pledged that the name change would leave intact funding structures, faculty pay rules and research requirements. Nevada State University would still be separate from UNLV and UNR, maintaining its identity as a teaching university rather than a research one.
But regents balked — too many technical questions swirled with, at the time, too few answers.
More than nine months later, however, the name change is a reality. Regents approved a roadmap to a name change during a meeting in March, technical kinks now sufficiently ironed out. With a new law passed by state lawmakers and signed last month by Gov. Joe Lombardo, Nevada State University became the school’s official name on July 1.
In an interview, Pollard said that the biggest difference is that “it really isn't different.”
“Nevada State has been doing this work for a number of years,” Pollard said. “So for me, I think this is really just a validation of that. I've worked at and attended all types of institutions, and the fact that we have a name which is now encompassing of what we do — I think it is high time.”
Though now legally Nevada State University, the full impact of the change will continue to come in phases, Pollard said. Regents must still approve additional internal regulatory changes at the end of this month, while notification and accreditation processes will continue through the summer.
Smaller changes — updating the website, replacing business cards and letterheads — will come soon, too, ahead of a planned grand renaming on Aug. 30 that Pollard said will mark a “celebratory moment” for the new university (and coincide with the end of summer breaks).
Pollard sat down with The Nevada Independent last week to talk about what the name change means — and what comes next.
Editor’s note: This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
The Nevada Independent: I wanted to ask about the accreditation issue, because that was such a big issue last year when it first came before the regents [and was delayed as a result]. Is that still expected to go through?
The interesting part is — maybe it was a bigger deal for people who did not know higher education as well as those of us who do know — that the accrediting body uses terminology that suggests that this is a substantive change, because they have different categories of changes.
If you hear that as a lay person, when you hear “substantive change,” you’re concerned that this has a very significant and very arduous process for that approval.
What we were able to do is to submit to the accreditor and receive, first, a letter from them that said, “Here's the process.” We then submitted a letter to them and the accreditor approved it already on May 31 that, pending the final notification from the college after the Board of Regents [approves the change], it would support and we'll have the name change noted.
And then we’ll send a letter to the accreditor sometime later this month saying, “Yes, we are done” — they've already done a review of our materials, they have done the work that they needed to get done, they had our peers do it and we're all set.
The accreditation, while for some, seems to have been a bigger deal than it was, we are grateful that the accreditor was able to move swiftly and deliberately as they did.
In the initial discussion [last year], there was a proposal about getting former graduates diplomas with “university” on them — is that still something that's being discussed?
One of the things that we've asked our accreditor, what is the mechanism by which we can provide students with credentials that have the new name on it? And what they have told us is that, one, we need to learn and look at what peers are doing.
What they don't want to see us doing is simply saying, ‘Oh, Nevada State University has changed its name, everybody walk in and get a new credential’ without having some type of deliberative process that speaks to students having been validated, their rationale as to why they're doing this, what they need it for and so forth. And for us, we want to also make sure that it is cost effective. That’s what we have done and guaranteed with the regents, with the Legislature, that we would do.
So we're seeking additional guidance from the accreditor and in fact, I just met this morning with my Accreditation Liaison Officer who was suggesting a pathway forward. Because as you pointed out, the number one question that we have been asked, if not once, has been 1,000 times: Can I now order a new diploma with the name on it? And we're telling them we're seeking additional advice and counsel from our accrediting body and we'll hopefully have something up by the end of this month.
One of the things that the Legislature did this year is that we are almost surely getting a funding formula revision in 2025. Does this name change shift the way that the institution or your administration would approach something like a new funding formula?
Right now, the current formula, in the most simple terms, speaks to the institutions based on the type of work they do. They do work where they're leading toward a baccalaureate degree, they're doing work where they lead to career and technical education, they're doing work that leads to professional education, graduate, R1 [a national designation noting high research activity, and obtained by both UNR and UNLV], whatever the case may be.
Where I think the formula currently is somewhat inconsistent, or perhaps not as well thought through, is that it speaks to the types of students that we serve. I know that institutions who have a significant portion of their student body being first-gen, there are different support structures and services and programs that are necessary and essential to the needs of those students. Perhaps we need to account for that in the formula.
While certainly at Nevada State University, nearly half of our students are first generation college students and may benefit if the formula looks at that, that is not dependent upon the fact that we are a college or a university — it is based on the students that we serve.
Looking in the long term — 10, 20, 30 years — how does this name change remain self contained? How is it that in a decade's time, there isn't mission creep, or admission requirements, as an example, stay where they are? How do you make that promise?
The system itself and the Board of Regents has the ability to contain that type of mission creep that you're describing. But I'd go a step further and say two other things: One is that higher education will just have to evolve, and it needs to constantly be thinking about how does it meet the needs of the populace for whom it was intended to serve?
I don't have an answer in 20, 15 years, what that might look like. But I think that we risk the worst thing happening and becoming irrelevant if we're not constantly thinking about how we evolve as a system and as an institution.
When asked the same question previously in some other spaces, I noticed that the system did this very same thing for the Community College of Southern Nevada [renamed to the College of Southern Nevada (CSN) in 2007]. It did that work because it recognized that the higher education landscape was evolving and changing. That did not affect, as far as I know, admissions requirements, faculty salaries or any of the things that folks raise at this particular point.
What I love about your question is that, at the root of it, it is a fundamental conversation about what do we want higher education to look like in the state of Nevada, and are we prepared to plan appropriately for that?
To that specific point, coming out of the legislative session, the system as a whole basically got reset to pre-pandemic conditions, but really not much further beyond that. Looking at where your institution is, where you sit as a president, do you think that you or the system is prepared to have those conversations?
That [is a question] of leadership. I've said in multiple spaces and will continue to say so, good governance is essential to the future of a system.
I don't know if, right now, we have a collective sense about what our future is going to be. And that's okay. We may not yet have a collective sense.
Where the struggle is though, is that — are we prepared to do the heavy lifting, and the hard work of figuring out what that looks like? And are we willing to challenge some of the traditional orthodoxy about higher education that we may or may not have been willing to challenge before? Are we prepared to have a system that says yes, we have two outstanding R1 institutions, we have four tremendously talented community colleges, and we have a phenomenal state university as well. And we also have a research institute that is bar none, one of the most effective in the country, if not the world.
So those are things that we have — and then if we're prepared to say that, what does the preferred future look like? What leadership is required in that and are we prepared to adequately fund it? Are we prepared to adequately think about how we structure it? And at the end of the day, are we willing to challenge some of those idiosyncrasies and orthodoxies that may not have been things that we've thought about in the past?
So that's a long answer to your question, I did that on purpose. Because I think it's more nuanced than saying yes or no.
I think it's very obvious that we have work to do. The question is, do we have the capacity and the willingness to do the work?