Indy Q&A: Former chancellor Dale Erquiaga on the ‘circular firing squad’ of Nevada higher ed
When Dale Erquiaga took on the role of acting chancellor for the Nevada System of Higher Education ( NSHE) last summer, he did so embracing the knowledge that the job came with a ticking clock.
The Board of Regents governing higher education had just weeks earlier finalized the messy end of Chancellor Melody Rose’s tenure leading the state’s higher education system. In Erquiaga, they sought a familiar and temporary hand to steady the ship through the upcoming legislative session before hiring a new permanent chancellor by the end of 2023.
Erquiaga has spent decades in and around Nevada’s political landscape, including a stint as the state’s K-12 chief under then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, a longtime friend. His time at NSHE now marks his retirement, a formal end to a 40-year career.
In an interview last week with The Nevada Independent, Erquiaga said his year as chancellor was an honor, especially after having served as state superintendent — “no one in history has done that,” he said — even if it was also “probably the most difficult job I’ve had.”
After the 2023 legislative session wrapped, the regents hit an impasse at the end of a monthslong search for a new chancellor. After identifying a leading candidate, the board narrowly (and tumultuously) voted to scuttle the process in June.
As that search fell apart, regents looked for a new chancellor with a renewed sense of urgency. Erquiaga would not be out by the end of the year, but now by mid-August. In a matter of weeks, the chancellor’s office — functionally the CEO of Nevada higher education — would be vacant.
For a portion of August, it technically was — Patty Charlton, a former CSN administrator stepped in as “officer in charge” for an extended period, before being tapped by regents as an interim chancellor after yet another potential candidate pulled out at the last minute.
So why did Erquiaga leave early?
“It became clear to me that either I wasn't the right person for the job or the job was unmanageable,” Erquiaga said. “And so I wanted them to have someone else as quickly as possible. And I think it's no secret that I don't get along with the current chair of the board [Regent Byron Brooks]. And so it was easier for me to leave and let someone else try to make a difference.”
In an emailed response for comment, Brooks thanked Erquiaga for his service and wished him “nothing but success as he moves forward.”
“I am disappointed he chose to comment on his perception of our professional relationship while he worked at the System Office,” Brooks said. “I remain committed to maintaining a professional and cooperative atmosphere within the Nevada System of Higher Education, prioritizing the best interests of our faculty, staff, students, and the institutions we serve.”
The Nevada Independent’s interview with Erquiaga continues below. This interview has been edited for length.
When you stepped into this role last summer, how did you expect it to go? And now that you're out of it, how would you reflect on a year being chancellor?
When I took over I had been, like most Nevadans, aware of the dysfunction at the [Board of Regents] level, and so I expected it to be a challenge to help the board get through a legislative session.
What surprised me was, frankly, the level of dysfunction among the presidents as well as the board.
When you are the chancellor, I felt, you're caught in this sort of 21-gun circular firing squad with eight presidents and 13 regents that surprised me and, frankly, disappointed me. The system is, frankly, more dysfunctional than I expected.
What is it that you were expecting from the presidents?
I expected them to be a team and to support each other and support the chancellor in a [legislative] session, in particular when the budget was on the line. And that was sort of hit and miss. It's hit and miss among individual presidents, they have their own agendas, and it's hit and miss as to whether or not they work together or whether or not they're simply defending their own institution.
The system isn't really a system, and that's a long time coming. It's the way the board [of Regents] has positioned itself. It's the way the presidents have had to compete for dollars. And so it felt to me as if things are unraveling at a system that I care about a great deal and really believed in as a unified entity of eight institutions and the board.
I think the institutions will compete during this interim as they try to get the formula to benefit them.
I believe at the end of the day, there probably will be two formulas, one for R1 [a national designation for high-research universities held by both UNR and UNLV] and research institutions and one for everything else — the community colleges and the state [university] — and I definitely think that's appropriate.
Their missions are very different. Their student populations are largely different. And I think the, to use your phrase, “can of worms” that has been opened, was actually opened by Sen. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas) with his proposal to split the system into pieces.
[Editor’s note: Doñate sponsored a bill, SB347, in the 2023 session that proposed creating separate governing structures for universities and community colleges in a bid to “deconsolidate” the system. The measure was gutted and replaced with language creating a new commission on higher education funding, but ultimately never received a vote.]
It's possible that that's a recommendation of this funding formula revision, particularly with the ballot question about regent control coming. So in 2025, we may have two systems, or three, that are funded in different ways and governed in different ways. And I think that too, was a long time coming.
I was going to ask about that, so I'm glad you brought it up. That ballot question would decide if regents are going to remain in the constitution, and give additional latitude for legislators to exert control over NSHE. Is there a way to imagine what higher ed could look like in 2025, if we have both the ballot question pass and a funding formula revision?
I think it will look very different at the end of the '25 session, and I think that's a good thing.
I was long opposed to the ballot question to remove the regents from the constitution, and I now support it. I think it's time for Nevada to rethink how it governs higher education and what it expects of higher education, whether that's the community colleges for workforce development, or the research universities.
So I’m frankly hopeful that the 2025 session kind of breaks the old model and rethinks what we expect of this system — or systems.
At what point did you change your mind on the ballot question?
About a month after I took this job.
Were there things you wanted to do as chancellor that you couldn't get done? What was at the top of that list?
Probably two things. The top of the list was workforce development, and how the system of higher education could better align with the state.
I had worked on that when I was in the governor’s [Sandoval’s] office, and I had certainly seen it sort of play out as Nevada tried to to recover or during the pandemic, where folks would go to get jobs.
And that, I thought, I could help with. I had a background in some of those policy areas. And the distractions of that job, of serving as chancellor and the continual infighting among the board and its arguing over personnel policies and its handbook is just a distraction. I didn't get to that.
And the second thing — we did a little better, I think, with concerns about mental health in the post-pandemic era, because I heard it from students and heard it from staff. And as I had been very candid, I have issues of my own and mental health and anxiety and so I thought I could help there.
We were able to carry out a grant and I get some of that work done, and we were able to do a survey and kind of create a focus. But again, lots of focus on minutiae of administration and not issues that actually impact students. And so that made it a little disappointing.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the system over, say, the next 10 years?
First and foremost, the system is challenged by enrollment, and that's happening across the country. Folks are questioning the value of the higher education credential.
And our system is very archaic in the way we approach students and enrollment, the way we charge them fees that are sort of hidden off of the normal registration and tuition fees. I think that's the first thing that the board and the new chancellor and the presidents should talk about and probably for a while, the only thing they should talk about is — what is the product they’re offering and what is the value? Because the world is changing and we're behind and keeping up with other institutions of higher education are changing.
I think second is the issue of workforce development. How does the system support today's Nevada economy and the economy of the future?
And it may be that that leads to a conversation about curriculum delivery or artificial intelligence or the kinds of credentials we offer — there's conversations in other states about a three-year bachelor's degree instead of a four year. I think all of those conversations are about what do folks do with the degree we give them? Can they go and earn a living wage? And that I think should be on the table as well.
And I say that as somebody who has a liberal arts degree; I'm not saying everybody needs a credential in a vocation. I think that folks with liberal arts degrees have much to offer in a world of communications and artificial intelligence. I just would love to see that conversation.
I hear people say all the time that there simply aren't enough Nevada students who are going to college in Nevada … but does that issue presuppose that there, like you said, is that value to getting that degree? Have we put the cart before the horse when we have these discussions?
I think we're expecting Nevadans to matriculate into a system that was designed largely in the 1950s and '60s. And it shouldn't be a surprise that they're not attending a system that's wired that way.
What we're offering them isn't what they need. And that's a conversation that should be happening.
Do you think that's a conversation that is happening?
It’s why we have enrollment problems. It’s why we have concerns about our own persistence and graduation rates at the higher ed level. And there's really no conversation between K-12 and higher ed and in my experience, there really hasn't ever been. It's awfully hard.
K-12 does their job: get students to the finish line. Higher ed does its job based on rather antiquated rules about what it means to have a degree, and they don't really talk about what happens in that space of transition and matriculation. And I was that way too. I was part of both of those systems, and never did a very good job of talking to the other system. So I think what we could be hopeful for are better leaders who could do that.
To what degree are we turning the Titanic? That NSHE is such a large and unwieldy institution that has so many institutions within the institution?
Here's the thing, I don't think it's actually a large institution. I think it's a byzantine institution. One of my staff said to me, ‘it's not a system, it's a confederation.’ I think that's the problem.
It's about unifying vision and direction. It's really not that big — there's 15,000 employees, and a number of campuses. That's nothing compared to the entire state government or large corporations.
I think it's more about the makeup of the rules for how those bodies interact, which is why I've come to the conclusion that changing the constitution and having the Legislature and the governor deal with some of those interrelations is — it's time for that.
Looking back at the year that was, do you think that you were a successful chancellor?
I'd have to say no.
I was able to get the system through the Legislature with a good budget, and I'm very proud of that. And when [former regents Chair] Cathy McAdoo asked me to take this job, that was her first priority, and so I feel good about the legislative session.
But I wish that I could have done more for students. And that leaves me feeling like I would not give myself a very good grade for this last year. Again, I'm fortunate and proud of what we did at the Legislature and proud that [institutions] have money now to do what they all say they wish to do.
So I'm hopeful for what happens next.