In April of last year, then Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Bethany Barnes dropped a bombshell on the higher education community.
She revealed a series of emails that showed officials of the Nevada System of Higher Education, “actively worked to undermine the Legislature’s effort to overhaul college and university funding models … going so far as to present a false document to lawmakers and joking about it afterward."
This led the board to ask for the resignation of Chancellor Dan Klaich. Though the board, in its public meeting on the subject, seemed to do so reluctantly.
It also led lawmakers to vow to change the governance structure of NSHE, so that the legislators could oversee it. Earlier this month, the Legislature began its first steps to keeping that promise.
Assemblyman Elliot Anderson (D) - Dist. 15 is one of the lawmakers behind a bill that would bring NSHE under the power of the Nevada Legislature by taking the agency's provisions out of the Nevada Constitution.
As Anderson sees it, NSHE is a board without any oversight. His experience is that when the Legislature tries to make law on anything to do with higher ed, NSHE's staff and regents claim constitutional protection.
This hinders lawmakers from overseeing college and university budgets, and taking up issues such as separating community colleges from the overall university system.
In fact, Anderson said, lawmakers have been threatened with lawsuits if they try to oversee NSHE.
“The Supreme Court has opined that we can do things to all of state government but we can’t do anything that just directly affects the regents, or even begins to intrude on their authority to manage the university,” Anderson said.
NSHE Regents are resisting the change. Vice-chair Allison Stevens testified before the Assembly Legislative Operations committee last week. Her worry is that higher education might become a political football like it did when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker imposed changes in that state.
"In 2014, we had a red wave. In 2016, we had a blue wave. And one of the things we need to really make sure is that higher education is not subject to political change," Stevens told the committee.
This elicited a sharp response from Leg Ops chairwoman Olivia Diaz:
"I take offense to you saying that this is a very political atmosphere and that we can't do our jobs responsibly and shape good policy because we are of different parties. I just have to say that that is not very respectful."
Anderson told KNPR's State of Nevada that he understands that people in higher education are concerned that legislative oversight could mean interference in academics in Nevada universities and colleges.
Anderson said it is the governance portion of NSHE that he is concerned about. Any changes to policy about how universities and colleges are run currently hit a break wall because of the state's unique system. Anderson just wants to put a whole in that wall to shake up the agency's culture.
“I think it’s a huge step to changing the fourth-branch culture that will make the board of regents hopefully feel more like partners with the Legislature rather than adversaries,” he said.
Because the bill changes the state constitution, it must be passed by the Legislature twice and then go to the voters.
The Board of Regents is not the only statewide entity Anderson wants to change. He also wants to eliminate the treasurer and comptroller offices from the list of elected offices, and make them appointed by the governor.
"We need to ensure we're getting well-qualified financial managers who aren't focused on politics and running for governor, as Treasurer Schwartz as indicated that he's going to do.
Treasure Dan Schwartz, in a separate KNPR interview, said that was laughable.
"He wants to modernize the office. He wants to modernize the election process," Schwartz said, "So let me get this straight. You're modernizing the office by taking away probably one of the most important functions of government and appointing it."
Anderson said the state treasurer and the controller need to focusing on managing the state's finances rather than their campaigns.
Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, (D)-Dist.15
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