Clash of functions
Regent candidate challenges fundamental assumptions about higher education
Most state officials, noting the correlation between prosperous areas and their nearby campuses, count on Nevada’s higher education system to play a role in economic development. Nevada regents, who oversee the state’s campuses, have long supported that notion.
But if regent candidate Charles Walker is elected, he will bring a whole different viewpoint. He says state higher education should have no such role.
“We spend an awful lot of money on symposiums, research institutes and dog and pony shows out there,” he said.
“I don’t believe that the university system is responsible for economic development.”
But does it have a role in economic development?
“A role—no. The university does provide economic data, which in many cases is provided by the states, and here that [function] has been defaulted to the universities. I’m not going to challenge that as a right or wrong. But I don’t believe that the university’s role is to go out and get business. I believe the university’s role with students is twofold. It’s to attract the best possible students who have a high potential capability of success in graduating, but it also has to go out and knock on doors of potential employers to bring those employers to the campus to offer the students a chance to talk to the employers, potentially get internships and get jobs.”
His opponent, incumbent regent Jason Geddes, does not agree. Geddes responds that education is an economic development tool because it provides a skilled workforce, but it should not stop there: “No doubt whatsoever—we have to be a part of it, 100 percent. … I think we need to work hand in hand. Education is building the workforce that we need for economic development. And it’s going to be those partnerships in higher education and high tech jobs that help build [economic development]. I mean, if you look at all the cities that have weathered the storm in this economy, they’re university cities.”
Geddes, a former state legislator, is distressed at the damage that has already been done to the capacity of the system to assist the business community. He points to the University of Nevada, Reno logistics program, which had expertise in planning the storage and movement of commercial goods. “In this last term of curricular review we shut down the logistics program,” he said.
This was particularly awkward because the Nevada Legislature had a study underway: “Development and Promotion of Logistics and Distribution Centers and Issues Concerning Infrastructure and Transportation.” The findings of that report go to the next legislative session in 2011, which was supposed to use it, in part, to decide how to develop a program at UNR that is being phased out.
It is not only government officials who expect the state’s campuses to play this role. So do many companies. NVEnergy (Sierra Pacific) has an economic development section on its website that notes, “UNR’s Business Logistics Program is considered by the countries’ largest firms to be one of the top 10 in the United States.” As part of a partnership with Ormat, which has geothermal facilities south of Reno, NVEnergy gave money to UNR for a geothermal lab that students use. The election of Walker would likely be a jolt to such arrangements.
Geddes said the problems in higher education in Nevada are dire, particularly given the fact that, after all the cuts the university has made, legislative candidates want more in the next legislature.
“It means we’ll be closing more programs, we’ll be looking at consolidating institutions, and we’ll be looking at closing campuses. … We’ve had to eliminate administration. We’ve shut down career centers, writing centers, math centers.”
But Walker, a former Shell Dutch Oil executive, says the campus budgets are being misspent, with the result that the state is not getting full value for what money is available. On Sept. 30, for example, UNR held a news conference to announce that a $12.2 million federal grant was being used for construction of a new 23,000-square-foot shake table laboratory in the campus earthquake research center. Subsequent news reports on the announcement were filled with superlatives and no competing views. That bothered Walker.
“We actually have no state of the art high tech programs in any of our business, agriculture, science, technology, engineering groups whatsoever,” he charged. “They’re all programs that are behind the times. Example, and you may find this shocking, but the University of Nevada, Reno has been touting a $12 million grant to put in a shake table. … Most people don’t use those anymore. They use a computer model so they don’t have to worry about the destructive [force] destroying something, and they do the calculations very effectively with a computer model. They don’t use the shake tables anymore. So to teach that technology to maybe four or five kids a year on a $12 million investment, it’s not real cost effective to me.”
Geddes said that’s just not so, least of all in the seismology lab.
“I disagree entirely,” he said. “I mean, a simulation is good, and you can do a lot of stuff in the simulation, but as you can see with recent events in Haiti, a lot of the work that [are] real world situations occur at our shake tables. Expanding that is one of the great success stories of the last few years.”
Walker also espoused a broader approach to new lines of study.
“You know, high tech is not just computer science,” he said. “It also is in things like English and the liberal arts. … They need to learn critical thinking, they need to learn problem solving. And then to make those successful, they need to learn communications skills, both oral and written. … Our communications skills are going downhill like I find to be incredible. Younger people are [tweeting] more on a cell phone, and they don’t know how to talk in complete sentences. We need to help them.” He said employers, from Microsoft to small proprietorships, are frustrated about the poor communication skills of college graduates.
He said the higher education system should have one priority above others.
“My focus is the students. We try to do an awful lot of things for an awful lot of people in the higher education system, and we’re spread so thin, we’re not being effective anywhere. I think we need to focus on education for the students.”
Geddes said that even with the grim revenue figures and the damage already done and still to unfold, he stays optimistic.
“We have the plan for higher education we adopted in September that we’ve been working on for four years … a partnership with the state saying, we will focus on what the state needs—health care, environmental engineering, teaching. And we may lose programs. We will be raising tuition and fees. … I mean, we will get through it, we’ll just be smaller institutions.”