Higher education lowers itself

As a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Nevada, Reno in the late ’70s, I was shocked the first time I was approached by the athletic department with offers of free tickets to the then enormously popular Wolf Pack games. The catch? Just make sure the football players in the required Spanish class I taught received a passing grade.

That experience ensured I was never going to be much of an alumni supporter. Over the years, I’ve watched as enormous, opulent buildings contributed to campus sprawl while abysmal minority graduation rates were minimized along with the accomplishments of female and minority faculty.

I now occasionally teach a class on the lowly “Letter of Appointment” status, where adjunct faculty are paid a fraction of a salary to handle large classrooms of students, assisting the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) meet the pressing demands of an exploding enrollment with insufficient funds to hire permanent faculty. Like many others who believe in higher education values of scholarship and intellectual freedom, I’ve enjoyed the process of molding young minds and connecting academia to the “real world” of public policy.

When I served in the Legislature, it was no secret that NSHE executives held us in low regard. They delighted in pointing out the low percentage of legislators with a college degree. I observed NSHE lobbyists undermine the efforts of K-12 superintendents in battles for education funding. Campus presidents were threatened with unemployment if they shared off-limits information with key legislators. To their credit, many secretly did anyway.

But my historical distrust of NSHE boiled over in 2014 when University of Nevada, Las Vegas President Donald Snyder suppressed a study by the university’s Center for Business and Economic Research because it pointed out the Education Initiative would net 13,000 jobs and add $1 billion dollars to Nevada’s Gross Domestic Product, which was not the position of the business elite. I was appalled when Chancellor Dan Klaich backed him up.

Later that year, there were plagiarism charges when large sections of a draft study from a think tank, Brookings Mountain West, were incorporated into a NSHE report more to the system’s liking, without permission or attribution.

Then, last September, the Board of Regents confronted allegations that Klaich had pressured consultants to change a report about Nevada’s community colleges because he thought it too negative. Like many, I found the public sympathy-fest of family, friends and political leaders on Klaich’s behalf unseemly, implying that anyone who questioned Klaich’s integrity should be ashamed of themselves. “The Chancellor is guilty—of caring too much,” proclaimed Regent James Leavitt. Nothing was done about his questionable actions.

Next week, the chancellor who cared too much will face grilling by the press, and perhaps the Regents, over the latest consultant scandal uncovered by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Apparently, the Chancellor’s increasingly cozy relationship with his favored consultants resulted in NSHE ghost-writing a memo on the consultant’s letterhead, answering questions from a legislative committee as if the supposedly independent firm had reached that conclusion instead of NSHE. Even the Teflon chancellor can’t emerge unscathed from an unethical situation of this magnitude.

Meanwhile, legislators are competing to see which party can make more political hay with their thundering promises of reform. But more whistleblower protections won’t change a university culture obsessed with hiring basketball coaches, even those fired by other universities for sexual harassment at a time of national heightened awareness of this problem on college campuses. It’s no wonder the arrogance of UNR’s athletic department goes unchecked when the Board of Regents refuses to insist its own executives exemplify a university’s core values of honesty, integrity and freedom of expression.

A Tier One university system? Hardly.