For stability in higher ed, Nevada should turn back the clock to 2005

Restructuring and reforming Nevada’s system for governing the state’s colleges and universities will require some complicated and lengthy steps, but there’s one improvement that can and should happen immediately.

That’s for the Nevada Board of Regents to rescind the chancellor’s power to fire school presidents.

That authority rested solely with the regents until 2005, when the board restructured the system by voting to give the chancellor the power of dismissal.

As a result, consider what’s happened at UNLV in terms of continuity and stability.

From 1979 to 2005, UNLV had four presidents, including an interim who served a year.

Since 2005, the president who was in place at that time was fired before her contract was up, and UNLV has had four other leaders, including an acting president who served a year. And another one’s one the way, as Len Jessup will leave UNLV soon after commencement, having been pressured out in the third year of his five-year contract.

That’s a huge difference, and it goes a long way toward explaining why UNLV has made progress only in fits and starts during recent years.

Make no mistake, the change in the chancellor’s authority is the key factor.

Robert Lang, the executive director of Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute, explained why last week during a panel presentation.

With a 13-member board, he said, it’s not easy to obtain the seven votes needed to fire a president unless that person has committed a serious malfeasance or has otherwise proven to be grossly unfit for the position. Nevada’s open meetings law limits private communications about official business between members of a public board, which adds complexity to building consensus behind the scenes. And given that termination proceedings would need to take place in public, a board member would risk ending up on the losing end of a vote by trying to fire a president without clearly having support.

But with a chancellor who has firing power, things get far easier for board members. A small group — especially if that group includes the chairman or vice chairman — can work behind the scenes to pressure the chancellor into ousting a president even if that leader has made relatively minor missteps.

It certainly appeared that things were heading that way for Jessup, who had become the target of increasingly harsh, public criticism from a group of regents and had been criticized by Chancellor Thom Reilly in January over “operational deficiencies” at UNLV. Jessup, unlike any of his peers, also had been directed to provide a self-assessment as part of his evaluation process.

So there’s a playbook for getting a university president fired in Nevada, even for weak causes: find a few shortcomings, make noise about them in public and perhaps to the media, express deep concern about them to the chancellor and encourage other board members to do the same.

Granted, a chancellor who fired a president without solid support from the board would risk being terminated. But the same reasons that make it complicated for the board to fire a president also apply to getting rid of a chancellor.

Answering a question from a UNLV supporter about how to address frustration with the regents and NSHE, Lang suggested urging the regents to reset the governance structure to the way it existed before 2005. At that time, the chancellor was on the same line on the organizational chart as the presidents, with the regents overseeing the entire group.

Lang is right. Many steps need to follow, including reducing the size of the board of regents and making at least some of the positions appointed as opposed to elected, but this is a logical place to start.