Sun Endorsements:

It’s time for Nevadans to rein in the abusive Board of Regents

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Wade Vandervort

The Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents listen to Attorney Michael Wixom speaks about the UNLV Medical Education Building Project during a special meeting, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

It is time for the state of Nevada to have the kind of professional, qualified and forward-thinking Board of Regents other states enjoy. A “yes” vote on Ballot Question 1 moves us powerfully in that direction.

Moreover, voting yes on Question 1 provides a mechanism to prevent the abuses that Nevada regents have committed for years.

The history of our state regents and the administrative overlords of Nevada’s higher-education system is riddled with mismanagement, incompetence, deception and corruption.

A regent gets caught abusing his authority by demanding preferential treatment for a relative who was studying at UNLV, and nothing happens. A former chancellor deceives state legislators by giving them a phony document, and the regents not only don’t punish him but send him away with a year’s salary. The regents infuriate major donors by micromanaging and harassing a popular UNLV president into leaving, but thumb their noses and move on.

And there’s more. Much more.

So why hasn’t anything been done about it? Because the regents are maddeningly bulletproof, due to the system’s design and the culture that has grown up in it.

The way the board is written into the Nevada Constitution, the regents can be interpreted as a fourth branch of government, untouchable by the governor, the Legislature or anyone except the 13 board members themselves and the people in their districts.

That might not be a problem if the regents policed each other, or if there was an effective way for voters to hold the board accountable. But neither of those is the case. And as a result, the board and the umbrella administrative body it oversees, the Nevada System of Higher Education, have become plagued by poor leadership, bad and self-serving decision-making and an apparent eagerness to pit the state’s two universities against one another, a game in which no one wins.

Now, however, there’s a way for voters to bring the regents under control. Ballot Question 1 removes the regents from the constitution, paving the way for lawmakers to restructure the board and bring accountability back to the oversight of the system.

Simply put, a yes vote on Question 1 puts Nevadans back in charge of their higher-ed system. It allows us to get all of the state’s institutions on equal footing. For Southern Nevadans, it lets us take control of UNLV and realize its incredible potential for bringing growth and innovation to our regional economy.

For voters, the idea of removing the regents from the constitution may seem odd, like we’re giving up something.

But we’re not. We’re gaining power over a broken, toxified system. Here’s why it is critically important for us to vote yes for Question 1 and establish control.

Creating a swamp

The structure of the regents and NSHE is similar to that of a school board and a superintendent’s office in a public-school district. The regents set policy and oversee the NSHE chancellor and administration, who in this analogy would be the superintendent’s office. The chancellor and his administrators in turn manage the presidents and staffs of the various universities, who by comparison would be the principals of the district schools.

But there are fundamental differences in the higher-ed system and other elected bodies, and that’s where a lot of the trouble comes in.

For one, people pay a lot less attention to the Board of Regents than to school districts and other units of government. It’s simple: Nevada’s higher-ed issues don’t directly affect every family, not in the way that decisions by the Legislature, a school board or even a local government body like a city council can affect our lives.

So the regents tend to fly under the radar, which has helped create a culture where they feel like they can do what they want and no one will notice.

The lack of attention also helps create a chilling effect on bringing out qualified candidates for the board. Other factors include laughably weak requirements for candidates (you don’t even need a college degree) and a pittance of pay: $80 per meeting plus a $60 per diem for those meetings.

If you’re a highly qualified and capable public servant, there are a lot more high-profile and better-paying positions on the ballot.

The board has therefore drawn people who really have no business managing a higher-education system. It’s gotten so bad that in the last election, postal carrier Donald Sylvantee McMichael Sr. was elected after running unopposed — despite not having a college degree and admitting he ran for regents only because it was the only position for which he could qualify. He couldn’t seek a partisan position because of Hatch Act restrictions on federal employees, and he couldn’t run for sheriff because it required law enforcement experience, so the regent position was a last resort.

McMichaels’ willingness to serve was commendable, but he’s nowhere close to an ideal leader in the complex and highly specialized area of higher education. And he’s not the only Nevada regent who’s out of his depth.

Let’s be clear, there are good members of the board. But look at regents in other states, and you find the likes of CEOs of major corporations, high-achieving academic leaders, top civic figures and people who are qualified to make decisions and have a depth of knowledge about the impact of higher education on a state. Not so in Nevada, at least not across the board. As it stands now, someone who specifically intends to raze higher education to the ground could be elected: That’s not a formula for good governance.

But for voters, the only real way to affect change on the board is vote out regents or recall them. And the recall process is extremely difficult.

So what’s evolved is a perfect recipe for a swamp. Lowly qualified regents get elected, then make poor decisions or even break the rules, but people largely pay no attention and therefore there are no consequences. The public doesn’t pressure the board members to hold themselves or their colleagues accountable, which opens the door to more mismanagement and bad behavior.

Abuse of authority

To understand why Ballot Question 1 is critical to the future of our state and to every student, faculty and staff member in our universities and colleges, consider the story of Regent Kevin Page.

Last year, in an award-winning series of stories and news analyses, the Sun revealed that Page had been involved in all sorts of sketchy behavior, including:

— Abusing his authority by demanding special treatment for one of his relatives who was attending UNLV’s Lee Business School, then threatening retaliation against the university when administrators resisted him.

— Sharing confidential official documents with his brother, who was not part of the higher-ed system and had no business seeing them. The documents included sensitive material about individual employees and lawsuits. Page also forwarded what was described as a joke containing derogatory terms for Muslims and members of the LGBT community.

— Pressing for free tickets to university events, athletic apparel and meals not only for himself but for large groups of family and friends, all counter to an unwritten rule among the regents limiting requests for such freebies to themselves and maybe a plus-one. The rule is an acknowledgement that other people are paying for these items — students, their families and taxpayers — and therefore it’s not proper to hog them. Page did it anyway.

So what ramifications did Page face after his inappropriate behavior was revealed?

None. The regents didn’t investigate him or reprimand him, at least not publicly. The Sun learned that former regents Chairman Rick Trachok told Page informally to stop sending his intimidating emails to UNLV — which led to speculation that Trachok, an attorney, simply advised Page to quit leaving a paper trail. As for the sharing of confidential documents, the former Chair Jason Geddes sent each regent a message reminding them not to let outsiders see sensitive materials.

This is a microcosm of what’s wrong with the regents, and why they’ve caused so much damage.

It’s a body that flatly refuses to police itself on a serious level, that has grown accustomed to bullying people and that protects its own even in the face of gross impropriety.

A disturbing pattern

In recent years, there’s been a thread of highly disturbing behavior in the higher-ed system in terms of sexism, sexual harassment and gender equality.

A jarring example came during the regents’ August meeting, when the board’s chief of staff and special counsel, Dean Gould, threatened to cut off Regent Lisa Levine while she was arguing in favor of maintaining full protections for victims of sexual assault.

“I don’t want to man speak,” Gould said, “but I will have to if you continue to child speak, so please stop.”

It was a shocking comment to hear, for several reasons. It came while Levine and the regents were discussing the Trump administration’s appalling attempt to force universities into adopting weakened protections for sexual assault victims under the threat of losing federal funding.

Then there was the fact that Gould was speaking to a superior. He’s employed by the regents, and thus was demeaning and disrespecting one of his bosses, live and in the full public eye.

But Gould wasn’t reprimanded, and nobody spoke out in defense of Levine. Instead, Gould issued a nonapology in which he accused Levine of inappropriate behavior from a previous meeting in which she told him not to “mansplain” to her.

There’s a disturbing history of this kind of behavior in NSHE.

In 2015 came the story that an NSHE employee who had been reported for watching pornography in his office and masturbating behind his desk had been shuffled out of NSHE’s offices only to be rehired to work in some capacity at UNLV. The rehiring was discovered when the person who witnessed the appalling behavior also left NSHE, took a position at UNLV and was horrified to discover the man was working in an office near hers.

Then there’s Andrew Clinger, NSHE’s chief financial officer, who was hired two years after leaving his job as Reno’s city manager in the wake of sexual harassment complaints by three female city employees. Clinger denied any wrongdoing, and also was cleared in separate investigations, but the city council later approved a $300,000 settlement in a lawsuit filed by the employees.

As noted in a recent Sun guest column from UNLV student leaders Olivia Cheche (student government Senate president) and Joshua Padilla (student body president), these situations send a disturbing message to students, would-be students, faculty and staff about NSHE’s stance on equality.

“NSHE claims to fight for students at every level and to be a proud proponent of progressive ideals,” wrote Cheche and Padilla. “Before we can fix the overlying issues in the system, we must fix the culture that resides inside the system. The hypocrisy must end.”

What’s next?

There’s no official opposition campaign to Question 1. But there is a behind-the-scenes campaign to defeat it, being waged by defenders of the status quo.

Their main argument: The question only takes the regents out of the constitution. It doesn’t address what will come next in terms of how the regents and NSHE are structured.

This argument is designed to scare voters. It shouldn’t.

While it’s true that Question 1 doesn’t come with a blueprint for moving forward, it would leave the design to the Legislature. In creating the new structure, lawmakers in Carson City would be acting on the wishes of their constituents — the voters.

So contrary to the fear-mongering of the Question 1 opponents, it doesn’t pave the way for people to craft some Frankenstein monster in secrecy. The voters will have input.

What might the new system look like? That remains to be seen, but ideas that have been posed include reducing the size of the board — 13 is way too many — and making some positions appointed instead of elected. The appointed positions would be filled by the governor and legislative leaders, akin to the way the Nevada State Board of Education is set up. Also similar, NSHE would be folded into the governor’s office and operated by an administrator appointed by the governor. At the same time, the scope of NSHE’s power should be reduced: Its reach is way too expansive and individual universities need more control of their institutions.

But whatever happens, voters shouldn’t worry about the process. They’ll be able to present their views and ideas about it, via their state legislators and through the governor’s office. Nevada doesn’t need an impenetrable Soviet-style board of regents rife with incompetence, malice and self-serving agendas.

What we do know is that Nevada’s set-up is the only one of its type in the nation, and it doesn’t work. In fact, it is damaging higher education and the state itself.

Our students and communities deserve better, and voting yes on Question 1 will be a big step toward improvement.