Las Vegas Sun

July 29, 2014

Nevada’s first state college opens its doors

At 7:30 this morning Natashia Masterson, 18, was the first student to walk through the door of the Nevada State College at Henderson--unceremoniously marking the birth of Nevada's first state college.

"Not many people can say they are the first member of a brand new college, said Masterson, an elementary education student. "It's something I can tell my grandchildren later on in life."

Absent were ribbon-cutting ceremonies or appearances by politicians who pushed the idea of a state college. Instead, a handful of administrators, professors and the 177 enrolled students showed up for classes today, just like any other day that will follow.

"This day is all about the students," said Christine Chairsell, interim president of the state college. "They signed up for these classes to get an education, and we are going to give it to them."

The long-awaited opening of the Nevada State College at Henderson today marks the end of a bumpy road and the beginning of what higher education officials hope will be a string of state colleges in the future. The opening takes Nevada out of another classification -- being one of only two states without a state college in a metropolitan area.

"I am so excited about the fact that we are launching our first state college," said Jane Nichols, Nevada's higher education chancellor. "It is truly a momentous occasion."

Aside from the main campus in Henderson at 1125 Dawson Ave., three other satellite locations at Desert Pines, Basic and Clark high schools opened simultaneously today. Another two high school sites were planned, but low enrollment caused state college officials to close locations at Cimarron-Memorial and Mohave high schools.

Of the 14 bachelor's degrees offered at the state college, about 60 percent of the founding class chose education and nursing as their major -- the two areas of emphasis the college was created to serve.

State officials will now look to the college's first students and its incoming President Kerry Romesburg to see whether the expense is justified, given Nevada's budget crisis.

"I think the successful implementation of this college is critical," Nichols said. "If it is not successful, there will be no appetite to create the others."

Further down the line, higher education officials hope to create up to five more colleges if the Henderson site fulfills its mission.

Nevada State College at Henderson was originally slated for 500 full-time students but has fallen shy of that goal. About 380 students have been admitted so far and 177 have enrolled in classes. Officials won't know the final enrollment count for a couple of weeks, Chairsell said.

One thing is known: The state college will suffer a 3 percent cut from its $3.75 million budget, taking the same cut all other state institutions have been ordered to take. Chairsell maintains that the college will make do despite less money.

For the people who backed the state college in the beginning, it's a sweet but quiet victory to see the doors swing open.

"It's been a difficult road to get to this point, but now that we're here, I hope people can get behind it," said Mayor Jim Gibson of Henderson, who backed the college from its inception.

The road began more than five years ago and developed quickly from there -- some believed too quickly.

Shortly after the Legislature gave $500,000 to study the possibility of a state college, the Board of Regents appointed Founding President Richard Moore in 1999.

Opponents criticized the college for its cost, others questioned the need and, along the way, there were setbacks.

First the land site where the college was going to be built fell through. That was followed by the failure to get state funding to operate the college in its first year. The final blow came when Moore resigned.

"There have been some tough times, but it's on its way now," Regent Dorothy Gallagher said. "They have done a remarkable job keeping this college afloat with all of the naysayers they have faced. I think they are off and running, and they are going to do a great job."

The Board of Regents ended the college's problems getting started in April, when the majority voted to continue operations with Chairsell as the head.

Hoping the bad times are behind the college, Nichols is looking at the bigger picture of what the institution means to the state.

"I think that we have a model here that, perhaps more in Nevada than in other states, will create a three-legged stool that will stand firm," Nichols said.

A piece of that first leg, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, will increasingly set its concentration on becoming a level-one research institution and lean toward expanding its graduate programs and research facilities, Nichols said.

The Community College of Southern Nevada will concentrate on creating community programs, and the state college will provide that in-between layer that many say has been missing until now.

The concern is that the state college will not stay long in that middle tier, but will become a doctoral-granting institution. Romesburg vows that mission creep will not happen.

"The first thing I am going to do is solidify the mission of this institution," Romesburg said. "Everyone has to know what the state college is and what it isn't."

Romesburg, who arrives on Sept. 16, said his second task is to rally the community behind the state college and drum up enough interest to raise $10 million needed for the construction of the new college.

Chairsell said that she is ready to hand the reins over to Romesburg.

"Certainly, it's been a wonderful ride," Chairsell said. "It's the kind of experience that you don't walk away from unchanged. From a personal and professional perspective, I have changed for the better."

After the first building is built on the 500-acre plot of land -- a Bureau of Land Management parcel that Congress still must approve for the college's use -- the sky is the limit.

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