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July 23, 2014

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A moment in time: New governance for Nevada’s community colleges

Last week, the Nevada Committee to Conduct an Interim Study Concerning Community Colleges met to discuss current and future plans for a key workforce training asset — our community colleges. During the past legislative session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 391, which directs legislators, business leaders, university regents and community members to work together to evaluate the governance structure and identify policy recommendations to strengthen and improve community college and workforce training outcomes.

In each state, the governance of community colleges is a product of that state’s history, legislative priorities and evolving regional needs. In Nevada’s case, the state constitution, specifically Article 11 (Section 4), commonly known as the Education Article, grants the University of Nevada Regents legislative authority to govern “the State University.”

On Tuesday, the Subcommittee on Governance and Funding, chaired by Sen. Debbie Smith, convened to discuss formula funding for community colleges and the constitutional interpretation of the state’s governance of higher education. Kevin Powers, chief litigation counsel for the Legislative Council Bureau, provided an assessment of the state’s constitution and reiterated that the University of Nevada Regents have constitutional power, albeit narrowly defined, to govern “the State University.”

Governance of the state’s community colleges, Powers told the committee, can reside outside of the University of Nevada Board of Regents.

In detailed lawyerly fashion, Powers noted that in Nevada, “there is no such thing as a fourth branch of state government” and that “the Board of Regents is a constitutional component of the executive branch of state government.” This view coincides with an earlier piece reported by the Sun, in which Thomas McAffee, a constitutional law professor at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, draws similar conclusions.

On Wednesday, the Subcommittee on Academics and Workforce Alignment, chaired by Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, met and heard from representatives of the colleges of Southern Nevada, Great Basin, Truckee Meadows and Western Nevada.

Speakers discussed their current workforce programs and partnerships with business leaders and noted possible areas for improvements. Committee members were complimentary of these efforts and asked critical questions related to the institutions’ responsiveness and timeliness to regional workforce training needs, student outcomes and the transfer of credits to four-year institutions.

Committee members also heard from business representatives across the state. Ray Bacon, from the Nevada Manufacturing Association in Carson City, testified and submitted a letter highlighting the skills gaps in the state; he also asked the subcommittee to closely examine the role of community colleges, lest the state continue to be in a “vulnerable position” given its current student outcomes.

Bacon advised the subcommittee to structure community colleges in a way that makes sense and works best to prepare Nevadans for meaningful jobs and careers. Bacon said the current governance structure may work, but if there is another structure that works better, the committee should seriously evaluate such options.

Brian McAnallen, vice president for government affairs for the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, reiterated these concerns and urged the subcommittee to consider other community college governance models — specifically, models that can significantly improve community colleges’ responsiveness to regional workforce training requirements and Southern Nevadans’ postsecondary needs.

The idea to examine the role of community college governance in Nevada is not new. The Lincy Institute recently compiled a historic timeline of Nevada community college governance studies. Each of these studies recommends a significant shift in how Nevada governs community colleges.

What is different today? The post-Great Recession era requires all of us to think differently about our public institutions. The new reality is one that demands greater accountability, transparency and evidence-based decisions from our community colleges.

As a former administrator in the Nevada System of Higher Education, I understand the nuances and complexities of community college governance. I also believe the system’s leadership is committed to being good public stewards of the state’s funds while ensuring that all Nevadans have access to a meaningful postsecondary education that can translate to good-paying jobs and ultimately a strong Nevada economy.

The recommendations of these subcommittees will translate to policy that shapes the future of Nevada’s economic and social well-being. Without a doubt, the work of these subcommittees is important to anyone who cares about educational outcomes in our state.

The Lincy Institute at UNLV is here to serve as a resource for the subcommittees and to assist in efforts to find policy solutions to our state’s community college governance. In the coming weeks and months, our group of Lincy scholars will work to provide accurate, independent research that can further the public discussion of community college issues.

We will model our efforts on similar research provided for policymakers about Nevada’s English language learners, mental health concerns and the economic impact of medical education.

The governance of Nevada’s community colleges is a crucial issue for our state, and this topic will benefit from a reconsideration of earlier studies and a contemporary look at what is best for future generations.

Dr. Magdalena Martinez is the director of education programs at the Lincy Institute.

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