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State voters and higher education

Four years ago, officials in Nevada’s higher education system were accused of misleading state lawmakers as the Legislature was thinking about changing the way colleges and universities were being funded.

Now, legislators are asking voters in this year’s elections to strip the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents of its autonomy under the state’s constitution, a move proponents say would free the Legislature to reform the body.

The proposal is among the three main ballot measures affecting higher education institutions before voters next week (aside from a California proposal to restore affirmative action).

In North Dakota, voters will decide whether to nearly double the size of its higher education commission in the hopes it will allow the body to do more to improve the state’s colleges and universities. New Mexico voters are being asked to approve a $156 million bond measure to fund construction projects at the state’s institutions, including $30 million for a new building at the University of New Mexico to expand its nursing program.

Voters in 11 states will also elect governors next week, though the Cook Political Report says only one race is close — to replace Montana governor Steve Bullock, who is running for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat. In a year dominated by the presidential campaign and the coronavirus pandemic, higher education issues have not been at the forefront in any of the races, said Tom Harnisch, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association’s vice president for government relations, who has been following the state elections (see box at the end for details).

The Nevada measure comes after state higher education system officials, particularly then chancellor Dan Klaich, came under fire in 2016, after a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation reported on emails obtained through a public disclosure request, suggesting the system officials misled legislators re-examining the state’s funding formula for colleges and universities in 2011.

The emails showed officials strategizing how to influence the review, enlisting the help of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a Colorado think tank.

Though the officials from the system told legislators the center was an independent resource for expert advice, the Nevada system officials worked with the center behind the scenes, the newspaper reported. At one point, according to the article, Klaich thanked researchers for giving him “ammo” in his fight. The think tank also let officials with the Nevada system write a memo under the NCHEMS letterhead.

Klaich told the newspaper at the time, the emails “reveal the intense and detailed work on my part, NSHE staff and its institutions in developing a funding formula proposal that would address, as fairly and equitably as possible, the diverse needs of the institutions and the students.”

He also told the Review-Journal that it was “trying to misconstrue the information by selectively taking quotes out of context and these frank and honest emails, and at times some light-hearted exchanges.”

Nevertheless, the revelation of the emails angered many state legislators, including Elliot Anderson, who at the time was a Democrat representing a Las Vegas district in the State Assembly. Anderson, who left the assembly last year, wrote the measure now before voters. Lawmakers agreed to put it on the ballot, he said in an interview, “after learning that officials in the system of higher education was conspiring to mislead the Legislature.”

The state’s constitution in 1864 established the Board of Regents to manage and control the funds of state universities. That has thwarted the Legislature from reforming the Nevada System of Higher Education, because the system’s attorneys would threaten to sue, alleging the lawmakers were violating its constitutional autonomy, Anderson said.

The system in Nevada is considered “the fourth branch of government,” he said. “There is no accountability.”

Anderson said lawmakers have not identified any reforms they would make should the measure pass.

Three political action committees with ties to the Nevada’s business community, including Las Vegas’s chamber of commerce, have contributed nearly all of the $500,000 raised by the measure’s proponents, the Review-Journal reported this week. Hugh Anderson, government affairs committee chairman for the Vegas chamber, said its members believe more oversight and accountability are needed over the Board of Regents.

There is no organized opposition to the measure. A Nevada System of Higher Education spokeswoman said it could not comment on the measure because it is prohibited from taking political stances. However, some individual regents have been speaking out, warning the passage of the measure, Question 1, would lead to the Legislature beginning to appoint regents, who are now elected.

“Make no mistake about it, a vote to pass Q1 will remove your constitutional right to elect your representative,” Regent Jason Geddes wrote in an email. Elliot Anderson, though, said the idea of appointing regents does not have enough support to pass the Legislature.

Geddes argued as well that the system is working well, citing improving graduation rates. In an email he argued the board has been managing the system’s finances well, noting that the system’s chancellor and college presidents recently hired by the system are making the median salaries for those positions nationally.

Questions over how to govern North Dakota’s higher education system are also before voters in that state.

In 2018, Republican governor Doug Burgum created a task force to re-examine whether the state Board of Higher Education, created in 1939, needed to be revamped.

“We’ve got these powerful economic forces that are being driven by rapid changes in technology,” Burgum, an entrepreneur and former Microsoft executive, told Inside Higher Ed at the time. “The digitization of every industry is occurring, and higher education in particular is not going to be immune to that. It’s also time to take a look and say, ‘Does a governance model that was built in 1939 give all the tools to our higher education system that it needs to allow them to be nimble and responsive in a time of rapid change?’”

The task force recommendations led to a bill in the state’s House that would have created two boards — one to govern research universities, and the other to handle the rest, according to the Bismarck Tribune.

However, the bill failed after smaller universities worried they would lose influence. Instead, lawmakers put the next week’s measure before voters, expanding the higher education board from eight to 15. The expansion would allow for the creation of subcommittees to allow members to delve more deeply into certain areas. The eight-member board asked too much of the members, Senator Joan Heckaman told the Minot Daily News.

“There’s a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of portfolios to carry. Everybody on the board is a citizen member and most of them have another job. They found out there was a lot of work that could be done that wasn’t getting done, such as visiting the campuses and being more connected with the individual campus’s administration,” Heckaman told the newspaper. She was unavailable for comment Thursday.

In addition, the measure would increase the length of the terms on the board from four to six years and prohibit state employees, officials and legislators, from being members.

However, it is being opposed by the governor who started the process, Burgum.

The Dickinson Press reported that the Dakota Leadership PAC, funded by the governor, has been sending mailers to voters opposing the measure.

The flyer says Measure 1 is a “bad idea” that would grow bureaucracy, add “red tape” and waste tax dollars, the newspaper reported.

“Stop big government,” it reads. “Protect our colleges and universities. Vote no on Measure 1.”

A spokesman for Burgum referred Inside Higher Ed to the PAC’s chairman, who did not respond to an email asking why it opposes the measure.

In New Mexico, lawmakers are asking voters to authorize the state to issue and sell $156.4 million in higher education bonds to fund capital improvement projects. The measure has no organized opposition, according to state campaign finance records.

The new 84,000-square-foot College of Nursing and Population Health Building on the Albuquerque campus, funded by the measure, would allow the University of New Mexico to increase the number of new nursing students it accepts each year, from 128 currently, at a time when there’s a nursing shortage in the state, the university said.

“New Mexico is short about 6,000 Registered Nurses. If there is any chance of us attempting to put a dent in this number we need the building. There’s also no room to expand in the current building,” Christine Kasper, dean of the nursing college, said in a statement.

Voters in 11 states are electing governors this year. Only one, in Montana, is considered a toss-up by the Cook Political Report. Missouri’s race leans toward incumbent Republican governor Mike Parson against Democratic challenger, state auditor Nicole Galloway. Democrats are likely to retain governorships in Delaware, North Carolina and Washington. Republicans are likely to retain governorships in Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia.

In a year dominated by the economic and health crises created by the coronavirus pandemic, the candidates do not talk much about higher education issues on their campaign websites.

Delaware John C. Carney Jr. (D), incumbent: Doesn’t mention higher education. Julianne Murray (R): “Our youth are the future leaders of Delaware and the U.S. We need to be teaching our children HOW to think — not WHAT to think.”
Indiana Woody Myers (D): Would increase education spending, but doesn’t mention higher education specifically. Eric Holcomb (R), incumbent: State has made $1.6 billion in new investments in education since 2017. Created the Next Level Jobs program, which provides free classes and access to certificate programs through partners like Ivy Tech Community College and Vincennes University.
Missouri Nicole Galloway (D): Would invest in education citing pre-kindergarten, classroom sizes and teachers’ pay, but does not mention higher education. Mike Parson (R), incumbent: Says an educated workforce is key to moving Missouri forward and is focused on ensuring that state workers have the skills to compete for jobs in the modern global economy.
Montana Mike Cooney (D): Doesn’t mention higher education issues. Greg Gianforte (R): Doesn’t mention higher education issues.
New Hampshire Dan Feltes (D): Backs increased state investment in job training and workforce development; would work to lower tuition at in-state public universities and provide targeted student debt relief to high-need sectors. Chris Sununu (R), incumbent: Said he froze tuition at the state’s university and community college system, restarted the nurse practitioner program at the community college system, and gave $5 million in college scholarships.
North Carolina Incumbent, Roy Cooper (D): Committed to maintaining the reputation of the state’s community colleges and universities for excellence with continued investments and ongoing support. Dan Forest (R): Has championed pay raises for K-12 teachers but does not mention higher education.
North Dakota Shelley Lenz (D): Supports nontraditional education, including vocational and technical programs. Supports equitable treatment of all state higher education institutions in the funding formula and providing additional funding for institutions of higher education. Doug Burgum (R), incumbent: Doesn’t mention higher education.
Utah Chris Peterson (D): Would improve K-12 education, but does not mention higher education. Spencer Cox (R): Would increase education spending and address funding inequities in poorer areas, but does not mention higher education issues.
Vermont David Zuckerman (D/Vermont Progressive Party): Would increase higher education funding. Phil Cox (R), incumbent: Does not mention higher education issues.
Washington Jay Inslee (D), incumbent: Created the Washington College Grant, which provides a full-tuition scholarship to families making $55,000 or less and a partial scholarship to families making up to 100 percent of median family income (about $88,000 for a family of four). Created Career Connect Washington, which links users to career-connected learning opportunities. Loren Culp (R): Doesn’t mention higher education issues.
West Virginia Ben Salango (D): Would support reducing student debt as an incentive to remain in the state. Jim Justice (R), incumbent: Supports increasing student achievement, but does not mention higher education issues.

Source: Inside Higher News Colony | Education

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