It’s time to decide what we want from UNLV

Ask anybody if UNLV should become a Tier 1 “Very High Research” university, and most people will say yes.

It’s not a hard sell.

First, UNLV would gain a lot of prestige from the designation. There are only 108 universities in the nation (out of more than 4,600 nationwide) that have Tier 1 status. Currently, Nevada has no Tier 1 schools.

Second, there’s a benefit to the community. Stephen Brown, director of the UNLV Center for Business and Economic Research, said at a Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event on Wednesday that Tier 1 status could more than double UNLV’s economic impact to Las Vegas, eventually comprising 8.9 percent of the city’s economic activity.

Third, getting to Tier 1 status would challenge us to race to the top, hiring top faculty and offering more advanced degree programs, education that students currently have to leave town to get. We’d keep those bright minds here, if we had the resources to educate them.

Fourth, the research generated by a Tier 1 school could be useful to industry, providing innovative ideas and products that the university could turn into patents and that business could turn into profits. That means high-paying jobs, start-up businesses and an increasing return-on-investment for private and public research dollars we’re able to attract to town.

Fifth, Tier 1 status would create a mini-construction boom at UNLV. The school is about 400,000 square feet short of the space it would need to house research-driven programs.

Sixth, the university says it needs Tier 1 to better serve its mission and support Las Vegas. “To be blunt about it, we can’t deliver everything the university needs today,” said John Valery White, UNLV’s executive vice president and provost.

“If UNLV were to achieve Tier 1 status, it’s contribution would be much more substantial,” Brown added.

Seventh, there’s momentum: Back in 1994, UNLV was considered a “comprehensive master’s-granting university.” Today, it’s a Tier 2 “high research” school. Officials have a 20-year plan to get to Tier 1.

So, everybody on board?

I only ask because so far, the answer has been no.

University funding has been cut in Nevada, thanks to the recession, and there seems to be no mad dash to restore it, much less increase it. Any mention of taxes sends lawmakers of both parties scurrying like vampires retreating from sunlight. And a proposal to increase tuition generated plenty of opposition on campus from students who understandably object to paying more while the state is contributing less.

Yes, some of the money would come from research. But there’s a catch: Private companies aren’t willing to bankroll research for the sake of discovery. They want something they can sell. Partnering with business is what drove the University of Central Florida to produce more patents than any other university system except those of California and Texas, said Thomas O’Neal, UCF’s associate vice president for research commercialization.

“Industry doesn’t give money to be nice. They give money to accomplish something,” O’Neal said.

That’s going to rub some academics the wrong way. After all, there’s often no practical, commercial benefit to, say, building a telescope that can see billions of years into the past, studying the universe when it was new. Although the moon race produced plenty of practical, commercial benefits, its original goal was simply to beat the Russians to our satellite. And what role do liberal arts play in a Tier 1 UNLV?

If Las Vegas, and Nevada, really wants UNLV to be a Tier 1 “very high research” school, it’s going to take more money. And that’s a conversation that needs to happen now, as university regents conduct their search for a new president for the school. It’s a goal that has to be evaluated alongside what acting UNLV President Don Snyder says are his other top goals — building a new sports stadium and establishing a medical school at UNLV. It’s something that’s going to require real commitment, which hasn’t always been evident.

Tier 1 status would be good for UNLV and good for the community. Now we just need to decide whether we’re going to do it.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or