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Effort to mislead Nevada lawmakers over higher ed spending prompts special Regents meeting

The Nevada Board of Regents has called a special meeting to discuss emails that show the Nevada System of Higher Education worked to undermine the Legislature’s effort to reform college and university funding models.

The meeting set for May 12 comes in response to demands from legislators and the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce following a Las Vegas Review-Journal article published Sunday. Emails obtained by the newspaper under the state public records law showed the state agency, which oversees all state-supported higher education, in 2011 and 2012 misled lawmakers studying ways to make distribution of state support to colleges and universities more equitable.

The chairman of the committee, former state Senate majority leader Steven Horsford, called the emails “appalling,” and said they clearly show NSHE officials gamed the effort.

Some lawmakers have said the Legislature should seriously consider amending the state Constitution to change the role of the agency.

Regents contacted this week expressed concerns that the revelations echo a 2015 Review-Journal report showing that a think tank hired by the agency had buried a negative assessment of its work. An attorney hired by the board of 13 elected regents determined that researchers had softened their findings at the request of the agency, but took no action against state Chancellor Dan Klaich.

“Last year we gave him a pass. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” said Regent James Dean Leavitt, who said he hopes the regents learned some lessons after that investigation.

Regent Trevor Hayes said Tuesday that he wished the previous investigation had been broader in scope. Both incidents raise serious cultural questions about the system’s ability to handle criticism, he said.

“My reaction is basically ‘Oh no. My suspicions have been confirmed,’” Regent Mark Doubrava said Monday.

Sunday’s article showing the agency wrote a research memo for the study committee but portrayed it as the work of an independent consultant is a major concern, he said.

“As an elected official, if I’m given information, and that information is on the letterhead of a certain company or consultant I have to assume that information is coming from that company or consultant. I can’t second guess everything,” Doubrava said.

Rick Trachok, chairman of the Regents, is staying silent on the matter until the May meeting and has ordered Klaich to do the same. Klaich cancelled a scheduled appearance on the PBS program “Ralston Live” on Tuesday, but sent legislators a two-page memo devoted to defending the usefulness of the state funding formula while saying little about the controversy.

Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, D-Las Vegas, wasn’t impressed. “This letter does not address the problem, but it does show the problem,” Anderson tweeted.

The regents’ special meeting is expected to be watched closely by lawmakers who are skeptical of the elected board’s ability to truly oversee the system. The regents often have been accused of “circling the wagons” at the first sign of conflict.

At a January meeting, Regent Robert Davidson said the system will thrive so long as the board is not distracted by “public criticism or newspapers.” Davidson did not respond to an email request for comment.

Contact Bethany Barnes at bbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Find her on Twitter: @betsbarnes

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