It’s been eight months since UNLV and MGM Resorts International announced with much fanfare the creation of a think tank to be housed on the university’s campus.
The public policy institute was heralded as a bipartisan effort led by two people on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum — former U.S. Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, and former Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican.
But more than eight months later, both the university and MGM have been near silent on the think tank’s progress.
“Speed was not our goal,” said Chris Stream, director of the school of public policy and leadership at UNLV. “Creating impact and solutions is our goal, and where we’re headed. Our goal is not the fastest institution, but the most effective. Good public policy cannot be rushed.”
The state Board of Regents approved, in March, the creation of the institute, which is funded for three years through a $950,000 donation by MGM Resorts. With the first year almost complete, none of the funding has been used by the university, no additional staff has been hired, and the physical location of the institute remains unclear. The institute’s website is also bare bones, listing brief descriptions of Reid and Boehner, the institute and its mission statement.
The major holdup has been the creation of the advisory board, the responsibility for which lies solely in the hands of MGM, Stream said. The initial proposal said the responsibility would be shared by Reid, Boehner and UNLV leadership.
Stream said MGM is in the process of putting together a “diverse and active board,” and that busy schedules have gotten in the way of securing members. The Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip, which took place at Mandalay Bay, an MGM Property, has also slowed things down.
He said MGM has not shared with him names of board members who are being considered.
“We’re looking for very practical, real-world problem solvers,” Stream said. “We’re looking for the best of those folks, not just from the region, but from around the country.”
Don Abelson, a professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of Western Ontario, said trying to piece together an advisory board that can generate “the kind of exposure and impact they’re looking for,” can take time. However, he said it’s “highly problematic,” if the board members are only chosen by MGM.
“If it’s perceived as little more than a puppet of an organization, it could compromise from the beginning, the kind of research they want to produce,” said Abelson, who is known for his work in studying U.S. and Canadian think tanks. “They don’t want to create the perception that the work is being unduly influenced by the people who are funding it.”
Developing research targets is at a standstill, Stream said, as it’s up to the board to establish the think tank’s research priorities.
“We don’t want to get ahead of the board,” he said. “There’s a lot of anger, and distrust of bipartisan solutions, with the public wondering if people can really work together. We want to set the tone for the community that these problems can be worked out in a bipartisan and impactful way, and that has taken time.”
In partnerships between a donor and an educational institution, ideally, Abelson said, there’s an understanding that the corporation can give money, but cannot have direction or control on the research that is undertaken and the conclusions that are drawn.
And while Stream said that the institute is a collaboration between both MGM and UNLV, he does not take issue with the corporation taking the lead on choosing board members, saying it’s “their institute.”
“We want to be respectful of their input,” he said. “And they just have, really good national connections. They have further reach than I do.”
The university has given input, however, on the kinds of resumes they would like see on the board, and Stream said he’s met once with Reid, and that Boehner has been to campus.
The regents have also gotten very little informartion.
“I would expect regular updates on something as high profile as this,” said Regent Rick Trachok.
Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Page said the board wouldn’t normally get “day-to-day” updates on the institutes at the university. UNLV also houses the Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West.
“I assume they’re running with it and doing everything they need to do,” Page said.
A representative for Reid said he is not doing interviews. Boehner and MGM did not respond to requests for comment.