Candidates for the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents District 3 seat are voicing similar concerns about the burden of rising tuition costs on students.
Byron Brooks, Lachelle Fisher, Swadeep Nigam and Stephen Hayward Silberkraus are facing off during the June 9 primary election, which will be conducted by mail-in ballot only.
The district’s boundaries include parts of Las Vegas and Henderson. Kevin Page, who has been on the board since 2009, isn’t seeking reelection.
Regents govern Nevada’s public higher education system, including UNLV and UNR, Nevada State College, four community colleges and Desert Research Institute. Those schools serve a total of more than 100,000 students.
Brooks — a U.S. Army combat veteran and native Nevadan — ran for state Senate in 2018. He has a small business called Lduna Aesthetics and Wellness Center.
Brooks said he’s a good fit for a regent seat because he oversaw multimillion-dollar projects as a government contractor for the U.S. Departments of Defense and State. He said it’s a clear demonstration of his capacity for large-scale problem solving coordination.
Brooks has been a mentor for Veterans Treatment Court for six years, is involved with the suicide prevention efforts and served on the Metropolitan Police Department’s use of force board.
Brooks said he and his wife are extremely involved in their son’s education. He’s a member of the school organizational team at Twitchell Elementary School in Henderson and his wife is on the PTA.
Brooks said he has voiced opinions to the Clark County school board and given testimony to a state legislative education committee.
Fisher, a chemical engineer, works in learning and development for building materials company CertainTeed to help make engineers more productive in their roles. She works remotely, but travels for work.
“I thought I was a very technical person,” Fisher said. “But when I got to the learning side, this is my favorite side. I just love to see everyone have access to quality education.”
She doesn’t have previous political experience. “This is definitely my first entry into the world of politics,” Fisher said.
Nigam, who’s director of business development for Paul Padda Law, said he’s running for regent because “basically, I’m passionate about higher education.” Multiple family members have doctoral degrees and are part of the education system, he said, and his father was a visiting professor at UNLV in the early 1990s.
Nigam currently serves on the Nevada State Board of Osteopathic Medicine. Past political runs include the board of regents in 2014, and in 2012 and 2016 for state Assembly. And he was the Clark County Republican Party’s treasurer from 2007 to 2009.
“I have good friends on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
In the past, Nigam served on Nevada Equal Rights Commission, and was a board member for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Las Vegas chapter and Kiwanis Club of American-Asians. He founded and was president of the South Asian Political Network Alliance.
Nigam established a scholarship — which has been offered for about a decade — at the Nevada Policy Research Institute that’s awarded to a Clark County graduating high school senior.
Silberkraus is a former state assemblyman who was elected in 2014, and served during the 2015 session. He lost bids for Assembly in 2016 and 2018, and also applied in 2016 to fill a vacancy on Henderson City Council.
Silberkraus is self-employed as an investment property owner, in multimedia production and is writing a couple of children’s books.
“I have been involved in politics for quite a while now,” he said. “My focus has always been education.”
He said he was one of the primary sponsors of legislation in 2015 that mandated the reorganization of the Clark County School District and created site-based teams to develop budgets for each school.
Brooks said if he’s elected, he’d focus on areas such as student empowerment, campus security and pushing for affordable higher education.
Fisher said she’d like to see more diversification in Las Vegas — including programs, jobs and fellowships — so the economy isn’t as reliant on gaming and hospitality.
Nigam said he wants to encourage an “open and active dialogue” between the board of regents and Nevadans. The public higher education system is “in need of major reforms,” he said. “There’s no longevity or stability at UNLV or any other institution.”
Multiple top leaders have announced their impending departures, including the presidents of UNLV, UNR and Chancellor Thom Reilly, Nigam said. “There is no leadership and no clear direction for what is happening at NSHE.”
At a December meeting, the board approved dozens of fee increases, Nigam said. Many students at UNLV are first-generation college students, he said, and many have financial hardship.
“My first goal would be to stop cost increases for college students,” he said, adding he also wants to “enhance the quality of education in Nevada.”
Nigam said the board of regents doesn’t reflect that “minority students are the majority right now” at UNLV. “The board should be more diverse as well so they understand the needs of the students.”
Silberkraus said he’d like to see expanded access to and availability of distance learning programs offered at a reasonable fee.
A big part of the cost for students attending college is the “institutional cost” such as the buildings and land — “everything that comes into having a place to come and learn,” he said.
COVID-19-related budget cuts
Gov. Steve Sisolak has directed all state agencies to prepare for a 4 percent budget cut for fiscal year 2020 and 6 to 14 percent for fiscal year 2021. Regents approved reduction proposals earlier this month.
Brooks said he’d meet with current regents who understand the nuances better than he does in order to look for the best course of action. “Really, it’s more about conversation, I think,” he said.
Fisher said the last thing she’d cut would be jobs where employees interact with students on a daily basis.
Nigam said he’s not in favor of any cuts in higher education, but it’s in necessary due to a lack of revenue, he’d engage the private sector — such as gaming — for assistance since they have an interest in having a quality workforce. And UNLV Foundation has done a great job of raising money to help students, he said.
Silberkraus said decisions about how to react to COVID-19 — including the transition to distance learning — were initially made by individual schools.
“The board (of regents) should have taken proactive measures earlier and had a uniform plan for how all of the schools would do it, instead of putting the burden on individual presidents and colleges,” he said.
Silberkraus said he has reviewed the board’s agendas and minutes to get up to speed on budget reduction proposals.
Raising tuition sounds like a simple fix, but it puts a burden on students, he said. “The problem with a tuition increase is it throws up another barrier for the most vulnerable population to finish their education,” he said.
Also, there’s no reason the higher education system couldn’t have its own inspector general to identify sources of wasteful spending, he said. “I think that’s something NSHE should be jumping on right now,” Silberkraus said.