The Nevada System of Higher Education had a perception problem well before it hired outgoing Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto to be its second in command.
Public colleges and universities everywhere have responded to declining academic rigor, the declining value of many diplomas and declining state support for higher education with ever-higher tuition, ever-higher administrative salaries and a seemingly ever-higher number of administrators who seldom set foot in a classroom. With so many families confronting massive debt to put their children through degree programs that offer no guarantee of the income required to repay loans, they’re more than justified in asking, “Where, exactly, does my money go?”
On Nov. 25, the office that oversees all public colleges and universities in the state, provided an answer to that question when it announced that Ms. Masto would begin work in January as executive vice chancellor, just after the Democrat’s second and final term as attorney general ends.
Ms. Masto, who will run operations at the system’s Las Vegas office, will be paid an annual salary of $215,000, plus benefits. The hire raises eyebrows for two reasons.
First, the system did not conduct a formal, open, national search for the job. As reported Wednesday by the Review-Journal’s Francis McCabe, Chancellor Dan Klaich said he had recruited Ms. Masto for the position. Because his recruitment focused on a powerful elected official long viewed as a rising star within the Democratic Party, Mr. Klaich invites criticism that politics was part of his calculation. Anytime an elected official lands a high-paying government job through appointment, it creates the appearance of favoritism and patronage. Might there have been a more-qualified applicant who would do the job for less money?
Second, and most important, the Nevada System of Higher Education has managed just fine without an executive vice chancellor for more than five years. Mr. McCabe reports that the position has been vacant since Mr. Klaich was promoted from the No. 2 job to chancellor in 2009. But the position suddenly is an urgent need, just as Ms. Masto leaves office?
That said, the hiring of Ms. Masto into a leadership position is not an overreach. Prior to serving as attorney general, Ms. Masto was an assistant county manager with Clark County, a federal prosecutor and chief of staff to former Nevada Gov. Bob Miller. She is a highly qualified administrator with no shortage of career options.
But the elected members of the Board of Regents — the stewards of the state’s higher education system — had no say in Ms. Masto’s hiring. And regents just completed the process of hiring a new UNLV president amid concerns about salary. Regents soon will repeat the salary discussion when they sign off on a new UNLV football coach. They should be worried about personnel costs — regents voted six months ago to increase university and community college undergraduate registration fees 4 percent per year for four years, starting in fall 2015.
When regents meet this Thursday and Friday, they should ask Mr. Klaich about Ms. Masto’s hiring — and about why he needs an executive vice chancellor at all.