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Legislature must reform higher ed system

As former chairs of the Education Committees in the Assembly and Senate during the 2013 Legislative Session, we want to commend the Review-Journal for exposing evidence of how officials with the Nevada System of Higher Education have undermined the Legislature’s ability to overhaul the system’s funding models.

The way in which information from an outside consulting firm was misrepresented to legislators was unfair to Nevadans and our policy-making process. But this is a symptom of a larger problem. To restore the public’s confidence, we need to create a culture of transparency and accountability within the higher education system.

This higher education system belongs to all Nevadans — it is our investment in your future, and the future of our state.

We need to improve the Legislature’s access to information in order to help each of our universities and community colleges thrive. Without accurate information, our hands are tied — we can’t properly advocate for our constituents and our communities in Carson City.

To get the ball rolling now, we have filed two bill draft requests with the Legislative Counsel Bureau to begin preparing comprehensive higher-ed reform legislation in advance of the 2017 legislative session. Here are some of the proposals we support to strengthen higher education in Nevada:

We need to clarify the Legislature’s constitutional oversight role while maintaining the Board of Regents’ direct accountability to voters. The regents’ position within the Nevada constitution is a relic of our early statehood. Nevada has three branches of government, not four. The Board of Regents should be like every other state agency so that we are empowered to hold the Nevada System of Higher Education accountable.

It’s also time to increase the resources allocated to the Board of Regents to improve their oversight capacity. The Board of Regents is a part-time body that manages all eight of our state’s public higher education institutions. We need to give regents the proper resources to do their jobs effectively.

The hiring and firing power over institution presidents should be vested with the regents. The current reality gives the chancellor’s office too much control and may affect the flow of information from presidents to lawmakers. We need to provide checks and balances inside of this process.

Institutional presidents should also be required to present their institution budgets directly to the Board of Regents and the Legislature. This would allow the regents, followed by lawmakers, to weigh each institution’s policy and funding priorities, rather than having those priorities decided solely by unelected administrators.

Establishing regional advisory committees would be another way to give our higher-ed institutions a more direct connection to the community to publicly share information about their concerns and priorities. This is key to helping legislators make well-informed decisions.

In light of the Review-Journal’s reporting, we also support expanding whistleblower protections for system employees to include disclosure of any information involving false or misleading statements made to the Legislature. It’s clear that we need to protect the legislative process from abuse. State workers must be able to report false statements without fear of retaliation.

Lastly, bringing the system of higher education under the purview of the Spending and Government Efficiency Commission would allow state government to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the system in light of these revelations. We owe the public nothing less than a full investigation of how this controversy happened.

These proposals are just a first step, with more to come. By kick-starting this discussion now, we hope to have concrete reform proposals ready for the start of the 2017 Legislature. Over the coming months, we welcome any ideas and input on how to best increase transparency and accountability within Nevada’s higher-education system.

Elliot Anderson, a Las Vegas Democrat, represents District 15 in the state Assembly. Joyce Woodhouse, a Henderson Democrat, represents District 5 in the state Senate.

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