Time to set community colleges free

Editor’s note: The following Voices column was co-authored by four retired Nevada community college presidents who have served the state in that capacity at all four of its community colleges for a cumulative time period of 50 years.

The governor, legislature, Board of Regents, and Nevada System of Higher Education deserve to be commended for working to improve education in Nevada during the 2015 legislative session.

However, for months we have looked on with concern about our state’s economic future and that of our students. Simply, the recently revised funding formula, with a goal of rectifying inequities between the two universities, has created budgetary chaos for the state’s four community colleges.

In particular, one consequence of the new formula was to shortchange students attending Nevada’s most rural colleges. Great Basin College and Western Nevada College must soon absorb budget cuts in excess of 30 percent. The temporary “bridge” funding provided by the legislature in June will only ease the inevitable budget devastation by allowing time for faculty and staff to polish their resumes and seek employment elsewhere, while presidents agonize over which services and communities to abandon, which programs to dismantle and which employees to fire.

In the larger view, both the current funding formula and college governance structure penalize more than half of Nevada’s college students. Yes, more than half of all students in higher education in Nevada attend College of Southern Nevada, Great Basin College, Truckee Meadows Community College and Western Nevada College.

While seductive to imagine college students having unlimited leisure time for strolling campus, pledging fraternities, attending football games, in reality many Nevada students work, support families and are first-generation college students.

This is particularly true of community college students. For many of these students, education is a ladder out of poverty. A bad college budget removes rungs from that ladder. These students have the same desire for an education that can improve their lives as do those who attend universities. Our leaders expect them to graduate and become the backbone of a new state workforce, thereby changing our economy and culture for the better. To regard community college students as lesser is wrong.

The work of community colleges is not glamorous, but the return on the taxpayer’s investment is profound. These are open-door institutions with a focus on learning.

Faculty members are paid less to teach more (often for the same classes offered at universities). Their colleges don’t have post-graduate degree programs, boosters, strong alumni support, or wealthy donors who can supplement institutional revenue. Community colleges, without frills, just efficiently and effectively go about training and educating Nevada students. To regard community college faculty and the colleges themselves as lesser is wrong

The governance of the System (Board of Regents) and the chancellor’s office are consumed by the business of our universities. The universities are complex institutions — their issues and concerns require full attention — and deserve no less.

The Board of Regents, however, has not proven to be an effective governance board for the community colleges, nor has the System office been an effective advocate for community college students. Despite regular attempts to improve the effectiveness of the system within the current governance model, major weaknesses persist. These should be seen as structural and not the fault of any given board, which has generally been composed of diligent and sincere citizens who have tried to do their best.

The chancellor’s office, recognizing the dilemma, recently proposed the hiring of a Vice Chancellor for Community Colleges. This “new idea” is not new at all. It has been implemented at least three times before, and each time has been unsuccessful.

The result inevitably was too much authority devolving to a centralized system bureaucracy, isolating the chancellor and the regents from issues and concerns of individual campuses. These individuals may well have advocated for community colleges, but on each occasion, the person occupying this highly paid position and the position itself disappeared.

Time and again, independent consultants have recommended changes for Nevada community college governance. Time and again, those recommendations have been ignored. Time and again, independent consultants have warned against the meager funding allotted to community colleges. Time and again, those admonitions have been ignored. An addiction to the status quo does not allow for change, innovation, and improvement. Why does the state preserve a governance model that, in effect, inhibits the contributions of its community colleges and, most importantly, penalizes more than half of Nevada’s college students?

It’s time to admit the current college governance structure has hurt Nevada and its students. The state must find a better way forward and free the community colleges from a university-focused System.

Submitted by Dr. Tony Calabro; Western Nevada College President (1983-1995); Dr. John Gwaltney, Truckee Meadows Community College President (1986-1995) Dr. Ron Remington, Great Basin College President (1989-2001) and College of Southern Nevada President (2001-2004); and Dr. Carol Lucey, Western Nevada College President (1999-2013).


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