Dear Friend of Higher Education:
You may have read the recent article ("In Nevada, Harsh Reality Hits Higher Education") in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the state of higher education in Nevada. I was interviewed by the reporter, whose first question was, "Well, how bad is it in Nevada?" I politely told him that I thought he was asking the wrong question, and for 45 minutes I discussed our opportunities, and more important, the great responsibilities we have in Nevada higher education today. My attitude did not fit his story line and my attitude has not changed one bit since that time.
I am neither blind nor insensitive to the impact of the budget cuts on our institutions. Real damage has been done. Real people have been hurt. I get that. Yet, we have a choice right now of wallowing in a pitiful discourse of how badly we have been treated over the past four years or seizing the opportunity to look at higher education with fresh new eyes, in a new and resource-constrained economy and asking ourselves, "How do we rebuild this System to serve our state, our students and to build our future?"
I choose the latter.
I would like to share pieces of Governor John Connally's charge to the Texas Coordinating Board on the occasion of its first meeting more than 45 years ago. I think his words have real meaning for us today and in particular speak directly to you, members of the Board of Regents. I have taken the liberty of changing references from Texas to Nevada.
"You here today represent the embodiment of high hopes of a great many people." The extent to which they "become a living reality, or remain just an inanimate statement of hope, depends entirely on you."
With this ominous and weighty responsibility set on the table he offered some of his thoughts for the board's consideration as the members began their work.
"First of all, I would remind you that neither monumental buildings, nor winning football teams, nor spacious dormitories, nor expansive campuses, nor anxious administrators, nor ambitious plans ever taught a college student. Faculties teach. Books on the shelves and elaborate research projects, and I'm for those, concerned with esoteric subjects enrich the student mind only indirectly. Teachers teach."
"The greatest risk you face is an institutionalized system, with each college or university grasping for its own ends without regard to the needs of the people of the whole state, and perhaps without being aware of those needs." He warned that institutions "Struggled to be all things to all people, willing to do almost anything that will assure its getting larger---larger in enrollment, larger in buildings, larger in number and level of degrees offered, larger in number of graduates, larger in number of alumni. Always, it strives to stand above its group in those visible evidences of growth. And it remains in constant danger of mediocrity as a result."
He admonished the board that "wherever you live in this state and from whatever institution you may have graduated, you can no longer represent or be a spokesman for any single college or university. I assure you that you were not appointed to represent any institution; you were named to represent the State of Nevada in the coordination of all higher education under state authority. Neither were you appointed to represent the geographical area where you were born, attended college, or where you now live. Nevada, the entire state, the youth of this state, is your constituency, and to that constituency you owe your loyalty and allegiance."
"It is your responsibility to determine educational questions according to educational measures and standards. You should leave politics to the politicians and administration to the administrators."
Governor Connally then warned about trying to offer every program at every location, trying to convince ourselves that starting new programs really didn't cost much - if anything - something this Board has heard many times over. "If this is done, obviously the quality would undoubtedly be poor and the cost prohibitive. Aside from the cost, the tragedy of poor programs is that they perpetuate a fraud upon those students who complete them, leading the graduates to believe that they have been provided a quality degree backed by the full prestige of the state. The quality of all degrees at all state institutions is thereby weakened. Now if you enter upon a course that permits continuation or initiation of programs of substandard quality, all of the work and thought and study which went into the creation of this board will be for naught."
With two-year colleges being brought into coordination with four-year and graduate institutions for the first time, Governor Connally spoke with words that still resonate today. "Community colleges under your direction are full partners in our total higher educational endeavor, and I urge you never to forget that the best classroom instruction may well exist in these institutions. They are unfettered by elaborate administrative structures, extensive research commitments, and faculty promotions dependent upon scholarly publications. The college instructor can devote his full energy and enthusiasm to teaching the student. He can demonstrate a personal interest. In short, he is certainly the equal of his fellow faculty members in four-year institutions and should be treated as such."
Finally, the governor touched upon honesty and transparency. "I have often, perhaps too often, used strong language in expressing my views on our failures in education, and I have done this deliberately, and with the sure knowledge that we have also enjoyed many successes in education. But if we have a major shortcoming in the educational community for our state, it is the tendency, I think which is natural, to boast about those successes and attempt to hide those failures. So if I am sometimes a harsh critic, I hope I am also objective and fair. Because without constant evaluation and criticism, there can be no progress."
When I read and reread these comments, I am inspired and energized. We are challenged to respect and protect our faculty, to personally take responsibility for our students' success, to be wise and careful stewards of the funds entrusted to us and to serve our great state at its time of greatest need.
I look forward to working with the Board of Regents, the campuses, Governor Sandoval and all leaders in this state as we undertake this task.