Photo By Dennis Myers In the balcony of the Senate hall, Nevada Board of Regents chair Jason Geddes checks messages while listening to debates. Geddes is a former legislator himself.

When the 1981 Nevada Legislature was meeting and the state’s higher education budget was being heard by the budget committees, there was a clash over how much time instructors were spending in the classroom. That led some campus spokespeople to defend the time spent by faculty on research.

During that dispute, Reno Evening Gazette writer Bruce Bledsoe published a column in which he imagined a state legislator:

“And he cried, ’Abomination!’ as he woke to his clock radio and began to prepare for the day. ’Where has research ever gotten us?’ he demanded as he eased off his whiskers with his electric shaver and brightened his memorable smile with his electric toothbrush. ’What has it done for me?’ he demanded as he slipped his polyester wrinkle-proof, no-iron shirt over his smallpox-vaccinated arm and sat down to his packaged cereal and pasteurized milk. … [H]e opened his wallet to dig out his car key. He paused a moment to kiss the photograph of his elder sister, dead from polio in the 1950s, and paused a longer moment to look fondly at another photograph of his father, dead from a deformed heart valve, also in the 1950s. Then, pulling forth a printout of some notes from a high-speed computer, he got into his car and set off for Carson City.”

Three decades later, classroom time is not at issue, but research is. So is the role of the state’s higher education system in economic development.

On the surface, everything about the matter seems rosy. Ask legislators and campus officials, and they say everyone is clear on the linkage between economic development and higher education.

“I think a great number of them are,” said Nevada Board of Regents chair Jason Geddes. “I think with [Assembly Bill] 449 in the last session and the creation of the Knowledge Fund, there was a lot of interest that stemmed out of that SRI/Brookings report that to have any economic development future, you had to include higher education for workplace development, research and business startups.”

The Knowledge Fund was created to fund academic research with commerical application. Reminded that the lawmakers created the fund but put no money in it, Geddes smiled but said it still meant a commitment by the Legislature.

“It was a recognition,” he said. “I mean, it wasn’t funded last session, and it’s been tough economic times, but creation of the Knowledge Fund has been in this building for 10 years, and it never got traction until last session, and now we have the governor looking to put money in it, we have some legislators looking to put money in it, and they’re starting to see the value of research and what it can mean to businesses that they want, as part of the economic plan.”

How it works

But there are other views below the surface. Reluctance to offend legislators and a gag rule imposed on the higher education system by Chancellor Dan Klaich have silenced some players on and off campus who believe there are plenty of lawmakers who do not get the linkage between higher education and the state’s economy. (The gag was supposed to apply only to a funding formula but seems to have chilled discussion beyond that.)

One legislator who spoke on condition of not being named said, “There are members here who barely believe in higher education, never mind higher education in economic development. Fortunately, they’re a minority, even in their own party, but they’re a drag on things. But they’re not the real problem. There are more of us who know of the importance in the abstract because we’ve heard it mentioned, but don’t really know how it works or what happens between the campuses and businesses. And if we are vague on it, certainly the public is.”

Here’s an example:

Over several years, NV Energy provided three-quarters of a million dollars for a renewable energy program, which included development of a geothermal lab on the Redfield campus and a partnership with another corporation, Ormat Geothermal (“Campuses aid business,” RN&R, Feb. 19, 2009). Together with state funding, it made the University of Nevada, Reno a significant institution in a curriculum that was new in higher education, and provided NV Energy with a source of trained professionals. It was an exchange that benefited both sides. There was also an additional project in which the state’s community colleges would train technicians for renewable projects.

“We took this concept and, in a short time, got it from an idea to the classroom,” said NV Energy president Jeff Ceccarelli at the time.

But the state portion of the funding is essential in these exchanges, and so the consequences of the devastating hit taken by the higher education system during Jim Gibbons’ governorship—higher ed was reduced by a third—live on. The state is widely regarded in business circles as non-competitive with other small Western states.

One prominent faculty member whose department is heavily involved in research said, “I honestly don’t think this Legislature is going to make any difference in economic development because it has never done anything to repair the system. Higher education in this state was badly damaged under Gibbons. We don’t have the talent we once had and providing a Knowledge Fund to this injured system is like putting a bird feeder up in a tree for a bird with a broken wing. We just can’t reach the goal. This system is broken.”

On the other hand, he’s afraid of a retooling of any kind at this point—the halfway point of the Legislature passed last week—because even if the campuses gained something, it would likely be taken from other programs. Planning for this needed to happen well before the lawmakers went into session, he said. When Gibbons’ successor, Gov. Brian Sandoval, embraced Gibbons’ no-new-taxes stance, rebuilding higher education in Nevada to the point where it was before the recession—or to a competitive position with other states in the Intermountain West—became extremely difficult if not impossible.

When Gibbons proposed some of his most severe cuts four years ago, Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada director Chuck Alvey gave voice to the concern of many businesspeople: “And when you’re going for those high-quality jobs, generally they’re looking for strong higher [education] and K-12 system. And so it’s hard to recruit out-of-state companies if you don’t have a strong higher ed system.”

It’s a sentiment that still resonates today, but there is little indication that things will change anytime soon—particularly if some lawmakers are fuzzy on the concept.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...