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Q+A: New NSHE chancellor talks pandemic, budget cuts, diversity

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Melody Rose

Melody Rose became chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education last month during tough times for the group that oversees the state’s public system of colleges and universities.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the system to cut millions from its budget, creating a challenge in educating its roughly 100,000 students. That’s a test Rose says NHSE is ready to face head-on.

“I’m an optimist and day-to-day excited to be here and keep moving us forward together,” said Rose, who was previously the president of Marylhurst University in Oregon.

Rose also previously served as the chancellor of the Oregon University System and Portland State University’s vice provost as part of a 25-year career in higher education.

Rose spoke with the Las Vegas Sun on topics including her priorities in the position, working with the state Legislature and the system’s coronavirus response.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your priorities coming into the position?

I am really excited to be in such a diverse state, and I see a lot of potential for us as a system of higher education in at least two regards.

One is the opportunity we have with our demographics to really focus in on closing achievement gaps across student populations is really thrilling to me. As we know, our population here in Nevada is what the rest of country is going to be looking like in a decade or so, and so we have the opportunity to really focus in and close those achievement gaps between student populations and be a model for the nation. That’s an exciting proposition to me.

NSHE is uniquely positioned to assist students as well as the business community because we have community colleges and four-year institutions under the same leaders, so to speak. This allows us to create synergy, efficiency and really move students through the systems of two- to four-year institutions much more effectively than most states can accomplish. That’s good for our students and their families because it means we will lower the cost and time for a degree, and it’s good for industries. We’re going to be moving those students through degrees quickly and effectively so they can get into the job market and innovate and move our state forward.

How do you think NSHE institutions are handling the coronavirus pandemic?

As you know, I was not here yet for the development of their plan, but what I can tell you is now that I’ve been here a month, and I’ve been working closely with every campus as well as the systemwide task force, is that was formed immediately when the pandemic hit our shores. They really came together so that the system could have a unified response to the pandemic.

They really put together flexible programs that keep health, wellness and safety of our communities at the forefront, but also they gave some flexibility. We have to be adaptable to whatever happens. We have our campuses, and the system as a whole, have really fared much better than some other states across the nation in handling spread. This pandemic is going to be with us in one form or another until there is a vaccine, and so we have to be realistic, but the goal is to prevent spread.

Our campuses each have unique populations and challenges. At UNR, for example, it’s a more traditional, residential community say than what we find down in Las Vegas.

UNR has seen more spread than UNLV since the beginning of the school year. Why has the number been higher there? (UNR had 135 cases from Aug. 24-Sept. 16).

I think you need to broaden the lens a little bit and understand what’s going on in Washoe County. We have to look at the institution as being part of a much larger community in Washoe County, and Washoe County is struggling right now. Our students don’t just stick to campus. Our students are in the community, many of them are living off campus, they are working and raising families. There’s a larger force at play here.

Important to know, of course, that UNR leadership, in partnership with our system-level task force, is really digging down into those numbers. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had some refinements coming in the next week or so around our approach, and that’s what I mean about the flexibility of our programs. We see some numbers rising and we want to make sure we cut it off at the pass, so I think we’re going to see some consideration of some minor changes to policy and practice to adjust to this development.

NSHE has already taken hits to its budget due to the economic impact of the pandemic. What’s the strategy to deal with this and any potential cuts going forward? (They cut 4% or $28 million from the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.)

The first thing I want to say is that we understand NSHE is not alone. Every entity, every agency, every service provider in the state of Nevada and beyond is dealing with this same problem. The Legislature, in its upcoming session, is going to have some very challenging decisions to make. I think the important thing to recognize is they have a heavy lift and a tough job ahead of them, and really what we want to do is be partners to them, anticipate solutions and play our part.

The Board of Regents made a decision following cuts we sustained through the summer and the special session to form a special committee that will contemplate changes and ideas that can help us be on the cutting edge of the system and be more efficient and more effective. The creation of that committee is ongoing, and I’ll think I’ll have more to say on this in mid-October when the board is ready to roll that out.

That’s going to be a committee that has wide representation from every stakeholder group, really to come together in the spirit of transparency, innovation and inclusion.

We’re approaching the next legislative session in February. What’s your strategy for making NSHE’s needs known and met in Carson City?

This is part of the job I really enjoy. I was meeting with legislators starting on my first day in the office and have been making my way through the rounds. The goal in those meetings is really to introduce myself, to make sure they understand who I am and the values that I will be carrying into the building each session.

The other thing I will say is that working closely with the governor is a priority of mine, and I’ve already had several conversations with him. My goal there is to be in alignment with his vision for higher education in the state. I want to play my part in advocating for getting Nevada back to work, and we can contribute to that goal and want to be in lockstep with the governor as we do so.

The student bodies of NSHE’s institutions are highly diverse. What’s the strategy for maintaining that level of diversity in the system?

Part of my strategy is really to make it clear that the success of K12 is NSHE’s success. To the extent that we can contribute to their success in moving students through to completion, begin college ready, supporting those students in terms of financial literacy, making the transitions easy to our campuses, we’re going to stand up and be partners to them.

I’ve already begun to establish those relationships and people have been very welcoming to me here. I’m looking forward to building onto a system of cradle to career education.

When I spoke with UNLV President Keith Whitfield, he said any discussion around the Hey Reb! mascot would be handled with community input. Would you be involved with that?

That’s an area where I really think there needs to be respect for campus autonomy and the culture of the campus. President Whitfield is a very community-minded individual, and I know that he’s going to be a bridge to the community in having those conversations in a very inclusive way and I trust the results of that process.

Ballot Question 1, which would change some of the oversight of the Board of Regents, will be up for a vote in November. What would change for you and the system depending on its passage?

As you know, this is a matter that is now in the hands of Nevada voters. I will respect whatever outcome comes from them casting their ballots in November. The important thing for me is to stay focused on our mission, to understand that we serve and will continue to service over 100,000 students in the state.

At the same time, not knowing what the results of the question will be, I think the most important thing is that we’re going to a partner to the Legislature and to the governor in moving our state forward.

We’re not afraid of change. If there’s an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of what we do for our students, we’re going to be at the table and we’re going to be partners to make that happen.

This content was originally published here.

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