Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021 | 2 a.m.
A draft of the policy that requires all employees of Nevada’s public colleges to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is available for review in advance of a planned vote next week by the Board of Regents.
It’s one of many subjects commanding the attention of Melody Rose, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education.
In a conversation Thursday with the Sun editorial board, Rose spoke about topics ranging from pandemic response to UNLV campus culture and statewide higher education governance. On the coronavirus front, Regents are scheduled to vote on an employee vaccine requirement at their meeting Thursday. If passed, the rule would go into effect Dec. 1, with exceptions for religious and medical reasons.
Separately, the Nevada Board of Health voted last month to require public college students to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1, with the same exceptions for religious and medical reasons.
Rose said that college employees already were a more vaccinated population than the state overall, with a systemwide vaccination rate of about 78%. Nevada’s general vaccination rate is 58%. All campuses except for Western Nevada College and Great Basin College have passed the 70% threshold that allows unvaccinated workers to stop having to test.
While COVID-19 continues to sicken staff and students, Rose sees gains, thanks to mitigation measures including vaccine availability, the vaccinate-or-test rule for employees, and a mask mandate.
“There was a brief uptick across the system around the beginning of the semester and move-in day for our dormitory students, and those have leveled off. If you were to compare those over a year (ago) you’d say it looks like we’re back where we were — but what you have to remember is that a year ago there was almost no one on campus,” Rose said. “To have roughly the same number of infected individuals within our community but our campuses are (now) teeming with folks, to me, is a huge sign of success.”
Here’s more from the conversation.
What prevented NSHE from getting the vaccine requirements in place in time for the fall semester?
On May 6 we issued a statement saying we were going to work on a vaccine policy and implementation plan. What I was signaling on May 6 is, we’re not going to sit around. We’re going to be proactive. I would think nobody would want us to start imagining an implementation plan the day after the Board of Health takes action.
When the Board of Health made its decision to require COVID vaccines for college students, 80% of colleges and universities in this country had not yet determined a path forward on vaccines. I know that some have criticized and said that everyone was a bit slow. I think if you’re in the first 20%, that’s a hard argument to make.
Are you beginning to plan for the logistics of endemic COVID?
This is exactly the reason that there is a chancellor’s COVID task force, to have the experts from across the system consistently convening.
I don’t see that task force going away anytime soon, because we’re going to have to continue to adapt. That is where those conversations would be initiated. There has been a commitment from the very beginning to follow the science and follow the data. We’re going to be data-driven and science-driven, but it also means we’re not going to get ahead of those experts.
In terms of moving to different modalities, the whole nation is having a conversation about shifting modalities anyway, separate and apart from COVID. When I helped create the Center for Online Learning at Portland State University some 10 or 12 years ago, we saw online learning as an access issue, as a social justice issue when we’re talking about needing to accommodate more adult students with families and children and jobs. When we can finally get this thing in the rear view mirror and talk about lessons learned, I would suspect one of the top lessons learned is how to do a paradigm shift in terms of modality that reflects the reality of students’ lives, whether it’s COVID or all of the other factors I just mentioned.
How are you encouraging campuses to enforce mask mandates?
What I see on our campuses is far better compliance than I see in other places. I have been just so proud of our students who really, I think, love their faculty, love their in-person experience and know that if we can’t get this thing under control, we won’t be able to maintain high-quality in-person learning. They are excited to be back on their campuses, and I think that’s all the motivation they need.
What is your take on the perceived imbalance in facilities at UNR versus UNLV?
Let’s look at the 2021 legislative session and let’s look at the incredible successes around investing in UNLV’s infrastructure we can claim. It’s pretty stunning. Not only the medical school building, which is phenomenal and going up fast, fast, fast, but we got that investment in the engineering building, which is going to be absolutely imperative to diversification of the Southern Nevada economy.
I am really keen to participate in my first cycle of budget-building here in my new role. I know that sounds very nerdy, but budgets are value statements. I think that having a process of budget-building that is transparent, that is widely inclusive will be the opportunity to have the conversations about strategic investments, and I think all of those questions will be asked and answered.
Over the last several years there have been tensions between the UNLV donor community, NSHE and the Regents. Have you done any outreach on that?
I was really pleased to be invited to the groundbreaking for the school of medicine. I was brand-new in my role. For whatever has gone in the past, I was really grateful to be there and represent the Regents and able to thank the donors personally for their investment. I have made outreach to those folks. They are absolutely critical to the future of our state, to the investment in higher education. What they have been able to do and I hope what they will continue to do will be transformative for everyone in the state of Nevada.
Are you empowered to look at how NSHE is structured and put parameters around NSHE’s intrusions into the normal administrative processes and let college presidents run their campuses without a lot of intervention?
I’ve been a university president. It’s an important perspective that I carry into this role. I very much appreciate the lanes that we operate within. The Regents respected me enough to hire me into this role, and I think that is the best signal of all that we are a collaborative body. We are moving forward, not backward, and I think it’s a very important moment to recognize, too, how strong our presidents are in this system.
You can get a commitment from me as chancellor that stability in leadership is a core value set. I would add that the fact that the Board of Regents has moved away from three-year contracts and has embraced four-year contracts is evidence that they understand the importance of stability too. Stability in leadership is critical to sustained innovation. It’s critical to improving student success outcomes. I think all signs point in that direction. The past is the past and I’m not in a position to correct anything that has happened in the past, but certainly stability across the board is deeply important to me. I understand its value in higher education and I believe the Regents do as well.
UNLV prides itself on its ability to provide access to first-generation students. What are your plans to build on that?
I know that President (Keith) Whitfield is keenly attentive to those issues. As an HSI (Hispanic-Serving Institution) UNLV is going to have a lot of focus around certain populations that need our supports. I think NSHE has done a really wonderful job in acquiring HSI status on most of our campuses and MSI (Minority-Serving Institution) status on some. The focus there has to continue. We’ve improved in terms of welcoming underrepresented students into our campuses. We are making strides in terms of their success rates, but there is still a gap in their success rates measured against white students. There is a lot of work to be done. UNLV is going to stay laser-focused on this issue.
I came here in large part because this is a minority-majority state with a minority-majority population of students. Our current population looks like the future of this country. I think we have a unique and powerful opportunity to be an example for the nation in leaning into these exact questions around equity and closing the opportunity gaps that have existed for generations.
As a first-generation college student, I can attest to the transformative impact of higher ed. I’m driven to make sure that opportunity exists for every single student who wants it in this state. I think that will become a central component of our strategic plan moving forward.
What’s your overall feeling about state funding and what are your arguments in favor of increasing that?
It’s pretty easy for me to make the case that a higher investment in higher education will result in even bigger dividends for our state and communities at large. I have to thank the state Legislature for its investment in NSHE. Our per capita or pro rata investment into students here in the state of Nevada hovers right above the national average. I’m very grateful for that, but I would only say to policymakers that the more dollars you put in, the more dollars the state gets in return.
The ballot question in 2020 to restructure the Regents failed. How do you feel about the vote?
I was hired to improve student and research outcomes and to deliver on the investment that taxpayers and philanthropy has made to the endeavor of higher education. Given my background as a first-generation college student, I am deeply passionate about our mission and the work that lies ahead. I’m not spending a lot of time thinking about governance. That’s not why I am here. I’m much more excited about our strategic planning initiatives, partnership developments, the ways that we can improve student outcomes. I’m pretty determined to stay focused on those things where we can have impact and we can improve and transform students’ lives.