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Desert Companion

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President Len Jessup

Illustration by Brent Holmes

What does UNLV President Len Jessup’s plan to bump up the school’s status actually mean for students and the state?

In September, UNLV President Len Jessup gave his first State of the University address since taking the job at the beginning of the year. It was full of excitement and optimism, as such speeches are meant to be, but it also echoed with a familiar refrain: UNLV must rise from good to great. Like former president Neal Smatresk in 2013, and interim president Don Snyder in 2014, Jessup invoked the idea of tiers and presented his plan for boosting UNLV to the highest one. But he used slightly altered terminology for it. Whereas Smatresk and Snyder had spoken of “Tier One,” Jessup adopted the name “Top Tier” for his vision. The press was perplexed. During a small Q&A following the address, a Las Vegas Sun reporter asked whether Jessup was worried “Top Tier” sounded so general that it would confuse the public.

Jessup’s response to such skepticism has been to emphasize content over nomenclature. What matters, he argues, is that the initiative resulted from a year’s worth of planning by an outside consultancy combined with input from the university’s administrators, faculty, students and other stakeholders. Using the Top Tier Vision as their guide, separate committees will work toward goals in five focus areas: research and scholarship, student achievement, the medical school, community partnerships and infrastructure. The first group, for instance, is charged with more than tripling the school’s research expenditures to $150 million and graduating 200 doctoral students yearly by 2025, compared to 147 last year.

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“In one word, it’s about impact,” Jessup told Desert Companion. “What impact do we have on the community? … It’s a matter of aiming everything we’ve got now at being better.”

To what end? Attracting more students and professors, and increasing the amount of outside money flowing into the university, mainly for research. UNLV lost $73 million (nearly 40 percent of its budget) in state funding from 2009 to 2013, and although restored state funding, a growing student body and increased fundraising have partially filled that hole, Jessup says, the school isn’t back to where it was pre-recession.

In other words, Top Tier isn’t just a strategic plan for making the university better; it’s also a marketing plan for attracting customers. And in that respect, branding does matter.

Let’s say a talented high school athlete is shopping for colleges. He might consider only those in a certain NCAA division (1, 2 or 3) or compare their various standings in his sport. Sure, it gets more complicated with conferences and standings and so on, but the point is, there’s a standardized classification system that student-athletes and their parents can refer to.

There’s no equivalent for scholars. A teenage astronomy buff might know she wants to go to MIT, but most students are left to parse college costs, acceptance and graduation rates, scholarships and other deciding factors on their own. No single, objective list tells them X school is ranked Y in academics.

Instead, there are several systems, ranging from popularity contests to ROI calculators. The best known may be U.S. News & World Report’s annual Best College Rankings, which divides schools by scope (national or regional, college or university, etc.) and then rates them according to criteria such as freshman retention rates, student-faculty ratios and six-year graduation rates. More prestigious, however, is the Carnegie Foundation’s classification, which identifies research universities and distinguishes those with “very high” or “high” research activity. 

When Smatresk and Snyder talked about “Tier One,” they explained it in terms of Carnegie’s “very high” designation. Rob Lang, UNLV’s Brookings Mountain West director, who participated in the current planning process, says, “Tier One came from this: The schools at the top level of the Carnegie rankings used to be called R1, for ‘research one,’ which meant they were in about the top 100 … Carnegie’s business isn’t marketing; their specialty is to gauge the research capacity of a university, to help guide the federal government — your National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.”

Some universities’ initiatives reflect Lang’s take. In Texas, the state government facilitated a race to the top of national rankings among public universities with a matching grant program for research funding. Frontrunner Texas Tech University writes on a related page of its website: “Tier One is a term used to describe institutions having academic excellence, world-class research and an exceptional student body; it is used interchangeably with ‘national research university.’”

The push for academic prestige has been a driving force in higher education over the last couple decades, says Eric Kelderman, who writes about state government for the Chronicle of Higher Education. “It’s behind a number of trends in what you would call infrastructure and spending to attract better students, research dollars and faculty,” Keldersman says. “One way to accomplish this is to enhance their reputation as a research university. ... That’s what UNLV appears to be doing. It’s a worthy goal, but there are a couple problems. Every other university that size, and many smaller ones, are trying to do the same thing at a time when research dollars are not increasing. The university a couple hundred miles to the north is trying to do the same thing.”

As if UNLV and UNR need something else to compete over, it turns out they’re both vying for Tier One status. Key “unr.edu” into a web browser, and the home page that comes up looks like an ad for Tier One. Beneath a “University of Nevada” header is the tagline, “One of the nation’s top public research universities.” And below that, a gold banner trumpeting, “National Tier 1 Education.”

Yet UNR, like UNLV, is still waiting to graduate from Carnegie “high” to “very high” status. So what makes UNR “Tier One”? Spokeswoman Jane Tors says it’s the fact that the school is in the top section of the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings — the one that’s for national universities. On that list, UNR comes in at No. 187 out of around 200 ranked (UNLV is one of several dozen unranked entries at the bottom). But schools in other sections may have far higher scores than some of those in the national universities section. Amherst, whose score is 96, appears on the national liberal arts university list. Compare that to UNR, whose score is 23. It’s hard to see why the national universities section as a whole would constitute the highest echelon.

“Tier One is really just a colloquialism for the national universities,” Tors says. “I think the important thing is our state has two schools striving for top-ranked status.”

Indeed, among Nevada’s closest competitors for students, it’s the only state with no school on the Carnegie research university “very high” list. Only the top 2.5 percent of schools make that cut; UNLV is in the top 4.5 percent.

This, Jessup agrees, has got to change. But his vision subsumes the Carnegie designation — and all the other lists, which he’d like to see UNLV top — under his broader goal of making the school a more enticing place to study, rewarding place to work and collaborative partner in the community. As an example of what he means, he points to the recent deal between UNLV and the Lou Ruvo Cleveland Clinic Center for Brain Health to form Nevada’s first Center for Biomedical Research Excellence. The NIH awarded the project $11.1 million in funding.

“We did that without adding any research facilities,” he says. “We have existing faculty that will go after that. It just took outside-the-box thinking. Another example is tech transfer. There are many internal resources we can redirect to hire more faculty and help us create more spinout activity (businesses being spun off academic projects into the private sector).”

Call it what you want, Jessup says; that kind of activity attracts talent. Talent, in turn, attracts investment. And with resources to buoy it, UNLV can only rise. 

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