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Small policy changes over time dramatically erode shared governance

04 Dec 2023 12:57 PM | Jim New (Administrator)

Over the past decade, the Nevada System of Higher Education (“NSHE”) has implemented a series of small policy changes that, in the aggregate, have significantly eroded shared governance when it comes to the process of selecting campus presidents and the system chancellor. This became apparent when the agenda for the November 30 - December 1, 2023, Board of Regents quarterly meeting was posted and included proposals for the appointment of interim presidents at Great Basin College and College of Southern Nevada. Since both GBC President Joyce Helens and CSN President Federico Zaragoza had each given more than a year’s notice of their departures, it was surprising that the Board did not launch a national search for their successors. 

As it turns out, the policy that once mandated national searches for institutional leadership positions has quietly undergone multiple small changes since 2012, and now gives Regents the authority to appoint individuals in an interim capacity, potentially avoiding a search process altogether. This shift in policy effectively diminishes the scope and opportunity for meaningful faculty engagement in the crucial task of selecting their campus leaders.  

Following national presidential searches between 2007 and 2012, which resulted in the appointment of four internal candidates to permanent positions - Mike Richards, CSN; Neal Smatresk, UNLV; Marc Johnson, UNR; and  Bart Patterson, NSC - Regents initiated a discussion about the necessity of investing substantial time and resources on a search if the ideal candidate might already be at the institution. Consequently, they directed staff to research “best practices” governing presidential vacancies, which resulted in a presentation at a special meeting in October 2012. Ironically, during this presentation, the Board’s Chief of Staff reported that despite researching the Association of Governing Boards’ (AGB) publication “Presidential Searches” and contacting the  association directly, “such a model was not available.” The meeting minutes reveal a discussion that sometimes veered into the absurd. For example, while acknowledging that university provosts were the most likely individuals to ascend to a  presidential appointment, the Regents seriously discussed raising the selection standards for provosts as an answer to lowering the standards for selecting presidents.

Nevertheless, the Board crafted a policy proposal that was presented for discussion at an April 2013 special meeting. It defined the role of an “Officer in Charge” for the temporary absence or vacancy in the office of president, but also made the requirement for a national search optional. It allowed the Board to appoint an acting president and either initiate a search immediately or appoint an interim president and decide on a search based on the interim president’s performance. Following the April discussion, the finalized policy was adopted as an item on the consent agenda at the June 2013 quarterly meeting.

Under Board policy, an acting president temporarily holds the office during the process to select a permanent replacement and is not eligible to apply for the permanent position. An acting president is not required to meet the minimum requirements for the permanent position. An interim president, however, can be appointed for a period of one to three years and may submit an application to a subsequent search, assuming their appointment is not terminated by the Board. The Board also has the option, however, to forego a search and unilaterally appoint the interim to the permanent position. 

Other small, but significant changes were adopted at the March 2018 quarterly meeting. The main objective of that proposal was to align the procedures for selecting a chancellor with those already in place for presidents, but revisions to the presidential process gave the Regents greater latitude to immediately appoint an interim president, and the options to conduct either “a national, regional, in-state or other search for a permanent President” if the Regents ultimately chose to conduct a search.

Individually each change, as it was being adopted, appeared relatively benign, but the cumulative effect is a system where comprehensive searches to fill the top spots at our institutions may be the rare exception rather than the rule. 

To be fair, the policy still requires the Board chair and Chancellor to meet with campus constituencies, including faculty and staff leaders, administrators, students, and community stakeholders before making an interim appointment. But it does not define guidelines for the topics to be discussed, the information to be gathered, or the information to be shared. A superficial discussion about the preferred qualities of a new president would suffice. The Board is not required to seek input from constituents about individual candidates or share information about the process. There is no obligation for transparency.

Searches are imperfect, costly, and time-consuming. And if we’re honest, NSHE’s recent history reveals a less-than-stellar track record when it comes to conducting successful searches. However, searches conducted with integrity can and do attract a diversity of qualified applicants who meet broad-based criteria established by a variety of campus stakeholders. They seek to identify the best possible individual for a job, who may very well be an internal candidate. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it is the minimum standard for hiring tenure-track faculty. Why should the standard be lower for the chief executive officer of the institution?

The benefits of a well-planned search process are evident, but introducing an interim into the mix dilutes any advantages. To identify just a few:

  • A search conducted while the departing incumbent still holds the position generates the strongest pool of applicants. 
  • An individual selected through a robust search process will always hold more legitimacy in the eyes of their colleagues and constituents than someone who is unilaterally appointed. 
  • Conducting a search for an interim won’t result in a diverse pool because individuals outside the institution will not apply for a position that may be temporary.
  • Allowing an interim to compete in a subsequent search to fill the position permanently will depress the candidate pool since the interim has the inside track.
  • Continually drawing on candidates from within the system runs the risk of developing institutional myopia by denying others from outside the system to bring their varied experiences to the table.
  • Appointing an interim or permanent without a search eliminates the public process that can raise red flags about a candidate prior to appointment.

There are times when it makes sense to appoint rather than search. For example, when former WNC President Vincent Solis announced his resignation in November 2021, he gave the Board little more than a month to fill the vacancy. The three remaining community college presidents have all announced their departures well in advance giving the Regents more than enough time to organize and conduct comprehensive searches.

GBC President Helens, CSN President Zaragoza, and TMCC President Hilgersom
GBC President Joyce Helens, CSN President Federico Zaragoza, and TMCC President Karin Hilgersom

President Zaragoza announced in June 2023 that he would be leaving at the end of June 2024. A few weeks later, President Helens announced her plans to retire at the end of June 2024. And TMCC President Karin Hilgersom justified her request for a waiver of the periodic evaluation and one-year extension of her contract to the end of June 2025 by announcing to the Board last July that she would retire at the end of the extension.

On November 30, the Board made an interim appointment for the GBC position and was poised to make one for CSN before pulling the item from agenda. 

UPDATE, 12/6/23: An article in the Nevada Current reveals that at least one Regent, Laura Perkins, has concerns about the proposal for the interim president at CSN. A faculty leader also says the proposal bucks input gathered in a November campus meeting with the Board Chairman and Interim Chancellor where the consensus was for an acting president and national search.

While both individuals selected for these appointments have stellar qualifications and broad support from campus stakeholders, they also would have made strong candidates in a search. They will be odds-on-favorites for permanent appointments to the positions without a search. It’s unlikely the faculty, students, staff, or community played any role in crafting minimum qualifications and desired characteristics (if any were even developed), nor did they participate in screening candidates or submitting recommendations. In other words, the process excluded shared governance.

With 18 months to go before the next known presidential vacancy, there really is no good justification for not planning a national search to replace President Hilgersom. It should begin no later than October 2024. 

Advocating for, promoting, and protecting shared governance are prime objectives of the Nevada Faculty Alliance. This responsibility touches virtually all aspects of the operation of a system of higher education including participation in the hiring process for campus and system administrators. It is now clear that the existing policy governing vacancies in the offices of president or chancellor violates this well-established tenet. 

NFA strongly urges the Board of Regents to modify Title 2, Chapter 1, Sections 1.5.5. to require a national search if they become aware of a pending vacancy more than nine months before it occurs. Anything less is a betrayal of the critical partnership between faculty, students, and administrators that is necessary to maintain an effective system of higher education. 

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