Change of Plans

A year after their founding, UNLV’s two new research institutes are adapting to a new reality

The original plan for the Lincy Institute at UNLV was to hire from out of state. The institute, a Kirk Kerkorian-funded initiative aimed at bringing together researchers and nonprofit groups, wanted to supplement Las Vegas’ academic talent pool, not raid it.

But the economic woes facing the community and the university scrambled the equation, says Lindy Schumacher, director of Nevada operations for the Lincy Foundation, which funded the institute with a $14 million grant last year. After a painful round of cuts to the state’s university system, the talented people Lincy sought were, in some cases, unemployed.

“Our original goal was to bring in talent from outside Nevada,” Schumacher says. “What we found, a year later, with the economy the way it is, was that the university was having to lay off some of this great talent. It made more sense to keep these people in Nevada.”

The grinding reality of Nevada’s dismal economy has a way of deflating the loftiest ambitions. And that has been the case with UNLV’s two new research institutes, Lincy and Brookings Mountain West, which launched last fall. A year in, their missions have become more urgent: As the incredible shrinking university to which they are attached is less able to stand on its own, the well-funded institutes find themselves trying to pick up the slack.

In the coming year, Brookings Mountain West, the first U.S. “branch office” in the 84-year history of the storied Washington think tank, the Brookings Institution, plans to get more involved in the university’s teaching mission, partnering with faculty and students to bring Brookings’ staff and research into the classroom.

“Brookings’ staff are going to be directly involved in curriculum development, actually helping to shape the curriculum of UNLV,” says Robert Lang, a sociologist who is UNLV’s director of Brookings Mountain West. “The partnership is going to evolve into something closer that will extend the benefits of Brookings into undergraduate education.”

Details of this plan, parts of which were announced in UNLV President Neal Smatresk’s State of the University speech on Sept. 14, are still being worked out. But it represents a more hands-on role than was originally envisioned for the policy researchers.

Smatresk, in his speech, said UNLV may have to charge different tuition for different college majors, shrink enrollment or raise admission standards as the legislature continues to slash the university’s budget. At this all-hands-on-deck moment, everybody is being asked to pitch in.

The reversal of Las Vegas’ fortunes has affected the institutes’ academic direction as well.

Lang says Brookings Mountain West began with the idea that the region represents a new American heartland, similar to the role the Midwest used to play in American culture and politics. “Remember that old saying, ‘Will it play in Peoria?,’” he says. “Well, Peoria, Ariz., is now bigger than Peoria, Ill.” (It’s true: The Phoenix suburb’s population is nearly 150,000, versus less than 115,000 for the Midwestern city.)

The West’s status as an increasingly important swing region in national politics will be the subject of a conference hosted by Brookings Mountain West on Oct. 8. Titled “The Political Demography and Geography of the Intermountain West,” the day of panels and presentations will feature new public opinion polling that will gauge the attitudes of the region’s voters.

For issues from energy sustainability to immigration, the West is ground zero, and Southern Nevada is the perfect case study. “The mandate was to bring Brookings out of the Beltway and into the field, and Las Vegas is a wonderful laboratory,” says Lang, who came to his current post from Virginia Tech.

But the nature of the laboratory has changed dramatically since 2007, when Las Vegas media and real-estate baron Brian Greenspun, a Brookings Institution board member, first began courting the organization. Then, Las Vegas was a case study in the new American prosperity—the vibrant center of population and job growth that was fueling the post-industrial economy.

Now, of course, Nevada is a laboratory of America’s hard times. It’s foreclosure central, the boomtown gone spectacularly bust, the No. 1 state in the nation for unemployment as of May when it ended Michigan’s four-year reign.

When America was doing well, Las Vegas did very well. But since America began doing poorly, Las Vegas has been doing very, very poorly. As Las Vegas gropes for a way out of its predicament, it stands to reason that America should be paying attention.

“Solving Las Vegas’ problems is like solving America’s problems,” Lang says. “How do you move the economy beyond just consumption? What do you do after the housing bubble? How do you move cities beyond subdivisions and freeways?”

Part of the answer, Lang believes, is faith in an integral role for higher education, and he rails against what he sees as a shortsighted decision to starve the university system to feed the rest of the state budget. Advocate for UNLV’s survival: Another unexpected role.

For the Lincy Institute, helping Southern Nevada’s nonprofit groups apply for federal grant money is a service that’s more needed than ever before. Distressed cities such as Baltimore and Detroit have a vast infrastructure of knowledgeable institutions cannily applying for the resources that are out there. In Las Vegas, the scene is fragmented and sparse.

Lincy aims to connect UNLV researchers who work on topics related to education, health care and social services with nonprofit groups searching for data on the scope of the area’s needs. Then, the institute plans to provide top-notch grant-writing assistance. (The two grant-writer positions it hopes to staff have not yet been filled.)

The institute’s first year was spent putting the right scholars, fellows and graduate students in place, and installing Lang, who directs the Lincy Institute along with Brookings Mountain West and who arrived in January. In the coming year, Schumacher says, the institute is working with a few nonprofit groups—details aren’t being disclosed—on projects that, it hopes, will show the community what it’s capable of doing.

“As a state, we haven’t asked for a whole lot in the past,” Schumacher says. “We paid our own bills. We took care of ourselves. We should be proud of that—we created something out of nothing.” But now that the money is no longer flowing, Nevada, she says, needs an education in how to ask for what it needs.

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