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A Hard-Won Victory: Staff Enrichment Awards Program Launched
Conrad Wilson, a UNLV grounds crew supervisor, has never approached work as a “job.” To hear him tell it, he has always worked on a mission.
The former U.S. Air Force airplane mechanic came to UNLV about 12 years ago and soon embraced what would turn into a years-long effort to get tuition assistance for the dependents of classified staff on par with the grant-in-aid benefit available for faculty.
The program – the first of its kind among NSHE institutions – is called the Staff Enrichment Award. It will go into effect fall 2018 and will provide eligible spouses, domestic partners, and dependents of classified staff with $165.61 dollars per credit hour for undergraduate coursework.
“I went into this knowing that not everybody was going to say yes,” Wilson said. “But if as a state we struggle to have an educated workforce, why not do everything possible to help that workforce afford an education for their kids or their spouses?”
Wilson started that conversation when he joined the UNLV Classified Staff Council in 2011. Early on, he found support among his fellow co-workers. But effects of the Great Recession lingered, and administrators and the NSHE Board of Regents noted that existing policies precluded state classified staff members from receiving tuition assistance for their dependents.
“Even some of the classified staff were hesitant, telling me it’s going to be a hard sell,” Wilson said. “But I just knew we had to do this – if as a university we believe in equity and diversity and improving our state, this had to get done.”
Wilson was persistent and gained two equally tireless allies in Juanita Fain, vice president of student affairs, and Takiyah Beckett, then Classified Staff Council vice chair, who now is the budget and administrative coordinator for the office of diversity initiatives.
“Like Conrad, I felt really passionate about this issue, particularly as it impacted me directly,” Beckett said. “I felt the state was saying dependents of classified staff were less important, and that struck a nerve.”
Beckett said that she and other Classified Staff Council members decided Wilson would be the face and voice of the council on the issue. Meanwhile, she worked with Fain and others, performing research, setting up meetings, conducting surveys, and preparing Board of Regents briefing papers.
Fain was often the liaison for the Classified Staff Council in communicating with the upper administration. For her, the effort was critical to elevating UNLV as a truly inclusive institution.
“I knew this was something that needed to be moved forward if we’re going to be inclusive and have parity for all our employees,” Fain said. “When we talk about equity and inclusion, we have to look at all aspects of campus, and that includes our classified staff. This university wouldn’t get very far without them.”
Never Miss a Chance
Wilson, meanwhile, never missed an opportunity to bring up the matter during public comment portions of NSHE Board of Regents meetings and during coincidental meetings with high-ranking administrators in the course of his workday on campus.
Wilson said he finally started making inroads in 2014 with former UNLV President Neal Smatresk, who was the first to put tuition assistance for classified staff dependents on an agenda for a meeting of NSHE presidents. The issue did not gain traction, but Wilson kept the conversation going and refused to give up.
Then, President Len Jessup took the helm in 2015, lending a sympathetic ear to Wilson and the Classified Staff Council.
“He was really on board, but he also said it was going to be hard to do,” Wilson said. “I talked to him about it for a whole year. Then, I ran into him and Provost Diane Chase on the (academic) mall. I started getting emails from them, and we put together a task force with all the right people.”
With the task force in place, Wilson said the issue moved quickly, given the expertise in the room, including the Classified Staff Council and representatives from human resources, general counsel, office of the controller, Student Affairs, academic advising, academic faculty, and administrative staff.
Finding a Way
With state policies in place preventing the university from providing tuition benefits to classified staff dependents, the group proposed offering the help as an award. Funding would come from university funds set aside in the budget. The eligibility and academic requirements would mirror those of the grant-in-aid benefit, as would the amount that applicants could receive.
President Jessup took the proposal to NSHE and won approval from the chancellor.
“I am really grateful to Dr. Jessup. He fought hard for this and would not stop until we finally got it,” Wilson said. “I know this will help oh so many families, and it’s going to help UNLV in the long run.”
Fain said seeing the issue through has been gratifying. She previously had worked with the Classified Staff Council to get employees tuition benefits, but the early measure excluded their dependents. The Staff Enrichment Award now provides tuition assistance for their eligible children, spouses, and domestic partners.
“Ensuring their dependents can now receive tuition assistance shows UNLV is accomplishing its Top Tier mission, promoting community well-being and individual achievement through education,” she said.
With this mission accomplished, Wilson said he hopes other classified staff employees are inspired to become more involved in shaping UNLV.
“We all play a role,” he said. “You can come and just do your thing or you can look around and see that there’s no such thing as ‘little people.’ We all have the ability to make changes and take better care of each other.”
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