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Our Road to Tier 1

In his UNLV Magazine column, President Neal Smatresk explains why Nevada needs UNLV to take its place among the nation's top universities.

Campus News  |  Nov 14, 2013  |  By Neal Smatresk

Dr. Neal Smatresk inside the Student Union. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

This column by UNLV President Neal Smatresk was originally published in UNLV Magazine, Fall 2013 issue.


Early this fall, I outlined elements of our Tier 1 initiative, which is a data-driven business plan to propel UNLV into the ranks of top 100 U.S. research universities. It reflects the evolution of our longstanding strategic plan.

Currently, UNLV is designated by the Carnegie Foundation as a "research university with high activity." This puts UNLV in the top 4.5 percent in the nation. This is an admirable distinction, but not a true reflection of where UNLV should be, nor of what Nevada needs of us.

Of the 108 U.S. universities designated as Tier 1 institutions with "very high" research activity, none is located in Nevada. In fact, ours is the largest state lacking a top-tier research university, so we are missing out on the robust returns that investing in higher education brings. Tier 1 universities:

  • Are major economic engines in their states -- If we reach our Tier 1 goal, UNLV will more than double its current economic impact of $1.5 billion.
  • Attract industries, foster business startups, and create new patents -- It's a proven model for economic development. University research leads to the type of environment needed to turn ideas into new products.
  • Improve the human infrastructure and health care of their regions -- University research helps solve the most pressing problems in the community. UNLV is already doing this in many ways, but Nevada needs us to do more.
  • Bring in large federal grants and private industry contracts -- The state ranks at the bottom in bringing in these dollars. Part of changing that requires more robust university-based research.
  • Produce a highly qualified workforce -- In short, a community cannot prosper without the skilled workforce that will be in demand in the future.
  • Attract students from around the world -- UNLV has a strong international reputation. Students from across the globe are spending their educational dollars in Nevada. UNLV is a significant part of the state's export economy.

UNLV's ambition and its mission is to fill these needs.

We've started by gathering comparative data from several benchmark institutions in the top tier -- namely, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona State. For the most part, like UNLV, they are in urban Western settings, function in statewide higher education systems, have comparable student size, and do not have medical or agricultural schools.

We are using the data to develop performance targets for the next five, 10, and 15 years. We also will use this information to set unit-level goals across campus. This will help us allocate resources in terms of faculty positions, capital expenditures, educational infrastructure, and research investments.

We recognize that gaining support for our Tier 1 initiative will require us to identify clearly the significant gaps between us and our Tier 1 comparators. And then to succeed, we must engage our key stakeholders in the plan for closing those gaps.

This initiative takes everything we have prioritized -- our curriculum, our enrollment, our commitment to student access and success, our focus on economic and cultural development, and so much more -- and consolidates it under a single umbrella. The Tier 1 initiative will drive our campus into its future, and I look forward to taking that journey with you.