"We're happy. We're hopeful. Things are going to get better," stated UNLV's ninth president, Neal Smatresk, at the launch of the Brookings Mountain West initiative. "We are looking toward a sustainable, prosperous future for all of Nevada's citizens." Strong words for a visionary time in Nevada's - and UNLV's - history.
Just months after taking over as president, Smatresk presided over two announcements of major partnerships for UNLV - The Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West - within a space of two weeks. These partnerships represent two of the most significant milestones in UNLV's history and will serve as guideposts for the next 50 years of its existence, tying the campus more closely to the needs of the region and putting UNLV at the forefront of collaborations with a national and global impact.
To borrow an analogy from Bill Antholis, managing director of the Brookings Institution, how these efforts came to pass within days of each other is like asking the parties in a successful marriage (including their friends and family) how they met. Everyone has a story and a perspective. It depends on who you talk to.
To Know Nevada is to Love Nevada
Spend a few minutes with Bill Boldt, vice president for advancement at UNLV, and he'll tell you about the courtship with The Lincy Foundation that led to a $14 million gift and the creation of The Lincy Institute. "About a year ago, then-Provost Neal Smatresk and I began a conversation with Lindy Schumacher at The Lincy Foundation about a much smaller gift," Boldt explains. But it was rapidly apparent that a greater partnership would be a better match. "We stopped thinking small."
Schumacher, director of Nevada programs, and Jeff Wilkins, director for health and human services policy for The Lincy Foundation, worked with Smatresk and Boldt in developing a proposal to the foundation that zeroed in on the needs of Southern Nevada, yet had far-reaching implications. The newly created Lincy Institute will serve as a catalyst for the human capital needs of Nevada - in education, health care, and social services - by bringing together nonprofit and nongovernmental agencies to collaborate on larger grants and joint programs.
The Lincy Institute's goals are threefold:
- Support the viability of the economic future of Nevada and the quality of life for its residents, especially in Southern Nevada.
- Create a new model for bringing together state, regional, and city agencies to address the large-scale challenges in Southern Nevada, with a particular focus on education, health care, and social services/public policy.
- Attract federal, state, and local funding.
Schumacher says that UNLV was on their radar way before that first conversation with Boldt and Smatresk.
"In working with Nevada nonprofits, we kept finding ideas and programs that worked. So we asked: Where did you get that idea? How do you know that? Why will this work? And, in response, our partners talked about the faculty, students, and research coming out of UNLV to support their ideas," Schumacher explained. "Every single time, we came back to UNLV."
Announced Aug. 26 and approved by the Board of Regents at its September meeting, the new Lincy Institute will be housed in UNLV's Greenspun Hall and will employ program directors in health, education, and social systems and a full-time grant writer. Funding also will sponsor 12 faculty fellowships in related areas as well as scholarships and post-doctoral, graduate, and undergraduate assistantships to enhance existing educational and community programs.
"The Lincy Institute will be a hub for addressing the human capital challenges that are integral to the future prosperity of our region," Smatresk explains.
One example of what The Lincy Institute will do for the community is in Denise Tanata-Ashby's Nevada Institute for Children's Research and Policy (NICRP), which focuses on many community-driven projects - from infant mortality to teen pregnancy - that plague the region.
One of her pet projects is the Kindergarten Health Survey. A local pediatrician had lobbied for a bill in 2007 that would require Nevada children entering kindergarten to have health exams. It didn't pass, but the institute was asked by the Southern Nevada Health District and the Clark County School District to see if such a bill was even necessary. NICRP is now collecting that data and has expanded the scope of the survey to provide more information on the overall health of children.
One trend Tanata-Ashby watches is a potentially alarming rise in overweight children, especially among African-Americans. That is certainly a concern for health care providers. But the bigger picture - one that UNLV is increasingly in tune within this urban sustainability era - is that health issues are a red flag when it comes to learning, too.
The Kindergarten Health Survey will provide baseline data, but the institute doesn't have the resources to look at contributing factors, such as lack of physical activity or poor dietary habits. So Tanata-Ashby would like to partner on a study that gets down to those layers.
That's where Lincy comes in, bringing together various health and education agencies to tackle the interrelated pieces of the larger problem and turn the recommendations of Tanata-Ashby's institute into reality. "If we find that childhood obesity affects the ability to learn," she says, "what types of services and programs are available to address that? Do we have parks and outdoor recreation activities available? And how can we make walking to school safer?"
The Hub of the Intermountain West
According to Antholis, the story of how the couple met started five years ago when the Brookings Institution - one of the oldest and most prominent research organizations in the nation - began a study looking at the fastest-growing parts of the country, focusing on the four-state Western region and the Carolinas.
From this study, came the 2008 report titled, "Mountain Megas: America's Newest Metropolitan Places and a Federal Partnership to Help Them Prosper." In this report, the Brookings Institution described the explosive growth of the Mountain Megas and the critical needs of this region in infrastructure, human capital, and enhanced research and development to build diversified and sustainable economies.
Nevada is one of five states that make up the Southern Intermountain West, or Mountain Megas, with the other four states being Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. These states have the fastest population growth and economic and demographic transitions anywhere in the country. And, while other regions have received tremendous investment of federal funding, this region has yet to realize its full developmental potential.
In talking about the assumptions for the Mountain Megas report, co-author Robert Lang stated: "True prosperity is actually based on achieving those three interrelated dimensions of prosperity - sustainable, productive, and inclusive growth - all at once. In addition, we assumed that such balanced growth depends on the region assembling in its megapolitan areas sufficient stocks of the crucial assets that contribute to such prosperity: top-notch infrastructure, world-class innovation inputs, vital human capital, and strong quality-of-place, as well as the effective regional governance to put it all together."
Enter UNLV. In 2008, the campus began a significant strategic planning exercise known as "Focus: 50 to 100" led by then-Provost and Executive Vice President Smatresk. After months of looking inward and positioning the university to move into its second 50 years of existence, a mission and vision for the future of UNLV emerged and brought focus to UNLV's efforts. The plan articulated that the university's success was integrally tied to its role in the economic and social development of Southern Nevada.
And, in a strange twist of fate, the vision for the future of UNLV coincided almost exactly with the findings of the Mountain Mega report from the Brookings Institution. In fact, the new report not only meshed with the vision, but it also added immediate substance and clarity.
While learning from today's problems (as outlined in the Megas report), the ultimate goal is to prepare the region for tomorrow. To accomplish this, all three sustainability categories - human capital, economic diversification, and meeting the hard infrastructure challenges of our region - have to be addressed. "We do all three of those at UNLV," Smatresk says, "but we hadn't said it that crisply. So we said let's sharpen our focus and build around those critical areas."
The Brookings Mountain West initiative at UNLV will do this in two ways. First, UNLV will serve as the hub for research and as a facilitator for solutions for the Mountain Megas, focused on finding solutions to the critical challenges facing these fast-growing communities - challenges such as sustainable water and energy resources, producing the necessary human capital, and fueling the technological advances that will help these areas prosper economically.
Second, eight Brookings' senior scholars will spend one to three weeks at UNLV this year, sharing their expertise on issues ranging from alternative energy to demographics and getting a better feel for the issues.
Lang will join the UNLV sociology faculty in January and will serve as both the research director for the Brookings Mountain West initiative and the interim executive director for The Lincy Institute. When asked why Las Vegas, he says, "Las Vegas is a nice place from which to access the entire West. When you do things in California, sometimes it's just all about California - it's so large. But, if you locate in a place like Las Vegas, you have a lot of California in there, plus you get the rest of the West."
Brookings gets a proving ground that looks to be the perfect fit for its 21st-century mission. "It's the experiment to see if going from local to global can work," Antholis says. "We know we can [develop policies] sitting at home in Washington, but can we do it on the ground in a particular place where we connect those local learnings to broader global developments?"
And, finally, Brookings gets a university that has those aforementioned ambitions as well as an unusual combination of strength and flexibility.
"It's a big research university that's been growing, that is entrepreneurial, and that is open to this kind partnership with Brookings," Lang says. "It's flexible enough to leverage its assets by partnering with a big think tank - that openness is critical. Las Vegas is not an old city, and it doesn't have an old way of doing things. And the university nicely reflects the city itself."
"We had actually been looking at this place and at this university for a lot longer than the university and the place may have realized," says Antholis.
A 20-Year Plan
Brian Greenspun explains that the courtship has actually been going on for close to 20 years, starting when his family decided to create the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV in honor of his father.
In keeping with the family's mission to work toward improving the quality of urban life in Southern Nevada, the Greenspun family then presented UNLV with a second gift to establish the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. Together with the state, the family made possible the five-story Greenspun Hall, which houses the college.
Greenspun Hall is now the home of The Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West. Coincidence?
In addition to being major benefactors to UNLV, the Greenspun family publishes the influential Las Vegas Sun. Brian Greenspun is editor of the Sun and a prominent member of the Brookings board of trustees.
Enter Smatresk. He saw the stars aligning. With Greenspun's help, Smatresk orchestrated a meeting between Brookings and Schumacher and Wilkins of The Lincy Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the pieces fell into place.
As the Lincy partnership came together, along with the prioritization of UNLV's sustainability mission and how these tandem efforts could help address the Mountain Mega report, Smatresk knew that Brookings, with its policy-making prowess back East and its heightened concern for the West, was a perfect fit.
At a November 2007 trustees meeting that just happened to be in Las Vegas, Smatresk and Greenspun talked with Antholis and Brookings President Strobe Talbott about the possibilities of partnering with UNLV.
As part of living up to a mission to be on the cutting edge of research and apolitical policy making, the Brookings' trustees at that Las Vegas meeting already had their sights on westward expansion. They wanted to take action on what would soon become the Mountain Mega report, which expresses the "supersized reality" of the five emerging metro areas in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Nevada and which seeks a solution for the stressful boom-and-bust cycles that have defined the region.
"My father always told me that the way to stay young and vital is to have a 20-year plan," Greenspun explains. "Now as I see Brookings and UNLV clasping hands, I see some of my family's plans coming together in this partnership - this is a quantum leap forward for our region and our community."
It all made sense. "UNLV has to be a part of Las Vegas, and we want to add value to the community, not just by educating students but also by doing research that is relevant to this region," states Smatresk. "Through the support of the Greenspun family, The Lincy Foundation, and countless others, UNLV is shaping the future, not just for our region but for Nevada and beyond."
And Yet Another Piece of the Puzzle
For more than three decades, Ron Smith has been working at UNLV and talking about sustainability. Now vice president for research and graduate studies, Smith says he can see that UNLV is finally at a place where it can position itself to be a leader in the field.
"The stars have aligned and converged," says Smith. "UNLV is the right place, and this is the right time to have a serious voice in the sustainability discussion."
In 1972, when Smith was a brand-new UNLV faculty member, the population of Clark County was 307,000. Today, there are 2 million people. So, during his tenure, the professor has witnessed one of the greatest population explosions in American history.
Along the way, UNLV has taken advantage of the research opportunities inherent in a unique community. It developed community-focused staples such as Smith's Urban Sustainability Initiative, the Transportation Research Center, the Center for Energy Research, the Public Lands Institute, and the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies.
The Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies links researchers from multiple disciplines and helps them tackle big-picture problems in renewable energy, nuclear energy, and cultural and environmental sciences. The approach has helped the center attract multimillion-dollar grants, and nearly all its funding comes from competitive federal grants. This type of progress recently prompted the U.S. Department of Energy to name UNLV one of 31 lead nuclear energy research universities; the center's transmutation research program has received more than $28 million since 2001 alone.
If The Lincy Institute covers the social and cultural aspects of sustainability (human capital) and Brookings is, to a large extent, about economic sustainability, the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies explores sustainability of the physical environment - the hard infrastructure requirements. To sum it up, these three components represent the three focus areas identified in both the Mountain Mega report and in UNLV's strategic plan.
The beauty of this new relationship is the interdependence of all three types. "It's all hooked together," Smith says. "I mean, if you have more people employed, you have less need for welfare. And over at the Harry Reid Center, they're doing a lot of renewable energy stuff, and that's about creating jobs in new areas of solar and biofuels."
That explains why Tom Piechota is not only director of sustainability, but of multidisciplinary research. That's a key word within UNLV's sustainability business. His department, the Urban Sustainability Initiative (USI), "looks at 21st-century challenges in the urban arena," and that means making sure that all relevant departments are in on the discussion.
Two examples of different sizes: USI supports the College of Hotel Administration in helping small local restaurants reduce their energy and water footprints, and it is bringing together the departments needed for UNLV to become the solar research hub of the Southwest. The scale of future projects may depend on what Brookings and Lincy bring to the table.
Piechota's "perfect example" of this potential energy is the sociology department's Las Vegas Metropolitan Area Social Survey of how "residents think about their urban environment across the three dimensions of sustainability." This overlaps with Lincy's interests in terms of quality-of-life issues and with Brookings' in terms of planning. "Then USI can relate that back to the built environment and what it needs to be sustainable," he says.
Hopefully, after data is gathered and conclusions are reached, the city of Las Vegas planning department, a partner in the project, can do something with it. But there's also a chance that Lincy and Brookings can facilitate the "real-life implementation of research, whether connecting it to policy or the community," Piechota says.
With Brookings especially, there will be opportunities for UNLV to spread its wealth of sustainability research to even higher levels. As Piechota says: "We're doing research on Nevada, but they're everybody's issues. We're one of the Mountain Mega communities, and this creates an opportunity for us to be a major player in these discussions."
"What this partnership has the potential to do is to plug UNLV more directly into broader national and international discussions," Antholis says. "I think what we add is a constant feeding to that process, as well as a system for taking it from the local to the national to the global level."
A Prosperous and Sustainable Future
"I believe that the partnership between The Lincy Institute, the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies, and the Brookings Mountain West initiative will create possibilities for this city and our region that we could have only and would have only dreamt about in the past," Smatresk explains. "It's an opportunity. It's a gift. And I think it is a challenge to learn how to be impactful, to take our work and transform it into regional change that wasn't possible a year ago."
In the short term, the announcements of the Lincy and Brookings partnerships have been a silver lining, and Smatresk was happy to deliver some good news after a season of budget cuts and hiring freezes.
"Partnerships of this magnitude allow strategic hires despite the bad budget," he says. "While everybody else is dead in the water, we're going to go out and hire some superstars. This is one of the most exciting opportunities this university has ever had to put itself on the map. This will launch us into national prominence," he says. "I believe that what we're putting into place [with Lincy and Brookings] will help shape Nevada over the next 50 years."