The world moves fast. That’s definitely true in higher education, an industry that in recent years has been forced to navigate uncertain funding models, fluctuating enrollment, and shifts to operations during a pandemic that has upended pretty much everything.
So how, then, can universities find focus amidst the frenzy and emerge more energized and better aligned with their missions?
UNLV President Keith E. Whitfield says it all boils down to finding the “joy of learning.” That simple, yet focused phrase formed the theme of Whitfield’s third annual State of the University address on Feb. 2.
“It’s that joy that we sometimes forget in the noisy world of all we do. That joy needs to be instilled in our students, shared among our faculty and staff, and demonstrated to the community and to future generations of Rebels,” said Whitfield.
During an hourlong address in front of hundreds of faculty, staff, students, and community leaders, Whitfield discussed how UNLV has emerged from the pandemic in a stronger position than many institutions. To maintain its competitiveness, he said, the university will need to be even more nimble, more innovative, and more student-centric.
Bolstering National and International Recruitment
Despite drastic enrollment dips - as much as 10 percent nationally - during the pandemic, UNLV has largely emerged unscathed. This fall, UNLV’s enrollment was down slightly – less than 2 percent – but it welcomed one of its largest-ever freshman classes and spring numbers are strong.
Whitfield said that his vision is for UNLV to grow its enrollment from 30,000 today to as much as 40,000 students by 2030. To do this, he said that UNLV needs to increase the reach of where its students come from.
“I believe there’s no better value from a Carnegie R1 institution than UNLV – a university situated in a dynamic region that continues to grow,” said Whitfield.
UNLV has added 13 new recruiters in recent years to extend the focus of its national recruitment outside traditional hotbeds like Hawaii and California to states like Illinois, Colorado, Florida, and Arizona. The university is also boosting its global recruitment effort through partnerships with international recruitment agencies. This fall, international undergraduate and graduate enrollment rose more than 25 percent.
To meet ambitious enrollment goals, Whitfield said UNLV needs to look both outside and within Nevada’s borders, and not just in local high schools. He talked about new programs for working professionals, saying UNLV needs to re-engage adult learners looking to advance their careers through retraining or upskilling, earning certificates, or completing a degree previously started.
“I want to see that anyone who wants a college degree has a chance and a path to success,” said Whitfield.
That path extends to our state’s youngest students, too. Whitfield called for UNLV to broaden its reach to K-12 students and instill a college-going culture at an early age. To get there, UNLV recently launched the Young Rebels program, which aligns more than 30 early outreach activities from nursing to business, arts, and more under one umbrella with a standardized registration process.
“We need to help students in our own backyard see themselves as college students. I want them to dream of becoming a UNLV Rebel one day,” he said.
Learning by Doing
The college experience is changing, and Whitfield said that even the initial transition to university life can make or break a student’s experience. To help with the transition, he announced Rebel Ready Week, a six-day onboarding experience for all incoming UNLV freshmen. Based on emerging national best practices, the program will be provided to students at no-cost and help lay the foundation for their college journey.
Whitfield also said that to make students more career-ready, they need to engage in activities beyond traditional classroom learning. One way to do this – and spark more joy of learning – is to encourage experiential opportunities like research, internships, and tech-enhanced lessons.
He pointed to a team of engineering students who competed in an international robotics challenge this fall, to an Honors College trip throughout Nevada, and to law and fine arts students who partnered to produce a documentary highlighting the history of Las Vegas’ Windsor Park neighborhood. He also teased a budding partnership with Dreamscape, an immersive learning company whose innovative platform could revolutionize the concept of virtual learning.
“We’re challenging our academic faculty to provide students even more opportunities for experiential learning, as these tangible experiences help students apply their skills in new and exciting ways as they advance toward their degrees,” Whitfield said.
Reinforcing Community Connections
One aspect of UNLV’s mission that grew during the pandemic was its connection to the community. This was especially true throughout the health sciences, Whitfield said, and those connections continue to blossom at UNLV.
He pointed to UNLV’s elevated role in the Las Vegas Medical District, where the university is expanding programs in mental health and brain health research, and where it recently opened a medical education building that will allow the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine to boost its enrollment.
The university is also boosting support for local businesses, increasing its presence in Las Vegas’ historic Westside neighborhood, and offering a free cybersecurity clinic to help small businesses mitigate the risks of cyber-attacks.
“As an urban research university, we need to be connected to and ever thoughtful about how we engage our community,” Whitfield said. “That’s true for the academic programs we design to prepare a career-ready workforce, the research we conduct that addresses community issues, and our collaborations that move our region forward.”
After sharing his vision for the road ahead, Whitfield acknowledged challenges that the university and other higher education institutions are facing with tighter budgets, hiring challenges, and evolving models of learning. But, he said, “you can’t have a bold vision if you don’t think big. We need to continue to build on this impact we’re having.”
He said the university is making great progress in almost every area, and he urged those gathered to stay focused on the future but not forget why they’re here.
“All of our work, all of our planning, and all of our dreaming about this university and what it can become goes back to the simple concept of finding the joy of learning,” Whitfield said. “Each one of us should take tremendous pride in what UNLV is achieving.”