In the midst of a global pandemic, UNLV continues to set its sights high and strive for greatness: greatness for its students, greatness for its faculty, and greatness for the surrounding Las Vegas community.
That’s the key takeaway from UNLV President Keith E. Whitfield’s first State of the University address.
Whitfield, who joined UNLV on the first day of the fall 2020 semester, addressed the university community virtually on Thursday to take stock of how the university has weathered the COVID storm over the past year, and outline his goals for a post-pandemic reality.
“They say that smooth seas don’t make skillful sailors,” Whitfield said at the start of his address. “I’m so proud of how UNLV’s faculty, staff, students and administrators pulled together, adjusted, and successfully fulfilled our core mission during a tumultuous past year.”
Citing a recent index that ranked UNLV within the top 10 percent nationwide for social mobility for its graduates, Whitfield said the university “provides opportunity for people to change their lives and the lives of their families.”
The UNLV community will continue to do so as it takes on 2021. But how UNLV rises to the challenge will be taken up a notch.
Whitfield calls it Top Tier 2.0.
UNLV is continually evaluating and refining its Top Tier plan, a guide rail that has seen the university achieve Carnegie R1 status – or that of a “very high” research university – the gold standard among colleges and universities, as well as Carnegie’s highest measure for community engagement.
Looking to the future, Whitfield announced on Thursday that UNLV is expanding the plan’s vision and mission.
“Top Tier 2.0 is a forward-looking roadmap that our university will continue to refine and follow over the next decade,” he said.
Here are four key takeaways from how that roadmap will build out and take shape in the coming weeks, months, and years.
Key takeaway No. 1: Student and research success
Most notably, Whitfield said he’d like to see UNLV’s current six-year graduation rate increase to 60% by 2030 — a 16-point jump from the university’s current level. To reach this mark, the university is launching a “Student Success Initiative” that includes ongoing efforts to improve UNLV’s advisor-to-student ratio from one advisor for each 515 students to one in 350.
The university will also engage in national benchmarking, define best practices, and host a university-wide summit. Student success will also become an element of relevant leadership evaluations, and graduate student success also is integral to this expanded core goal.
Additionally, Whitfield wants UNLV to continue strengthening and expanding its relationship with the Clark County School District and the College of Southern Nevada. If first-time freshmen or transfer students are better prepared and have stronger skills when entering UNLV, they’ll transition more easily and have greater success, he noted.
UNLV is also setting its sights on continuing to boost research, scholarship, and creative activity. Plans include bolstering multiple interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary programs, creating more interdisciplinary centers and institutes, increasing research activity and research productivity in STEM, and providing increased research opportunities for students at all levels.
The Academic Health Center is at the center of this effort as well. Whitfield says it’s not an actual building but a “strategy that integrates and leverages the multiple health science disciplines at UNLV to provide high-value and high-quality care for the community and medical research opportunities.”
Key takeaway No. 2: Economic development
Economic development will play a more “front-and-center” role in Top Tier 2.0, according to Whitfield.
The university will pull economic development from its previous shared pathway goal with Community Partnerships to distinguish its importance while also broadening its scope. Whitfield announced that It will become an independent core goal to “stimulate socio-economic development.”
“This signifies that we are engaging in these efforts for all people, in all sectors, in all classes, and in all neighborhoods,” he said, adding that socio-economic development includes a focus on the Harry Reid Research & Technology Park, strengthening industry engagement, and advancing entrepreneurship and innovation.
Key takeaway No. 3: Social justice
Previous Top Tier values included promoting and supporting a culture of social justice, equity, and inclusion. But the reimagined plan will bring this focus to the forefront, further defining these expectations in order to create actionable items.
Whitfield says UNLV will cultivate an environment that is inclusive, welcoming, and supportive for all by assessing and developing conditions necessary for improvement. He said the university will consider leadership accountability and assessment, programming to address unintentional bias in search committees, faculty and staff mentoring programs to promote success, and emphasizing a culture and platforms where all faculty, staff, and students can be heard. As part of this strategy, the chief diversity officer will report directly to the president, and the university is re-establishing the Ombuds Office.
“It is perhaps the most difficult area for an organization to change, and I know this new goal may generate anxiety for some, or even skepticism,” Whitfield said. “However, we need to realize our deficiencies and acknowledge there is inherent, structural racism at this university.”
Whitfield noted that UNLV is not unique in that regard and that most organizations have some element of it.
“In most cases, structural racism is unintentional, and it may be something as mundane as policies and practices that impact people differently,” he said.
As a major public urban research university that has one of the most diverse undergraduate student bodies in the country, Whitfield said UNLV can and should be a leader in this area. He pointed to various programming and professional development opportunities where UNLV already leads, including a recent series that addressed the effects of racism on public health, indigenous and land justice, and issues on the First Amendment. Another effort — “We Need to Talk” — is a series of panel discussions about race-related media coverage, economics, health care, criminal justice and education.
“These are important steps forward, and we will cultivate and develop more,” he said.
Key takeaway No. 4: Financial sustainability
Whitfield said UNLV has plans to strategically deepen its culture of philanthropy and alumni connection to bolster the university’s financial sustainability.
“Philanthropy is so important to our continued growth and success as a university because it provides the ability to support students, launch new ideas and to make already great programs even better,” he said.
He gave several recent examples of how philanthropy has made a positive impact on UNLV and its academic programs. They include a $9 million gift from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which will help UNLV’s law and hospitality schools develop first-of-its-kind programs in tribal gaming law, a $6 million commitment to advance brain health through the Chambers-Grundy Center for Transformative Neuroscience, and a $5 million gift from Panda Express co-founders Andrew and Peggy Cherng for the nation’s first academic program in fast-casual restaurant management.
“We can’t have the attitude ‘because we’ve always done it that way,’” Whitfield said. “These times require more innovative and entrepreneurial thinking than ever before. Rebels are not afraid to fail or create a new path when one doesn’t exist.” He emphasized that no one individual can move a university, but takes a collective effort by all.