(Non) Peer Review

Should a university president share concerns about a faculty study? Should such issues be raised after private emails from business leaders attacking the research?

November 7, 2014

It's not every day that a university president shares concerns with the public about a faculty study. And in Nevada, some are wondering whether doing so is appropriate, especially following complaints in private communications with business leaders. 

The issue is attracting attention after a local news station last week published emails from August between top-level administrators at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and casino executives, who criticized a study on a proposed margin tax. Two of the emails imply that donations to the university could be put in jeopardy because of the study.

“Given how this tax will impact our business, I guess I can put off trying to find ways to support the various ‘asks’ from the university…” one email from Kevin Smith, CEO of Boyd Gaming, said.

A day later, the university's acting president, Don Snyder, issued the public statement distancing the university from the research and raising questions about the flawed study.

A university spokesman said in an email Thursday that the president’s office hears feedback on many issues from a variety of stakeholders, both within the university and outside it.

The Study

The study in question was produced by the Center for Business and Economic Research at UNLV, and it projected large benefits from a proposed tax on business to provide more funds for elementary and secondary education. 

The tax proposal, also called the Education Initiative, was a 2 percent tax on businesses that earn more than $1 million annually. The measure was heavily opposed by business groups but also had little support from left-leaning organizations, aside from teachers' unions. It was soundly defeated at the polls Tuesday, when 75 percent of voters rejected it.

The day after the CBER’s study was released, the university put out a news release saying that it doesn’t take positions on public policy issues, and quoted Snyder saying that the report does not represent the position or views of the university.

Executive Vice President and Provost John White is also quoted, saying that other UNLV faculty have expressed different opinions on the margin tax, and Snyder called for an independent review by the the Brookings Institution. Faculty studies are frequently the subject of criticism, but the norm is for researchers' findings to face scrutiny from other scholars, not from their administrators.

As it turns out, the numbers in the study were too high. CBER put out a revised study about a week later that forecast smaller revenues and fewer jobs created. (The original study projected the tax would raise up to $750 million in revenue and create about 13,000 jobs in 2016. The revised one changed those figures to $795 million and 4,000 jobs in 2016.)

Stephen Brown, economics professor and director of the center, said that the initial study only looked at one way the money generated by the tax could be spent, putting all of it into hiring new teachers. But that was unrealistic, since there aren’t even enough classrooms in the state to hold all those teachers, he said. The revised study distributes one-third of the money each to salary increases for teachers, hiring new teachers and capital improvement projects at schools.  

Brown, who was one of the study’s authors, also issued a statement after the revised report came out. He said the center never meant for the study’s views to be construed as those of the university, and that future reports will include a disclaimer.

In an interview this week, he said that he’s received support from the dean of the college, and that his relationship with the provost and president is the same now as it was before the study was published.

“There’s no evidence on campus at all that any of the authors of the report are in the dog house,” he said.

He declined to comment on the emails between administrators and the casino managers, saying he wasn’t included in them, so he didn’t want to discuss third-party conversations.

The Emails

The emails were released under a public records request filed by the producer of the Ralston Report, which has posted all the emails to its website

The documents show a flurry of conversation between high-ranking administrators shortly after the study’s findings were sent to media outlets by the sponsor of the study. (It was sponsored by supporters of the tax.)  

In one, Gerry Bomotti, senior vice president for finance and business, said, “I did not know we were doing this. We will, of course, get lots of comments and questions.”

Later in the day, Gary Loveman, CEO of Caesars Casino, emailed Snyder saying that he wasn’t convinced about the economic rationale of the proposed tax. The industry is already overburdened with taxes, he said.

"Before burning what little political capital the university has left on a football stadium, let’s search for an economics professor that understands that growth and taxes are inversely related,” Loveman, who has a Ph.D. in economics, wrote.

Four minutes later, Snyder replied that he shared Loveman’s concerns and had already requested a review and explanation.

Other emails came from Jim Murren, CEO of MGM Resorts, who said the study was unbelievable, and from Smith, of Body Gaming, who listed support or funding of a new building for the hotel college, a proposed medical college and the stadium project as examples of the “asks” he won’t make a priority.

Much of the rest of the emails from later in the night have been redacted. They include communications between Snyder, White, Bomotti and William Boldt, who oversees university advancement.

Daniel Klaich, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, also weighs in: “It always amazes me that there units of the university that feel they can do things like this with no notice to anyone,” he wrote. “I fully understand academic freedom but I also like a little common sense.”

Aside from saying the president regularly hears a variety of opinions on issues, a university spokesperson declined to discuss the emails or Snyder’s decision to comment on university research.

One member of the system’s Board of Regents did email Snyder to say he disagreed with his statement against the margin tax study, because it’s the university’s role to express all opinions and raise the level of debate to the public.

“I have watched numerous biased and incorrect studies come out of the department on the UNLV campus without such condemnation and skepticism,” regent Jason Geddes said.

In emails, Snyder explains he made the statement because he wanted to clarify that it didn't represent the university's position. He also writes that he thought an independent review would be beneficial, given critical feedback of the study from faculty members. The review from the Brookings Institution never took place, though.

Snyder said that he supports the pursuit of knowledge and the ability of research to create conversation, and that he won’t allow censorship. 

“An administrator’s reasonable critique of research or creative activity is not tantamount to censorship or discipline,” he wrote.

In August, members of the economics department passed a resolution stating that they support the right of faculty to conduct research without intervention, control or censorship. The resolution does not specifically address this case, but was adopted just as the controversy over the study was getting attention.

Mary Riddel, chairwoman of the department, said she voted for the resolution because she does indeed support academic freedom, not because she thought it was violated.

Academic freedom comes with the responsibility of ensuring that research is accurate. In this case, there were mistakes, and the report authors did the right thing by correcting them. “This was never an issue of academic freedom” she said. “This was a report that had a flaw that needed to be fixed.”

How the president chooses to handle that isn’t up to her, she said. But critique from the gaming industry about economics research, particularly related to taxes, isn’t anything new, she said.

Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, said presidents have the right to distance the university from faculty research.

Reichman is the chairman of the American Association of University Professor’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He said he couldn’t offer a conclusive statement on this case without knowing all the details or how the CBER works in relation to the university. But he said it seems excessive for a president to publicly question a study's methodology.

“I would hope that changes in the study were not prompted by such pressure and not imposed upon faculty researchers by the university administration.”

(Note: This article has been updated to correct the figures in the margin tax studies.)


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