In Sagebrushers season 2 episode 9, University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval meets with Dr. Jill Heaton, senior vice provost of the University. A professor of geography, Heaton served as Sierra Nevada University’s (SNU) executive vice president and provost during the acquisition year of the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe location from 2021 to 2022.
During the episode, Sandoval and Heaton discuss her nearly 20 years on campus and her research related to reptiles in Africa. They also dive into Heaton and her team’s work with the SNU acquisition, plans for the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe location and exciting opportunities available through the Semester at Lake Tahoe program.
Sagebrushers – S2 Ep. 9 – Senior Vice Provost Jill Heaton
Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and Dr. Jill Heaton, senior vice provost of the University, discuss her nearly 20 years on campus, her research related to reptiles in Africa, her and her team’s work with the SNU acquisition, plans for the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe location and exciting opportunities available through the Semester at Lake Tahoe program.
Dr. Jill Heaton: The Wayne L. Prim Library, which is also the namesake of campus, it's like Harry Potter. It's just magnificent and beautiful. You walk in. High vaulted ceilings, nooks and crannies to sit and grab a book, and you look out. There's windows everywhere. You feel like you're still outside in the environment.
President Brian Sandoval: In this episode of Sagebrushers, we welcome Dr. Jill Heaton, the senior vice provost who oversees the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe. I'm Brian Sandoval. I'm a proud graduate and president of the University, and I'm your host of Sagebrushers.
Dr. Heaton has been at the University of Nevada, Reno since 2004. She's a professor of geography and has held numerous administrative positions at the University, including geography, graduate program director, geography department chair, University vice provost for faculty affairs and currently serves as the senior vice provost. In addition, she served as Sierra Nevada University's executive vice president and provost during the acquisition year from 2021 to 2022.
Today's podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our University's campus. Dr. Heaton, welcome to Sagebrushers.
Heaton: Thank you so very much. It's a great pleasure to be here today.
Sandoval: So, you know, I ticked off all those amazing titles and responsibilities that you've had on campus, but you know, you've taught and you also have some very interesting research. So, maybe tell our listeners about your journey through academia and about your research.
Heaton: All right. Well, my journey through academia actually started as a kid when I used to run around and pick up bones and try to catch snakes, try to catch lizards, pick up feathers that birds dropped. I always knew that I was interested in the natural world. So, I went on to graduate. I went on to undergraduate and graduate school in Texas. Actually got degrees in biology before moving to Oregon State University to study geography, because geography is why things are where they're are. And I've always been interested in why animals are where they are. And for me, that's always been reptiles, actually, snakes, lizards, tortoises.
I do a lot of work with Mojave Desert Tortoise, which is our state reptile actually, as you well know. And I've done work in Africa, specifically in Namibia where we have worked with the Namibia University of Science and Technology and students there. Where we're discovering new species of lizards that no one had…that science hadn't been discovered before. Let's say that. Many locals know about the lizards. But, I spent 16 months living in Namibia on sabbatical in 2014 and 2015. And it was just an amazing experience. I've been back almost every year to Namibia since then to continue that work. I've also worked in the Skeleton Coast in Namibia with a sand swimming lizard. It actually dives into the sand and swims through the sand, like an animal might swim through the water.
Sandoval: Now, are these big lizards?
Heaton: So, these are hand-size lizards. They're not ginormous lizards by any means. But you know, reptiles especially lizards in particular, without them the world would be overrun with insects and so they provide an incredible ecosystem service for us in controlling pests that also affect crops and other agricultural products that really drive our economy.
Sandoval: So, if you're walking in the sand in Namibia, will a lizard come pop out at you?
Heaton: No, unfortunately, they dive in, but I have literally run up a sand dune, and right where I saw a lizard dive in and just dig and dig and dig and dig and dig and throw sand out the back, like you might see a dog and with my hand almost down to my shoulder and capture the lizards that way, because although they swim under sand, they really can only move about a couple feet in either direction before it's just too difficult for them to continue.
Sandoval: Well, I could talk about lizards all day, but we're going to move across the globe to what I feel is the most beautiful place on earth. Lake Tahoe. And the University of Nevada, Reno in a historic partnership acquired Sierra Nevada University in Incline Village, Nevada, on July 1, 2022. A year after that, the partnership was announced, and I want to start by thanking you and the rest of your team for the outstanding job you did during the transition. So, can you start by sharing with our listeners a little bit about your work over the last two years and that the now University of Nevada, Reno Lake Tahoe, Wayne Prim Campus?
Heaton: Thank you very much. It's been a whirlwind two years starting in July of 2021 with your acceptance of the fabulous gift from Sierra Nevada University. And on August 2nd, 2021, I actually went up to that campus and I moved into the dorm. There's no other way to really understand that campus without being there. That acquisition year was a lot of work with regulatory bodies, U.S. Department of Education, Nevada Department of Education, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. We needed our own board of regents approval in working with the Chancellor's Office, UNR Foundation.
One of the most critical steps along the way, which was a primary driver in those first six months of that acquisition year, was working with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which is our accrediting body. That's what gives us the authority to be an institution of higher education. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities required that we produce what is called a substantive change proposal – ultimately, a plan to ensure that all of the SNU students would be able to complete their degree after SNU closed, and we acquired their academic operations.
We submitted our proposal the day before Thanksgiving of 2021. In less than three weeks, it had been approved which is just astronomical that happened. Just maybe instead of saying what all the activities were, what I want to really emphasize is what our commitment was. In particular, our commitment to the SNU students was location, modality, cost and faculty and staff. What I mean by that is the students could finish their degrees where they started them. Why would you want to leave beautiful Lake Tahoe?
That's where you chose to go to school. So, all the SNU legacy students that started in Lake Tahoe or stayed up at Lake Tahoe, finishing their degrees. Modality, we promised that they would complete their classes the way they started them. If they're in person, they're still in person. Some programs were online. So those programs remain online. The third commitment that we made is, is cost. That it would not cost the students more to attend UNR. In fact, it would cost them less. And, and the vast majority of students, they're paying considerably less to finish their degrees at UNR. And then the fourth commitment was that we would hire the faculty and staff from SNU to help complete this, not just complete it but help lead us into the future as we bring these two great institutions together. So, I'm really proud that we delivered on those four commitments. Now we're moving towards a lot of business processes, facilities, utilities, all those types of things. I mean, we're a little city here, right. And we're trying to bring that little city into our city as well.
Sandoval: Well, we're going to get into what the University of Nevada's plans are going to be up there, but I want to give our listeners a sense of place. So, let's start with, as I mentioned, Lake Tahoe being the most beautiful place on Earth. And this campus is situated within a five-minute walk to the beach and a five-minute drive to Diamond Peak Ski Resort with a hundred-foot pine trees and several buildings on campus. And, you know, if there is a more beautiful place in all of higher education, I really do want to see it because I don't think I've ever seen anything as stunning as this. But can you talk about the facilities up there, dormitories, the library, the classrooms?
Heaton: Well, the Wayne L. Prim Library, which is also the namesake of, of the campus. It's like Harry Potter. It's just magnificent and beautiful. You walk in. High vaulted ceilings, nooks and crannies to sit and grab a book and you look out. There are windows everywhere. You feel like you're still outside in the environment. We have two dorms. We have a magnificent dining hall, also large, vaulted ceilings, a place where students can hang out in. There's a nice fireplace in the dining hall. TCES, we have a research facility there. And 18 acres of Lake Tahoe right there, like you said, just a couple minutes walk to the beach. There's Incline Village creek runs right next to the campus. Students can walk out of the classroom 15 yards over at the creek, take a water sample, walk right back into the lab and analyze it Right, right then and there. So, it's just an amazing campus immersed right there in the middle of that environment.
Sandoval: No, and it's easy to get to, very accessible. And, you know, as Mark Twain said, you know that the air at Tahoe is the air that angels breathe. And it's a magnificent, magnificent place. So, a lot of things are, are happening, you know, as we transition, as the, as you said, the legacy students graduated, it's going to create more capacity up at that up at that Wayne L. Prim campus. And you are currently designing, you know, we've all heard about, and actually on a previous episode studying abroad. Our students are going to have the opportunity to have a semester at Tahoe. And be residents there. So, will you talk about what you have in mind?
Heaton: Absolutely. So, what we are designing for our undergraduate students, got other things for graduate students, but I'll focus on undergraduate students right now, Semester at Lake Tahoe. So, as you pointed out, it's analogous to study abroad, where you go to a place. You're immersed in that place. You live there, you learn there, you play there, right? So small intimate classes in classrooms, environmentally immersive, as I pointed out previously. Students can walk out the door and within five minutes be at the lake. They can be right there at Incline Village, at Incline Creek. You're just a few minutes away from Tahoe Meadows. So, they're in the heart of the Sierra Nevada environment.
We really want to create an interdisciplinary experience for our students where we're bringing together environment, sustainability and the arts. And so, this opportunity for students to be immersed up there at the lake, live in the dorms. We have capacity for almost 200 students in the dorm rooms. To be up there at the lake, take all their classes up there, weekend field trips, Friday field trips, right? Where it's very experiential. You're not just in the classroom. I mean, why go to Lake Tahoe and spend all your time between four walls? The world is our classroom with the acquisition of this location for us. So just amazing place.
Sandoval: And there is also a mature outdoor curriculum up there. So, as you said, this amazing experiential opportunity, but you can learn to ski or snowboard or hike or rock-climb.
Heaton: Absolutely. We've got three classes, this coming up this fall. We have a rock-climbing class, we have a backpacking class, so, spending the night outdoors, right? And then we have a hiking class. Our students have gone whitewater rafting; they have learned back-country skiing. And so, all of those opportunities will remain available to our students. And that was part of the legacy that we absorbed from, from Sierra Nevada University, that real outdoor experience.
Sandoval: And the campus is not going to be an exclusive one?
Heaton: No. We will charge the same tuition, whether you're going to the campus in Reno, it's open to all students that I believe, sophomores and juniors. As our commitment to the legacy students remains for the next couple years, we are inviting students up to that campus that can benefit from the classes that those legacy students are taking. So, sophomores and juniors. Plus, a freshman first comes in, we would really like their first experience to be down on our main campus and really make sure they understand all the amazing resources that our students have at UNR, not just UNR at Lake Tahoe. So, the sophomores and juniors are that sweet spot where they've got some flexibility in their schedule and can benefit from these interdisciplinary classes. That really, that's what we do when we, I mean, I study lizards, but I work with people that do all sorts of other types of work. And you have to be able to interface with disciplines other than your narrow area of expertise. And that's what we're doing up at the lake.
Sandoval: So, an an example of where these Sagebrusher episodes start to connect with one another, Sudeep Chandra was on an episode, but he’s going to be a professor and instructor on campus this fall, correct?
Heaton: Absolutely. He's teaching a limnology class, which is basically the study of fresh waters. And both the living organisms in there, the micronutrients in that environment, the cycling of those micronutrients. I mean, water starts at the Sierra Crest, and it makes it down to Lake Tahoe and everything from there down to the lake.
Sandoval: What does that do for the lake ecology and, and biology?
Heaton: So, yeah that, and he also gave an amazing first Talks at Tahoe last fall where he talked about the lake and its importance to us culturally, socially, economically, recreationally and, and how valuable it is to our region.
Sandoval: Well, and I think you said it already, but the instruction and the experiences that students will have, either undergraduate or graduate, will be unlike anything else that you get literally on earth.
Heaton: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, you know, our average class size holds about 20 students. So again, when I say it's an intimate experience, right? It really is. There's a class that we teach up there and we'll be teaching it in the fall. It's a drone class because digital literacy is critically important as we move forward. But we have an artist and a scientist collectively teaching that class. Because capturing that information is one thing, but knowing how to reach people, tell stories with that information is also critically important. So, it's just amazing to see that collaboration between the disciplines.
Sandoval: And we'll have a technology piece, but there also is a creative arts studio.
Heaton: Absolutely. So, the Holman Arts and Media Center, which is a part of that campus, a very generous donation. And I just want to actually shout out to the Mallory Foundation who has been one of our first donors to that campus, to help us bring advanced digital technology to the classroom. Both from the arts perspective, whether it's in Holman Arts and Media Center or over in some of our classrooms. I mean, we have students flying drones with the iPads that they get as part of our Digital Wolf Pack Initiative. And so, just this, synergy that is created by this location is quite amazing.
Sandoval: So, we're coming up on time. Is there anything else that we haven't talked about that you'd like our listeners to know.
Heaton: Too much.
Sandoval: Yeah. Very briefly.
Heaton: Right, right. Just you know, I believe with all my heart that the University of Nevada, Reno, although we already do, is poised to change the world. And our students, our faculty, our staff, the regional, local, regional community that is going to benefit from, from access to this to this campus.
Sandoval: Dr. Heaton, thank you. And unfortunately, that is all the time we have for this episode of Sagebrushers, and we're so grateful for your being here. Join us next time for another episode of Sagebrushers as we continue to tell the stories that make our university special and unique. Until then, I'm University President Brian Sandoval and Go Pack!