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Society: Think, Inc.

Think tank
Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

So Harry Reid, John Boehner and MGM walk into a university …

According to the proposal approved by the Nevada Board of Regents in early March, the priorities at a new think tank sponsored by MGM in partnership with UNLV, cochaired by Harry Reid and John Boehner, no less, could include “sustainability, workforce development, technology and innovation, and security and resilience.”

In other words, it could be anything, from family leave policy (a hypothetical included in the proposal) to … convincing Congress not to hinder online gambling.

Online gambling is MGM’s most high-profile federal issue, but the corporation has multiple policy concerns, ranging from the expansion of Indian gambling on nontribal lands to Donald Trump’s China-phobia.

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For years, Reid was the most powerful Democrat in Congress and a loyal MGM ally. After Reid’s retirement, MGM stepped up its Washington presence, opening a government-affairs office — an in-house lobbying shop — on Capitol Hill. It’s led by Ayesha Khanna Molino, an attorney who was on Reid’s Senate staff, and when I contacted MGM about its new think tank, the company put me in touch with her.

So is online gambling a likely subject of research at the new think tank? “I can’t say it’s not,” Khanna Molino said.

The institute can be expected to conduct research about the resort industry and its economic impact on communities, but the idea of the institute is to “step back” and look at more than just gambling-specific issues, she said.

MGM has committed $952,000 over three years to fund the MGM Resorts Public Policy Institute. UNLV provides space, utilities, web support and, most importantly, faculty expertise. Such partnerships with private contributors are increasingly sought after at universities throughout the nation, as schools try to enhance programs and reputations while states curtail funding for higher education, and federal research money withers.

The pressure on universities to make programs and even departments or colleges financially reliant on private money generally, and corporations specifically, has sparked criticism that corporate financing influences research and even curricula. Partnerships with the energy, agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, in particular, have raised fears that the line separating corporation from college is thinning, or disappearing altogether.

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That line will hold between MGM and UNLV, suggests Robert Ulmer, dean of the UNLV Greenspun College of Urban Affairs, where the MGM institute will be housed.

“MGM won’t sign off on our research,” Ulmer said. The think tank, and the financial support that comes with it, won’t direct UNLV researchers but rather “enhance work they’re already doing.” UNLV faculty working with the think tank will have “complete independence … they won’t compromise,” and their work will be peer reviewed, he said.

Ulmer also rejected the notion that the MGM-UNLV institute will be an extension of the corporation’s lobbying efforts, envisioning instead a research agenda that tackles issues such as criminal justice reform or homelessness. And unlike other think tanks, the bipartisan nature of the MGM institute will lead to more than just reports and conferences, but “workable solutions,” Ulmer said.


Here a think tank, there a think tank …

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Some think tanks are openly political or ideological. Locally, the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a market-worshiping foe of public institutions and spending, falls into that category. Most think tanks, however, reject suggestions that they are susceptible to partisan, ideological or corporate influence. Locally, that’s the branding preferred by the Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West, both already at UNLV, and the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.

And a few think tanks are not nonpartisan, but specifically bipartisan, as the MGM Institute will be. The difference is that nonpartisan groups seek to eschew partisanship altogether, while bipartisan groups engage partisans in negotiations in an effort to develop the aforementioned “workable solutions.”

In theory, a bipartisan think tank might promise to be the most balanced. After all, its work must satisfy participants from both parties.

But in practice, bipartisanship doesn’t necessarily mean disinterested.

The most notable and well-funded bipartisan think tank is not affiliated with a university. The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and chaired by Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker and Democrats George Mitchell and Tom Daschle. BPC has been accused of tailoring its work — not to please one party or the other, but to please funders from the oil and gas industry, the banking sector and Walmart.

BPC and other think tanks have pushed back hard against allegations that they are mere corporate fronts — and the pushback can be pretty impressive; they are think tanks after all.

At the same time, money talks. As Jason Grumet, president of BPC, told The Washington Post, “the notion that anybody’s going to write a $100,000 check to an organization because they don’t care about the issues that are being worked on is kind of fantastic.”

Meantime, MGM and the resort industry are deeply familiar with bipartisanship: They’ve contributed money to both parties for decades.


So how might this think thing shake out?

UNLV and MGM have yet to set a date for when the think tank will open, other than sometime this year. While it remains to be seen exactly what will be the focus of the institute’s research, presumably it won’t be Nevada-specific, but encompass a broader national or regional scope befitting press releases that will quote Reid and Boehner.

It also remains to be seen whether MGM’s interests will intrude on the think tank’s research at the expense of the larger public interest. But at least the press, policymakers and the public will know who paid for the institute’s product. Often, think tank funding is not so transparent. Sometimes it is hidden altogether.

And it remains to be seen how trenchant the think tank will be — whether it will address problems or symptoms.

A perhaps less-than-encouraging hint is presaged by the institute’s intention to join the fashionable “workforce development” bandwagon, whereon upper-middle-class professionals earnestly weigh which best practices are apt to produce limited but measurable improvement to painstakingly categorized educational outcomes over the mid- to long term. Meantime, more urgent and vexing problems — poverty, income inequality, or the lack of affordable housing, for instance — remain unaddressed, because any candid exploration of those issues would lead to a discussion of how 21st-century market economics fail much of the workforce, developed or otherwise. That is an impolite topic to introduce over pastries and coffee at corporate-sponsored stakeholder roundtables.

From the community’s point of view, that might be the worst-case fate of this Reid-Boehner thing.


Among other things, Hugh Jackson is an occasional part-time instructor at UNLV. He blogs at and tweets @jhughjackson.