In February, a special legislative session was called to deal with Nevada's continued budget shortfalls. After much hard work by legislative leaders to minimize the damage done to education, UNLV's budget for the next year was cut another 6.9 percent. This comes on top of a series of cuts over the last three years. Altogether, the cuts have resulted in a 30 percent reduction in state funding. Here, President Neal Smatresk shares his views on what these cuts mean.
How bad is the budget situation?
It is not an overstatement to say that higher education in Nevada has been devastated by the economic downturn. The cuts themselves are staggering, and the speed at which we must make decisions does not leave room for lengthy deliberation. There is no other major university in the country that has been hit this hard, this fast.
How will UNLV cope with these cuts?
In the past two years, UNLV has avoided slashing the academic budget by freezing vacancies, imposing work furloughs, offering early retirement programs, and cutting operations budgets and staffing. Professors have taken on more classes. Our students have seen an increase in their fees, and we're offering 1,000 fewer class sections than we did a couple years ago.
Our administrative costs are extraordinarily low. In fact, UNLV's institutional support -- which includes such things as administrative services, executive salaries, and fiscal and public relations operations -- is about 4 percent of total expenditures, or a third of what it is at peer universities.
We've gone as far as we can go with trimming here and there. Now we must eliminate whole departments, lay off many of the people who work in them, and limit our offerings to students.
How will departments be selected for elimination?
We are following a process prescribed by our bylaws that allows for consultation across campus. By the end of April, we expect a review committee to deliver a prioritized set of recommendations for program elimination and other savings or revenue-enhancing measures. Those recommendations will be reviewed by the deans and vice presidents, our student governance groups, and the Faculty Senate before we make final recommendations to the Board of Regents.
As a starting point, we identified the 20 programs that have the highest costs per student to administer. This list is scary. It contains some well-regarded programs that are key to this state's future development. In general, these programs cost more to operate than UNLV receives through state and tuition dollars. While eliminating low-cost programs is another option, cutting them would affect many more students while doing little to fill UNLV's budget hole.
We now have a shorter list of recommendations for elimination. The review committee is now prioritizing this list based on factors such as the need our state has for graduates in that area, a program's national ranking, and how we might serve affected students through other departments.
The budget crisis has caused a lot of turmoil both on and off campus. What we all must focus on now is how we can provide a strong education to our students and pursue scholarly growth so that we emerge from this as a stronger institution.
What will happen to the students and faculty in the programs to be eliminated?
Each department will be evaluated and will develop a unique exit plan to give its current students a reasonable amount of time -- about two to four years -- to complete their degrees or transition to a new major. The staff and nontenured faculty in those departments will be laid off. Faculty members with tenure will be reassigned on a case-by-case basis to another appropriate department.
Can't we raise tuition instead of closing departments?
Actually, student fee increases, along with savings from an early retirement program for employees, could help us bridge the budget gap for the next year or two before savings from the program eliminations kick in. However, increasing the burden on students can only go so far for a couple of reasons. First, increasing tuition and fees may result in pricing many bright students out of the opportunities that come from a college education.
Second, the way the funding works now, student tuition goes to the state general fund; so increasing tuition will help the state's overall budget, but not ours. We are working with our legislators right now to change that and ensure that revenues from students stay on the campuses from which they came.
We also are collaborating with UNR to introduce differential tuition for those high cost-per-student programs. Nursing, for example, is an excellent candidate for differential tuition. It costs more than twice what the state provides in funding, and its graduates are in such demand that a job is virtually guaranteed after graduation.
A side note on tuition and affordability: We expect funding for the highly successful Millennium Scholarship program to dry up in the next three to four years. That program has brought about $10 million a year to UNLV and affects about 6,000 students. Many of these students simply will not be able to afford a college education. When it goes away, we will see a significant enrollment decline.
How will UNLV avoid such drastic cuts in the future?
My fear, and it's grounded in a grim reality, is that this is just the beginning. If there are any other viable options, we will pursue them but I expect little relief. Unless there is some sort of miracle turnaround in the state's economy, we will face more cuts in the next budget-setting cycle. That means education in Nevada continues to be threatened.
Fortunately, the advocacy work of students, alumni, and community members has changed the game. I don't think it will be easy to sweep higher education under the carpet any more. The state's leaders have a thorough understanding of our issues and of the strong link between higher education and economic prosperity for Nevada. They seem committed to developing a sustainable and appropriate funding formula so we can contend better with the ups and downs of economic cycles.
Any other thoughts for readers?
I want to thank the many donors who continue to invest in our university. While their donations cannot make up for the budget shortfall, they are vital to enhancing programs and to opening up access to education through scholarships. (Read more about the impact of the Invent the Future campaign on page 20.)
I urge all readers to continue reaching out to their leaders and community members. UNLV will emerge as a smaller, more focused institution; it will depend on all of you if we emerge as a high-quality institution when this is all over.