It's one thing to start a career at UNLV in the midst of a pandemic — Sabra Newby hasn't known campus any other way since first arriving in June — but joining right before a special legislative session brought a $1.2 billion cut from the state budget while trying to figure out how to persuade lawmakers to blunt the ax is something else entirely.
Newby, UNLV's new vice president of government and community affairs, prepares now to advocate for the university at the Legislative session that starts Feb. 1.
Fortunately, Gov. Steve Sisolak's proposed budget includes UNLV-friendly items like restoring $36.8 million in state funding for an advanced engineering building; and $25 million for the medical education building on the Shadow Lane campus. Both projects are key to UNLV’s efforts to elevate academic programs while supporting economic development and health care infrastructure improvements in the region.
"We weren't expecting to be able to get any capital funds, so that was great," Newby said. During July's special session, state funding for UNLV's capital projects was eliminated, and before the proposed budget was released, trying to fight for that funding was going to be one of Newby's top priorities.
A graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, Newby came to UNLV after serving as Reno's city manager. The pull of friends and family brought the Las Vegas native back to Southern Nevada to spearhead UNLV's government affairs. Prior to her time in Reno, Newby was the lobbyist for Clark County and the City of Las Vegas.
That experience working with decision-makers in Carson City will be crucial as the state's budget firms up over the course of the four-month Legislative session.
An engine of economic diversity
The capital projects are a good start, especially considering that the state's contribution toward the engineering building would nearly double under this new budget. UNLV would be responsible for the remaining 50 percent of the cost of building the facility.
The $25 million for the medical education building restores funding that was cut in July. Work on the 135,000-square-foot building started in October thanks to $150 million in philanthropic donations that allowed the project to commence.
"These two projects being funded provides a boost to our economy because they are construction projects, which will involve the trades, but more important is the long-term result of more graduates who will go out and transform our community," Newby said.
After a 6 percent cut to Medicaid during the summer's special session, the governor's budget would see a $1.6 billion increase, which plays an important part in UNLV's fortunes.
"It is of importance to our medical school and to the other medical-related schools who provide services to Medicaid clients," Newby said. "When their rates go up, that's good for us. If you look at it as trying to point our state in the direction of diversifying the economy, the medical education building and our med school are part of that. It's one of those areas that not only serve our community but also produces the doctors that we need."
It's no secret that diversifying the state economy has been a puzzle many have tried to solve over the years. It's central to Newby's pitch to legislators on the importance of funding UNLV.
Research universities play a unique role in economic diversification, and UNLV is the only Carnegie R1 university in the Southern Nevada region. The Knowledge Fund, which supports projects at UNLV, Reno, and the Desert Research Institute, is aimed squarely at leveraging research to create a more robust and stable economic base for Nevada. Sisolak's budget bumps the fund up by $2.5 million over the next two years.
Administered by the Governor's Office of Economic Development, the fund helps recruit science and research faculty to higher education as a way to boost research in the state. It all adds up to a consistent and tangible message for Newby on the role UNLV plays in creating a more robust and stable economic base in Nevada.
"The work that we need to do in the Legislature is to explain and uphold the value of higher education," Newby said. "Research is not done in an ivory tower somewhere. Research and innovation can fuel new companies that innovate in the public market or out in our community. It leads to more dollars, more companies, more investment to our state and to our region."
One key lesson from the July special session, she said, was that, in addition to official advocacy in the Legislature, UNLV must carry that message into the community as well.
Testimony from members of the faculty and student body had a powerful effect on legislators during the summer's budget wrangling, Newby said. It's something that can be important again over the course of the upcoming session, so long as anyone choosing to participate follows established guidelines for advocacy. Social media and email are among the most effective tools, but no matter the vector, the recommendations don't change.
First, she said, advocates for the university must recognize that legislators are in a difficult position. "In a global pandemic, the situation that the state is in with revenues is pretty dire. Advocate for the best for your institution, but also have some humanity for the legislators who have to make decisions. Be professional and respectful. We don't want to get into Twitter fights about these things.
“Making the case in a cogent and respectful way goes a long way. Another thing to do is to relate it to your personal experience. Legislators like to hear about students and about experiences of faculty and dealing with students."
With a budget proposal that reintroduces crucial funds for UNLV, Newby's job over the next several months was buoyed by the governor's plan. But that doesn't mean it will be an easy row to hoe with so many state agencies competing for a limited pool of money. It hasn't changed Newby’s outlook as she prepares to influence lawmakers.
"I am going to borrow a quote from Stacy Abrams: 'I'm not optimistic or pessimistic; I'm determined.'"