Fridays at UNLV are usually sparsely attended; the campus moves at a lazy pace, and the Student Union is relaxed and casual. But the campus sits under an uneasy cloud following proposed budget cuts announced last month by Gov. Jim Gibbons, which would seriously undermine the university.
If approved in its current form, the state budget for UNLV would drop from $181 million in fiscal year ’09, the last year of the current biennium, to $83 million and $78 million in the next two years—an aggregate percentage drop of 54 percent.
Even if UNLV continues on, faculty and students would have a tough decision to make—whether to bother coming back to what would almost assuredly become a second- or even third-rate university. “If it goes through at the level the governor suggested, and we had to cut, what that means for us, the chancellor has told us we’ll have to close our doors,” says Ardyth Sohn, director of the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies. “It’s just untenable.”
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“I am literally amazed at what was proposed,” says faculty senate vice chair John Filler. “That’s the same as saying we’re getting out of the business of higher education.” It’s a point echoed by a report issued last month by the Nevada System of Higher Education, which noted that cuts above 50 percent are “understood to end an institution’s standing as a university.”
There are roughly 110,000 students and nearly 12,000 faculty and staff throughout the state’s higher-ed system, which includes UNLV and UNR, the College of Southern Nevada, three other community colleges, Nevada State College and the Desert Research Institute.
At this point, it’s impossible to know whether the cuts, if made, would lead to a brain drain of faculty and students. As Phil Burns, the professional staff representative for the faculty senate, cautions, “I think we’re in a holding pattern. It’s too soon to make that decision.”
But the economic realities would make a significant departure seem likely. “If the budget were to go through, I don’t see that there would be much choice,” says composition professor Elaine Buckner. “Some might choose to leave, others might be forced to leave.”
CSUN student body Vice President Vik Sedhev graduates this fall with a degree in civil engineering. It might seem that outgoing students would have a lesser stake in the school’s long-term well-being, but Sedhev is planning to attend graduate school at UNLV to earn a master’s degree. Now that depends on what kind of university remains.
“I need not only to compete with people in Vegas,” he continues. “I need to compete with people nationally and internationally. If we’re not appreciated, why should we stay? If we can’t get support, why should we stay?”
Journalism student Ania Buttar puts it even more succinctly: “You’re getting less quality of education and more of a cost.”
The faculty faces the same challenge. “Things are bad everywhere,” says Filler. “But what’s gonna happen is they’re not as bad as they are here. The people who are really top-market”—which he says is about half the faculty—“they’ll go quickly. The others will wait until things get better, then they’ll go.”
The NSHE has sketched several doomsday scenarios if the cuts go through. The first would in effect shut down UNLV and Great Basin College; another would sack Nevada State College and UNR; a third would close CSN, NSC, and several major institutions at the University of Nevada, including the law school, dental school, medical school and Desert Research Institute; a fourth would shut down all four of the state’s community colleges and NSC.
Even now schools within the university are struggling. According to Sohn, the journalism school, which just moved into a new building along with several other divisions of the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs, has already cut 40 percent of its budget—nearly all its part-time instructors are gone, what Sohn calls a “huge, huge loss.”
Add to that the new building: “We already are worried about being able to keep everything, from a maintenance standpoint. We don’t have a budget for that.”
Still, the air around campus seems to be cautious optimism that somehow the Legislature will ride to the rescue and spare the university. Students and faculty are encouraged by the strong turnout at a rally last week to oppose the Gibbons plan, which drew several thousand people. “People have overcome their assumption that UNLV students are apathetic.”
Both groups insist they will keep the pressure on the Legislature to enact a plan that spares the higher-ed system. Filler has a suggestion: “Raise the damn taxes, for God’s sake. It’s just a no-brainer.”