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Higher Education

UNLV is in deep trouble, but it can be saved

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun..Five-year-old Kennedy Washington, a preschooler at UNLV, holds a RIP for Education poster while her mother speaks during the protest against budget cuts Sunday, March 6, in front of the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip..
Mona Shield Payne

It was a regular meeting of the UNLV College of Liberal Arts Executive Committee, the type they hold every other week. The agenda for this particular February 16 session: cuts necessary under Governor Brian Sandoval’s proposed state budget. The news wasn’t good. Twelve departments would be eliminated. It was going to be brutal.

Women’s studies and philosophy were on the chopping block, along with social work—sweeping vertical cuts that would wipe entire disciplines off the campus map. Three of the department heads suggested another solution: horizontal cuts. That is to say, across-the-board pay reductions that would affect every department equally. Colleagues would be saved, majors preserved. But according to one professor present (who asked that his name and department be kept out of this article), the idea was met with absolute silence. While everyone agreed that the aftermath from Sandoval’s budget would be devastating, when it came time for those relatively unaffected to step up, no one offered to share the pain.

Before you take a cheap shot at UNLV’s faculty, consider this: That “across-the-board” cut, while saving some money, would still require UNLV to make massive changes. Sandoval originally recommended staff take a 5 percent pay cut (a slight increase over 2009’s 4.6 percent cut), but let’s go so far as to envision the staff agreeing to a 10 percent pay reduction, a significant amount in any economy. According to Gerry Bomotti, senior vice president for finance and business at UNLV, that equates to a savings of “somewhere between $5 and $5.5 million a year.” Peanuts? In the overall budget crunch, yes. But consider this: Eliminating the 16 positions in the philosophy and women’s studies departments (of which 10 are currently filled) will save the university only about $1.1 million.

Either way, the numbers are grim. UNLV is faced with the reality of cutting a total of $32.6 million for the 2012-13 academic year alone. To deal with that, the university has proposed eliminating 315 positions, including tenured faculty, and slashing 33 major degree programs. That could mean losing thousands of students.

UNLV Student Protest

In a way, the department heads’ silence at the February 16 meeting mirrors Nevada as a whole: Everyone seems to agree that the sweeping cuts to higher education are appalling, yet when it comes time to accept some of the burden, most go silent.

Sandoval, like Jim Gibbons before him, is placing the burden of budget-balancing squarely on the back of education, proposing to cut $162 million from higher-ed alone. And like Gibbons, Sandoval is averse to any tax increase to solve the state’s myriad problems. But raising taxes isn’t even necessary to give higher education instant relief.

According to Bomotti, all lawmakers would have to do is extend existing taxes—a modified business tax for non-financial institutions and a 3/8 of 1 percent sales tax—which are scheduled to sunset at the end of this fiscal year. Such a move would raise between $700 million and $800 million over the next biennium. When those taxes do go off the books, a quarter-cent sales tax increase would offer substantial help to a state in crisis. A quarter of a cent. How many people would even notice an additional quarter tacked onto that $100 shopping trip at Kohl’s? That small tax alone could generate $90 million to $100 million over the biennium.

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In another scenario, taxes wouldn’t even have to be raised, just expanded. Geoffrey Lawrence, deputy director of policy for the Nevada Public Research Institute, points out that Nevada’s current sales and use tax is levied on only 33 percent of all Nevada spending. Were all Nevada spending to become subject to that tax (things like lawyer fees, medical visits and haircuts), increased revenue would be some $5.4 billion a year. Lawrence adds, “When sales tax laws were originally written, at that time it was covering 60 percent of consumption. The service sector of the economy has grown in proportion, so it makes sense to change the tax code to reflect the way the economy has changed.”

Is a change in the tax structure really so toxic? There are promising signs that the electorate is beginning to come around on the issue—a recent poll conducted by the Retail Association of Nevada shows that 52 percent of respondents favored raising taxes. However, the same survey had 52 percent saying raising taxes would hurt attempts to diversity Nevada’s economy, and 61 percent said more taxes on businesses would spell more unemployment. The survey doesn’t just indicate Nevadans are conflicted; it also shows that taxes remain a nebulous concept—and an easy target for politicians seeking re-election.

The bottom line is simple: UNLV cannot handle this crisis alone. Our government has clearly drawn the battle line on new taxes, and the answer to this problem lies not with administrations, the Legislature, city councils or student bodies. It lies with the taxpayer standing up and demanding what’s right. If we don’t, Nevada could feel the impact of these cuts for generations.

Erin Neff, a former Las Vegas Sun reporter and Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist who now serves as executive director for ProgressNow Nevada, a nonprofit that advocates progressive change in Nevada, says higher-ed cuts will only exacerbate the state’s ongoing problems. Even before UNLV was faced with the most recent round of budget cuts, Neff says, Nevada was fighting a losing battle to bring new businesses to the state because of its education woes.

“We already know larger businesses aren’t coming here because of our relatively low tax burden,” Neff says. “We’ve lost out on new businesses coming here because they said, ‘My employees aren’t high on your schools,’ or, ‘I can’t get educated workers.’”

Sandoval continues to toe the “no new taxes” line, stating in January that “raising taxes would be the worst thing we could do.” In other words, his position is to change nothing and hope relocating companies don’t notice the sorry state of Nevada’s education system. “I’m not trying to be histrionic,” Neff says, “but how do you attract new businesses when you’re dismantling higher education?”

In short, if UNLV goes, so does any chance Nevada might have of being anything more than a service-based economy. If new employers don’t come, the state loses out on new jobs and new tax dollars. And it gets worse. As schools continue to cut programs, Nevada’s unemployed (still record high, by the way) will begin to lose any chance of getting trained for new careers.

Neff is doing her part to sound the alarm. She’s mobilizing a group of students—from kindergarten to college—to gather in Carson City on March 21. So far, she’s lined up 14 buses from Las Vegas and nine from Reno.

In addition, the UNLV Alumni Association will meet with state legislators on March 25 in the capital as part of UNLV Alumni Legislative Day.

“We cannot look at this in isolation and say, ‘Boo-hoo, UNLV is going to lose its philosophy department,’” Neff says. “I keep hearing people say, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ It isn’t going to be all right. What this does to our state is unfathomable. We’re already at the bottom in so many categories, including the rate of advanced degrees and four-year degrees. Everyone says they want better schools, but taking money out of them isn’t the answer.”

For the sake of argument, let’s say we make these cuts, and that next year our economy magically rebounds and UNLV can begin rebuilding again. The cost—and time required—would make such a task extremely difficult, if not impossible, says James Woodbridge, a professor in the affected philosophy department.

“For one thing, no decent-skill-level academic would want to come to a university that has a reputation for firing tenured professors in bad economic times. You would take any job over that,” says Woodbridge, who adds that he accepted a UNLV job over several other offers because of “the feeling of community in the department.” Such a reputation takes years to achieve, he says.

“It’s not like you could instantly constitute some of these programs. Maybe one person here, another there ... it could take five years to have a department fully staffed again.” He adds that getting professors to come back “would take incredible sums of money.”

And whether you accept it or not, the “feeling of community” university employees seek out is the same feeling everyone looks for when choosing their city, suburb or neighborhood. If UNLV falls, Las Vegas is in danger of falling farther than it already has. Who the hell would want to move here then?

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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