A new low for higher education

A vital university is a community asset. While it contributes to economic growth and job readiness, more importantly it enriches civic life as a center of culture, knowledge and productive inquiry. A quality university elevates the intellectual life of its community.

But a poor-quality university -- such as we have in UNLV -- provides neither economic stimulus, adequate job preparation, education for citizenship, nor a cultural resource for its community. Rather, a university such as UNLV engenders cynicism in its students who wander through courses; in its faculty who neither teach well nor fulfill their obligations for scholarship; and in an administration that imposes low and arbitrary standards for advancement that undercut true merit.

A university that emulates commercial corporations and sells its independence to business is a consultant firm of hucksters more than the analytic voice of reason. It compromises its independence and stultifies critical investigation. The commercialization of education dilutes creativity and co-opts the independent voice of scholarship.

UNLV, along with higher education and K-12 in Nevada, are already devastated by the state budget cuts of the past two years. The predicted decrease in Nevada's public support will kill any ability to fulfill the state's obligations in education. Given Nevada's wealth and weak tax effort, the decimation of education and other public services reflects a popular mood that begins to explain the internal problems of UNLV.

The potential of a university depends on its quality: students who apply themselves, faculty contributing to the intellectual life of their fields, and an administration respectful of scholarship. Scholarship and university teaching are paired -- professors who make substantial contributions to the intellectual life of their fields have the knowledge to teach well, their publications inspire students.

But UNLV has difficulty attracting and retaining quality faculty and administrators because it has not earned a reputation for quality. It does not pursue excellence but rather abides the sullen antagonisms of Nevadans toward intellectuals and education. As an extension of the state's preferences for poorly funded public services, UNLV's benefits are increasingly uncompetitive.

In particular, the university offers deficient and deteriorating health care coverage; increasingly high class sizes and course loads; stagnant salaries reflecting years of service more than academic productivity; vanishing support for research and scholarship; and the depravity of the local culture, its monomania for gambling, commercial sex and gluttony. All this discourages accomplished and promising scholars from signing on.

Most problematic, the university's disrespect for scholarship but high regard for entrepreneurial alliances with business pushes the most creative faculty to leave. This past June, professor Jorge Grossmann, a composer with a prestigious Guggenheim award, gave up tenure and a senior level position in UNLV's music department to accept an assistant professor position without tenure in a program with productive peers.

A few years earlier, at the height of UNLV's prominence, such as it was, one of the few truly distinguished scholars to ever teach at UNLV retired early. Why? To write and do research, she said. But this is why people come to universities, not leave them.

The previous administration allowed a jealous faculty to expel Marcella McClure, the most productive scientist ever to teach at UNLV. Her $5 million in prestigious NIH research grants were inadequate to protect her.

Neither Wole Soyinka, a Nobelist in literature, nor Dave Hickey, a MacArthur fellow, have been replaced by comparable scholars. They left for more congenial environs.

Again and again, quality departures are replaced by unpromising hires even during a market glutted with academics. Competence arrives here by accident and stays only because it becomes trapped by mortgages, bad habits or a reluctance to uproot family.

The sorry state of UNLV is evidenced in appointments and promotions of administrators and faculty without the credentials or achievements to justify their positions and a series of policies that are designed to placate the state's low-tax preference rather than to pursue quality education. UNLV's academic administrators are often failed scholars. The volume of faculty publication is among the lowest of any comprehensive university, let alone any flagship university, in the United States.

In 2009, UNLV faculty published 450 articles in journals indexed by Thomson Reuters ISI Web of Knowledge, the standard for academic publications. The 450 articles average out to about one half of an article for each faculty member and constitute an even smaller effort in light of the fact that most articles carry more than one author.

In the same year of declining budgets, the faculty at UCLA (excluding the medical school) published 3,477 articles, at Arizona State University 2,786 articles, at the University of Houston 1,185 articles, and at the University of Utah (again excluding the medical school) 1,717 articles.

While it may seem unfair to compare UNLV to UCLA with a faculty perhaps 2.5 times as large, the difference measures the immense distance that UNLV needs to travel to become a world-class university. The other comparisons reinforce the fact that UNLV has not even reached the mediocrity of a University of Houston or Utah. Indeed, the average faculty productivity at UNLV is less than the two principal public universities in Mississippi, the nation's poorest state.

Nonetheless, the president of UNLV, Neal J. Smatresk, bloviates about the school's world-class reputation and its "brilliant scholars." Yet UNLV does not appear on the recently compiled list of the world's 400 premier universities nor among the first, second or third tier of American universities. It is on the fourth tier of American universities only because there is no fifth tier.

President Smatresk's recent State of the University speech pays tribute to the conflict between perception and reality by ignoring it. Accordingly, UNLV possesses, a "high quality of scholarship on campus," and "fantastic students."

His cascade of achievements -- initiatives to boost UNLV as a top research university, to increase its revenues through entrepreneurial partnerships, to attract talent and to increase the quality of education -- are misleading and trivial. He assures the community that it has hit the bottom of the recession and all is looking up. He will press the Legislature for increased budget flexibility, less severe cuts in health benefits, changes in the funding formula and other similar steps that will allow the university to become a leader in biomedical research and gaming studies, job development and economic exports, among others. He is confident that the university's entrepreneurial spirit will allow the university and Southern Nevada to "weather the coming storm."

He also promises more strategic planning.

But President Smatresk quickly skips over the fact that during the past few years the state has cut $50 million -- 27 percent of its annual support -- for UNLV. Apparently, UNLV's vaunted success under his direction is impervious to budget problems.

The current UNLV administration has lowered graduation standards in order to increase graduation rates. Lower graduation standards diminish the quality of education but advance the possibility of UNLV rising into the third tier of American universities, a concrete achievement for a university president. The bitter humor of achieving greater standing as a university by cheapening education needs its own comic opera but, alas, the most qualified UNLV composer has departed.

President Smatresk might have taken inspiration from the nation's distinguished presidents: Lincoln's defense of human dignity, Roosevelt's push for social security, Johnson's fight for civil rights, Obama's campaign for national health care. Instead, President Smatresk appropriates the university's scarce resources to aggrandize himself through cloying little webcasts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0UcC_EVH6g): President Smatresk in the West Wing of the White House, President Smatresk with students, President Smatresk the Rebel booster, President Smatresk and his cabinet members crowing over their piddling achievements, President Smatresk sermonizing on virtue and sin.

President Smatresk's shameless self-promotion and unctuousness is not simply bad style. They obscure the dire condition of UNLV, marking the refusal to confront prevailing political and social preferences in defense of quality education. The inappropriate boastfulness actually justifies the cuts: Why increase budgets if UNLV is doing so well? The university, Southern Nevada and the state obviously need more Neal Smatresk, not more material regard for education.

Daniel J. Klaich, the chancellor of the Nevada system of Higher Education apparently agrees. In consultation with a delighted faculty, the chancellor has been sufficiently awed by President Smatresk's performance to hasten the process of reappointing him to a full contract.

More than anything else, higher education in Nevada requires dedicated and imaginative leadership to convince Nevadans to fund a first-rate research university. The whole higher education system -- university and system administrators, the Board of Regents and affiliated organizations -- should have been aggressively campaigning for education well before the catastrophe of this recession: constantly airing and politicizing the value of higher education and, crucially, the disparity between UNLV as it exists and UNLV as it should be.

Public information and political pressure should have been a daily responsibility of the administration amplified by standing organizations of alumni and donors but also by newly created groups of parents, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, vegetarians, teenagers, rockers, musicians, entertainers, gray eminences, young eminences, even prostitutes, felons and casino magnates. Rallies, papers, mini-conventions, tours, talks and other tactics that advance the education agenda and that target impediments -- irresponsible private and public interests but pointedly the depravity of the state that prefers slot machines to schools.

For the years of the recent recession educational leadership in Nevada has been quiet, polite and acquiescent. UNLV has paid its presidents and provosts generously to have bought knowledge and imagination.Instead the university is enduring an administration whose principal contribution has been a year-long planning exercise dependent on the very faculty that created the university's problems. The administration's deeply, deeply sincere town hall meetings with multicolor Power Point presentations demonstrated little more than timidity and a bankrupt imagination.

The state might also consider eliminating the Board of Regents. Perhaps a request for a budget increase of 3 percent might seem to be cutting against the current political grain. But there is no force to the regents' budget recommendation -- no political push, no social push. It is a hollow gesture by an ineffective and lazy group of public officials. The actual need is for an increase closer to 100 percent, along with the political leadership to deliver it.

There is heroism and dignity in the advocacy for public education, even if it fails, but none for self-protective accommodation with cruelty and stupidity. Resignation on principle is an ennobling alternative to shuffling along as an apologetic messenger of budget cuts.

UNLV is in on the front line -- but it's the front line of the erosion of higher education, unfortunately. As the Chronicle of Higher Education laments, "The ideal of American higher education may have entered a death spiral. ... That crisis might ultimately harm not only universities, but also democracy itself."

Go Rebels.

William M. Epstein is a professor in social work at UNLV. His latest book is "Democracy without Decency," 2010, Penn State University Press.