UNLV feeling cutback pains through loss of programs

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

-- Soren Kierkegaard, existentialist philosopher


Six months ago, Todd Jones was fighting for his department's life.

He was chairman of the philosophy department at UNLV when the un­thinkable happened: The entire department was put on the chopping block.

Budget cuts at the university already had taken their toll, with other departments eliminated in recent years along with jobs cut.

But more cuts were coming. The university was bracing for nearly $50 million more in cuts to its state-funded budget.

The university's leaders said they already had cut almost all they could from administrative lines. They had to go after academics now. It took up 75 percent of the budget, but had seen only 25 percent of the cuts so far.

They said they would eliminate three dozen more departments or programs. Hundreds of jobs would be lost, thousands of students shut out.

Neal Smatresk, the university president, called the prospect "horrific."

The targets shifted, but philosophy was always on the list. It had only about 85 majors in it, fewer than a dozen professors. Not a major loss to the university, in the big picture.

But Jones made his case. He searched for a major university without a philosophy department, couldn't find one. He preached about a well-rounded education. He noted that nearly all of UNLV's students funneled through the philosophy department through an introductory course.

And it eventually took hold.

Legislators cut a budget deal that lowered UNLV's cut to about $20 million.

The philosophy department was saved.

"We rallied," Jones said last week, looking back. "We got into a spirit, defend the department, and everybody joined in."

Others, too, were saved. Anthropology and sociology. Environmental studies.

But $20 million is a lot of money, and many departments and programs were given the ax.

According to documents provided by the university, 14 academic departments have been eliminated since 2008. One more -- women's studies -- will be gone once the higher education system's Board of Regents formally OK's it next month.

Twenty-five programs are gone, too, and six more are set to go next month.

Departments and programs are similar, but not the same. A program is any particular course of study; anything a student can major in and get a degree in.

A department can have several programs within it. Departments have chairmen and a small staff, and so are more expensive than programs.

Michael Bowers, the provost and executive vice president at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said university leaders do not think there will be any more eliminations.

"We think we've hit bottom," he said.

He said academic affairs has taken $13 million of the total $70 million in budget cuts at the university in recent years.

When a department or program has technically been "eliminated," that does not mean all the courses it offers are gone, however.

Women's studies, for example, will cease to exist as a department, but it will still be a program students can study. There will still be women's studies courses available and faculty to teach them, just not as many as there were before.

There are other reasons that a department or program that has been eliminated still offers courses. The marriage and family therapy department has become fully self-funded. Students pay for the full cost of the courses.

It still exists, but was eliminated from the university's state-funded budget.

Also, most departments and programs that have been eliminated have not ceased to operate because they already had students in them.

"We didn't just shut them down and kick the students out," Bowers said.

Most students were given up to two years to finish their degrees, with courses being taught by the faculty who remain.

What about departments that remain?

The university's enrollment dropped this year to 2003 levels, losing more than 1,200 students compared to last fall.

But Jones, the philosophy chairman, said his department remains the same size it was, with about 90 majors.

He said there are lingering effects of it being on the initial cut list, though. He'll run across people who don't know that philosophy did not get cut, he said.

He doesn't know yet if the bad publicity will hurt recruiting in the future, either of students or of top faculty. They might think that the university doesn't value philosophy as a discipline, he said, and decide to go somewhere else.

"Even landing on that list could damage a department long term." But damaged or not, he said, the department is moving forward.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.