UNLV president tells rally to fight proposed cuts

What was billed as an informational town hall meeting to talk about budget cuts Friday at UNLV was really more of a pep rally.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas President Neal Smatresk took the lead in decrying Gov. Brian Sandoval's proposed cuts to higher education and calling on faculty, staff and students to help stop them.

"It is a very, very serious moment in Nevada history," he said.

He told a crowd of several hundred that the governor's proposal would cut $47.5 million from the university's budget. Such a cut would be less than 10 percent of the university's entire annual budget, but about a third of its annual state funding. The cut would be on top of cuts in the past four years totaling $49.6 million, he said.

"It's unimaginable," he said. "It's unimaginable if you believe we're important to Nevada."

He touted UNLV's importance to the state. He said the university graduates 6,000 students a year. He said the proposed cuts were simply the beginning of a long process that will involve legislators. He encouraged people to talk to legislators and to let them know how the cuts would affect them.

"I believe that the governor is attempting to get our attention," he said.

Sandoval, who has repeatedly promised no tax increases, has said the higher education system can impose tuition and fee increases and cut faculty and staff salaries to help offset the cuts.

Voters have said they would like to see a combination of cuts and tax or fee increases used to balance the state's beleaguered budget.

In an Impact Nevada poll in October, the majority of the 600 Nevadans surveyed said they favored increasing tuition for some programs, eliminating other programs and some cuts.

But Smatresk said Nevada already is lagging behind other states in the portion of the population with college degrees. He said the state needs more graduates, not fewer, in times of economic distress.

"I cannot believe that the current budget will stand," he said.

The governor's budget proposal calls for a $214 million cut from the state's general fund to higher education over the next two years. The system will also lose $185 million in federal stimulus money it received in the last biennium. Unless other revenue comes in -- such as $121 million in county property tax money Sandoval wants to reallocate to higher ed, or tuition and fee increases -- the cut would be about 25 percent of the total higher education budget.

Past cuts have led the university to offer buyouts, eliminate several programs, cut available classes and reduce part-time faculty.

"Our future is at stake," Smatresk said. "The future of our state is at stake. The future of the good students who are here is at stake.

"If you are concerned about the economic future of our state, then you have to be concerned about UNLV."

Mark Alden, a member of the higher education system's governing Board of Regents, told the crowd that he was a conservative Republican, and is in fact friendly with the governor, but he said he disagreed with the proposed cuts.

"This budget is nuts," said Alden, who is known to speak frankly.

He noted that while most of the state government agencies and entities would suffer cuts under Sandoval's budget, the prison system would see an increase. He said it cost more to imprison someone that it does to educate them.

"Why don't we just put all the students in prison," he joked. "We won't even have to educate them."

Then he returned to his fiery rhetoric.

"We will fight as a Board to the last blood dripping from our veins to get this changed," he said.

Students, faculty and boosters spoke, too, encouraging folks to get involved. Contact legislators, they said. Attend the rally scheduled for 8 a.m. today at the Grant Sawyer Building.

"My alma mater is being threatened. The community I love is being threatened," said Matt Engle, president of the UNLV Alumni Association.

But James Dean Leavitt, chairman of the Board of Regents, seemed the most angry. Leavitt, who usually is fairly reserved but has, in the past, called for tax increases to offset budget cuts, said the universities are critical to the state's economic development.

He said Sandoval's budget "is absolutely outrageous and will result in cataclysmic changes to the Nevada System of Higher Education." He echoed Sandoval's theme of "shared sacrifice," and said it was not fair that higher education should get the steepest cuts.

He called tax increases an investment that would spread the hurt around .

"We're going to need each and every one of you in this room working together like never before," he said. "Let's save the state of Nevada."

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