The word "crowd" would be overstating Tuesday’s turnout at a UNLV event intended to help students figure out what budget cuts mean to them.
In total, 62 people showed up — including the speakers, the media, a couple of professors and the event organizers. University of Nevada, Las Vegas has about 28,000 students.
The low turnout at the question-and-answer session doesn’t mean that students aren’t worried. Some of them are.
Hannah Rickards is.
She’s a journalism student, 21 years old, set to graduate next semester.
She already had one class eliminated this semester, but got lucky because it was offered at another time.
But what about next semester? What if one of the classes that gets cut is one she needs to graduate?
"It’s scary to think about that after I’ve worked so hard for something," Rickards said.
There was a lot of talk like that at the event set up by UNLV’s student government.
It had UNLV President David Ashley and Senior Vice President of Finance and Business Gerry Bomotti answering students’ questions.
It was similar to two events held earlier this year for faculty and staff. At each of those, there was standing room only in the 300-seat theater within the university’s student union.
Budget cuts, and the possibility of more to come, have been the talk of the higher education community in Nevada for almost a year.
UNLV, like the state’s other institutions, has already absorbed budget cuts of 8 percent. Gov. Jim Gibbons, responding to a severe economic downturn that has revenues coming up short, has asked state agencies and the university system to prepare for cuts of 14 percent for the 2009-11 budget cycle.
The issue is expected to be hotly debated when the Legislature meets in February to approve a state budget for the next two years.
In the meantime, UNLV officials have already cut classes, reduced the number of part-time teachers, left positions vacant and offered a buyout program that, so far, looks to have more than two dozen takers. The buyouts alone could save more than $3 million a year, Ashley said.
But the worst is probably yet to come. Budget cuts of 14 percent would be devastating, he said.
"We think that the consequences could be quite severe," Ashley told students. "There’s no way we could take that cut without eliminating programs."
He told students that about 70 percent of the cost of running the university springs from academic programs. Those programs would take about 50 percent of the cuts. He is mindful of people like Rickards — those who need certain classes to graduate.
Other savings options range from hiring fewer instructional staff to mowing the lawn less.
Ashley said UNLV’s money situation looked fine when he took over as president two years ago. It wasn’t great, but there was enough funding to do what he wanted to do.
Now? The money is disappearing.
"People keep trying to take it away," Ashley said.
He said that unlike other higher education institutions in Nevada, UNLV has resisted instituting new student surcharges so far.
"If the cuts are as severe as we expect," he said, "I’m not sure we can hold to that line."
All that means fewer choices and lots more anxiety for students.
Take student Kathy Anders.
She’s a graduate student studying English literature. She wants her doctorate. She’s also a graduate assistant who teaches composition and world literature part time at the university.
She’s thinks that even if her entire program isn’t eliminated, her graduate assistantship might be. That would mean the end of her studies, at least at UNLV. It would be impossible to continue, she said.
As far as teaching goes, escalating cuts mean crowded classrooms, postponed renovations for offices that need it and even a lack of money to make photocopies for class, Anders said.
"Our classrooms don’t have enough desks because they’re overcrowded," she said.
Adam Cronis, UNLV student government president, has said he wants to organize some sort of student protest to get legislators’ attention.
Ashley alluded to such plans several times Tuesday. He didn’t suggest protests but he did encourage students to get involved.
"I do believe," he said to students, "your presence in the debate will make a difference."
Contact reporter Richard Lake at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0307.