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Thousands rally at UNLV to protest proposed cuts to education

The days of apathy at UNLV were declared dead shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday.

A crowd of thousands crammed into the middle of UNLV’s campus to rant, rave and scream out against what they see as devastating state budget cuts.

"This is great!" said Vik Sehdev, UNLV’s student body vice president. "Last time this happened was, like, in the ’60s."

The protesters aimed their ire squarely at Gov. Jim Gibbons.

"Governor Gibbons has failed us," declared Ryan Crowell, student body president at Nevada State College. "Governor Gibbons has failed education and the state. We’re not going to let legislators make the same mistake."

The crowd appeared to agree.

"Impeach Gibbons," a sign read.

"Please wear 2 condoms when U screw our education," read another.

"Is the governor crazy?" another sign read. It provided the answer: "Yes. Yes."

The rally was organized by student leaders at UNLV, the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College in response to cuts proposed by the governor in the midst of a massive state revenue shortfall.

Cuts of up to 15 percent had been expected. But Gibbons last week outlined a budget that cuts higher education by 36 percent. At individual schools, the cuts could be higher; as much as 52 percent at UNLV.

Students are outraged.

Administrators are outraged.

Professors, staff and activists are outraged.

They all say the system cannot withstand such cuts without collapsing.

"By the time they get through cutting the budget, this will be a ghost town," said UNLV student and employee Helen Gerth, 41.

She is an administrative assistant at the university who is also working on her master’s degree in anthropology.

She is unhappy that her heath care premiums are going up. Unhappy that her salary is going down. And seriously unhappy that her school’s future seems threatened.

System Chancellor Jim Rogers, long an outspoken critic of the governor, outlined what he said would happen if such cuts were approved.

Donors would flee the system. Nobody wants to contribute, he said, to "losers."

Tuition would increase 225 percent, Rogers said. It costs about $4,000 a year to go to UNLV now.

"It would be cheaper," the chancellor said, "for you to go to Berkeley."

"You are talking about the 100 percent destruction of the higher education system in this state," he said.

Amid chants of "Rogers, Rogers, Rogers," he said the governor did the system a favor by proposing cuts so preposterous that they’ll never happen.

He got the crowd screaming by repeating what he’s said before: The governor is irrelevant. It is the legislators, he told them, who matter.

"They are not going to let this system go to hell," he said.

Rogers’ comments were a preview of sorts of his annual State of the System address, scheduled to be broadcast tonight.

In the address, which was released in advance to the media, Rogers will place the blame for the system’s problems at the governor’s feet.

He also blames an apathetic public.

"Your only relationship with the education system is to ship your unprepared kids to school, not with the expectation of success, but with the demand that an education system, inadequately funded, develop and/or repair children that you as a parent did not prepare for school or support while your children attended school," the address reads.

"If you want a competent and productive education system, tell your governor and legislators to fund it. They do what they think you want them to do."

To that end, there were several booths set up Thursday night at the back of the throng where students could sign form letters that will be sent to legislators.

Hundreds upon hundreds of people signed them. So many, in fact, that the letters were gone before the rally was over.

"They need to hear directly from you," UNLV President David Ashley told the students.

"It is up to you to make sure people know where you stand," he said. "And tonight, I think it’s clear where you stand."

No official crowd estimate was available Thursday night but it was clear that those present numbered in the thousands. A grassy field almost as big as a football field was crammed with protestors who stood nearly shoulder to shoulder.

More people milled about on sidewalks, in the nearby amphitheater and even atop the roof of Wright Hall, which was easily the best view on campus.

There was some talk about various tax increases to cover the massive gap in the state budget, but no one got into specifics about it.

In the past, Nevada’s college students have earned a reputation for a blasé attitude toward taking up causes. So much so, that when nearly 200 students showed up at a Board of Regents meeting last year to protest a proposed 25 percent tuition hike, the chancellor praised them and asked them what took so long.

But not this time.

Jessica Lucero, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association at UNLV, said the rally had been the talk of the campus.

"Oh yeah," she said as things got started. "More than anything since I’ve been here. And I’ve been here five years."

It was because of people like Bonnie Hayes, a journalism student. She came out with a sign that declared: "I fought for my country, now I’m fighting for my education."

Hayes, 27, recently got out of the Air Force. She said she served in Kuwait, where she was a mental health technician.

She’s having a hard time covering the cost of her education. She’s worried what will happen if tuition does skyrocket.

She came out to the protest, she said, as a "show of force."

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

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