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UNLV caught in pay plight

UNLV went on a buying spree last year, hiring dozens of faculty and top administrators at new high levels of pay, according to a Review-Journal analysis of university payroll data.

UNLV spent 8 percent more on state-funded salaries of professors and personnel at the dean level or above last year, compared with the previous year, the analysis shows. From 2006 to 2007, the university brought on 60 additional full-time professors and high-level administrators.

Factoring in the increased number of personnel, the average pay of faculty members and administrators last year grew roughly at the rate of inflation. But more so than in the past, the university hired a number of professors "above salary schedule," or at more than assessed market value, an amount periodically set by the Nevada System of Higher Education.

As in every state, the Nevada college and university system’s largest budget item is for personnel and faculty salaries.

But with a projected state budget shortfall of more than $900 million and a call from Gov. Jim Gibbons for state agencies to tighten belts, the university system has been mandated to reduce spending by about $97 million for the 2009-2011 budget period. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is bracing for possible cuts of more than $20 million.

About 32 percent, or $177 million, of UNLV’s total operating funds of $552 million come from state appropriations, according to the university. UNLV could lose 14 percent of that.

The cuts are certain to affect the university’s ability to recruit academic staff, said University of Nevada, Las Vegas President David Ashley.

Chancellor Jim Rogers, in an interview, raised the prospect of hiring freezes and layoffs.

The budget slashes might have the added consequence of forcing full-time faculty to do more of something many have avoided: teach.

In sum, the prospect of less-than-expected money from the state is raising fundamental questions about where UNLV is headed as an institution.

Ashley said a recent year-long planning exercise reaffirmed the commitment of university stakeholders to making UNLV a premier research university. Those ideas will be presented at a Board of Regents meeting today in Reno.

"The budget cuts are so severe that it causes one to think very carefully what the mission of this university is," Ashley said. "But we’re not seeing this as a retrenchment in our position. It just makes it more difficult to achieve our goals in the short term."

Less burdened by financial concerns last year, UNLV aggressively hired new faculty and administrators, bumping up the total amount it paid to academic staff.

The university paid full-time faculty and administrators above the dean level $88 million in state funds in 2007, according to data from the university. In 2006, those employees got a total of $81 million.

Some of that increase was because of cost-of-living raises and merit pay. The regents voted in January to defer merit raises this year.

The compensation figures include all taxable income. They don’t include money contributed for retirement accounts, health insurance and other fringe benefits (medicare, unemployment, workers compensation).

The newspaper’s payroll analysis shows an unprecedented number of faculty and administrators currently earning six figures. In 2007, 315 top academic personnel at UNLV got more than $100,000 in state-funded salary, up from 270 just a year earlier.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said that is a common trend.

"The modern American university system runs on money," Hartle said. "And most of that money is going to pay salaries."

But Regent Steve Sisolak questioned the premise of making a slew of new hires during a time of supposed fiscal restraint.

"I’m a firm believer that you should only buy what you can afford to buy," Sisolak said. "I think you want to attract the best faculty you can, but you have to look at the long-term ramifications of that."

In a dramatic step, UNLV last year got permission from the regents to pay nine professors, mostly in the nursing school, above salary scale. Until last year, such hires had been relatively rare, according to university records.

The justification for most of the hires was that the professors offered unique classroom or research abilities.

Again, not surprisingly, Hartle said: "Academic salaries are set in the marketplace. You have to pay the going rate to get the best people."

As Regent Dorothy Gallagher put it: "If we don’t pay these people, somebody else will."

In most cases, the regents gave quick approval to the hires, although some voiced concern about whether there was a need for such frequent exemptions from the standard pay scale.

In one instance, the regents were presented with inaccurate information to justify a salary exemption.

While advocating the hiring of an accounting professor, Michael Bowers, UNLV’s vice provost for academic affairs, told the regents that only 14 students graduated with doctorates in accounting last year nationwide. In reality, there were more than 100 advanced degrees awarded in that area last year, according to James Hasselback, a University of West Florida professor who tracks those numbers.

William Messier was hired at a nine-month base salary of $210,000 with an additional stipend of $60,000 for the 2007-08 academic year.

Bowers didn’t return a phone call seeking comment, but university spokesman Dave Tonelli said the information Bowers presented to the regents was supplied by two officials who are no longer at UNLV.

Faulty data aside, Rogers said such hires are worth it.

"The fact is that the good universities in this country are research universities," said Rogers, who has railed publicly against Gibbons’ mandated cuts. "You have to build a research university, or at some point you’ll never get the best faculty and students."

At least one potential hire was blocked by regents.

Ashley had sought to employ former Clark County School District administrator George Ann Rice to oversee a center that would study issues of teacher retention and preparedness.

But Ashley withdrew the proposal after some regents raised questions about creating a new position for Rice.

At today’s regents meeting, the University of Nevada, Reno will request the board’s approval of three hires above salary schedule. UNLV isn’t asking for any such hires.

Five years after then-President Carol Harter announced plans to make UNLV a major research institution, the university has choices to make.

The challenge going forward, Ashley and Rogers said, is whether UNLV can continue fast-paced and high-priced hiring, key steps in realizing that goal.

UNLV’s poor track record of retaining and graduating students leads some to question how well it’s doing at the undergraduate level.

Among peer universities, UNLV ranks 15 out of 16 in graduation rate and dead last in first-year student retention, according to information compiled by the university.

And undergraduate enrollment has stagnated in the past few years, peaking at more than 20,000 in 2005, before dipping slightly.

"I’m most concerned about undergraduates making progress," Sisolak said. "Sometimes we try to do too much, too quickly."

Whether or not UNLV continues to dramatically increase personnel costs, recent history shows that students will foot some of the bill for future operating expenses.

Undergraduate tuition at UNLV increased by nearly 11 percent between fall 2007 and fall 2008, from $116.75 per credit to $129.50 per credit. Graduate student tuition rose almost 15 percent in that period, from $172.25 per credit to $198 per credit. Those are costs for state residents; non-resident students pay more.

State Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, said the state budget situation requires adaptation, not panic. He said UNLV is doing just fine.

"Enrollment is falling back a bit, but the quality of enrollee is going up," Beers said. "UNLV is fulfilling a plan of maturity and differentiation between levels of higher education."

Beers, a UNLV graduate, said students can turn to Nevada State College and the College of Southern Nevada, traditional commuter schools, if they want a more vocational education.

Rogers said the region’s narrow, gaming-based economy is all the more reason to establish UNLV as a research institution that produces doctoral candidates and brings in research money and projects.

"To say we don’t have to broaden the base of our economy is like saying it’s OK to stay in the 19th century," Rogers said.

Another dilemma for UNLV: A university that leans heavily on part-time faculty is faced with the prospect of having to let many of those instructors go because of the budget situation.

UNLV spent only about $11 million in fiscal year 2008 on part-time and adjunct faculty, but those contract employees taught more than one-third of all credit hours at the university. In the College of Liberal Arts, part-time faculty taught more than 60 percent of all courses, according to university data.

Adjunct faculty at UNLV are paid about $3,000 a course.

The university’s stated expectation — though it falls short of a requirement — is that full-time, non-research faculty members will teach three classes a semester. On average, each of those faculty taught between three and four courses at the bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral level in the fall 2007 semester, a Review-Journal analysis shows. But of the university’s 828 professors who taught at all, more than 30 percent handled fewer than three courses.

UNLV has roughly 960 full-time faculty, which means about 130 professors didn’t teach at all in the fall semester. Some of those professors were doing research, were on leave or were given administrative roles for the semester.

A full professor at UNLV makes an average of $114,500 a year, about $5,000 more than the average for full professors at public doctoral institutions nationwide, according to the American Association of University Professors.

So if a full professor teaches six courses, that person’s salary per course is more than $19,000, six times what adjunct faculty earn per course.

While adjuncts typically lack formal teaching and research credentials, many are career professionals who have gained knowledge in a subject area through real-world experience.

But because adjunct faculty are more disposable than full-time, tenured professors, their numbers probably will be cut dramatically, according to the president and chancellor.

Each of the university’s deans has been asked to determine to what extent the number of part-time faculty can be reduced for the coming fall semester, Ashley said.

"We need to establish a better balance between regular faculty and part-time instructors," Ashley said. "That will require that tenure-tracked faculty would have to increase their workload."

Ashley said UNLV’s evolution will be hampered, but not crippled, by the budget cuts.

"We need to ask for the community’s patience, and also have to ask them to be committed to the quality institution we’re trying to build."

Contact reporter Alan Maimon at amaimon@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0404.

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