A farce of higher education

Gov. Jim Gibbons’ 4.5 percent budget cuts cement UNLV’s destiny as one of the weakest universities in the United States. The looming 14 percent rescissions for the next two-year budget cycle will kill higher education in Nevada for generations. Yet while money is indispensable for quality higher education, it is not enough.

Even if the customary, inadequate budget is restored, UNLV will not become a quality university without substantially repairing its academic climate. But this is unlikely despite the din of advertising, public relations and spin that UNLV is “all momentum” and on track to “invent the future.” With the budget cuts and its poor leadership, UNLV is on track only to become a farce of higher education.

The quality of education at UNLV is poor and has remained so for years. First and foremost, the quality of a university is dependent on the quality of its faculty. In turn, the essential quality of professors in the sciences, humanities and related fields is measured by their contributions to scholarship in books, essays and articles. The criteria for scholarly productivity in the arts is somewhat different.

The Science Citation Index, Social Sciences Citation Index and the Humanities Index cover more than 10,000 journals that constitute the intellectual core of academia. There are hardly any American universities of a size and function comparable to UNLV, let alone schools with claims to being “a premier metropolitan research university,” that have weaker publication records.

In 2007, the UNLV faculty produced only 529 publications in indexed journals. In the same year, UCLA published 8,096; UNR, 784; University of New Mexico, 1,770; University of Colorado, 2,487; Arizona State University, 2,205; Rutgers University, 2,730; University of Delaware, 1,314; University of Idaho, 616; Mississippi State University, 705; University of Utah, 3,251; University of Wyoming, 681; University of Hawaii, 1,947; University of Iowa, 3,290; and the University of Texas-Arlington, 610.

Adjustments for faculty size diminish some of these disparities, but increase others. Yet even as they are, these data depict a failed academic community at UNLV.

Moreover, the few books authored by UNLV faculty are rarely scholarly monographs — the pinnacle of academic books — but most often textbooks, anthologies, edited volumes and instructional manuals that are usually jointly authored. While textbooks and the like enhance teaching, they are often commercial ventures into the higher education market that appropriate the creativity of others. In contrast, the core value of academic quality and thus academic publication is realized by invention, discovery and improved explanation (that is, original theory).

The small increase in UNLV’s academic productivity over the years is almost entirely accounted for by the increased number of faculty. Nonetheless, the UNLV public relations machine has the brass to litter the media with contrived evidence of burgeoning excellence. If hype could substitute for scholarship, UNLV would be in the first tier of universities. In fact, it is in the fourth tier of U.S. News and World Report rankings.

Over the past decade, UNLV has grown enormously, materializing a variety of poorly staffed, underfunded, undistinguished programs from the obviously false belief that once established, they will command increased resources. UNLV’s few programmatic achievements include its law school, ranked 88 in a field of 184, and a notable hotel school whose skills-based curriculum would seem better suited to a vocational institution rather than a university. Perhaps suggestive of its true priorities, UNLV supports 18 Division I sports teams.

Repeating the mistakes of the previous UNLV leadership, the new president initiated another planning year upon his arrival. Asking an unproductive faculty — the very people who contrived the sorry condition of UNLV — to engage in an extensive academic planning process confesses to a bankrupt imagination. After two years, the president and his provost, together enjoying almost $1 million per year in salary, benefits and perks, have still not come up with a comprehensive statement of UNLV’s challenges and the steps to meet them. All they have offered is the wish list of their empty planning process, amateurish PowerPoint presentations that delicately avoid the university’s decrepitude, and town hall meetings that are fashionable in political campaigns but notably deficient as avenues of communication.

Especially in the face of lethal budget cuts, these generous salaries make sense only for the purchase of leadership. Aside from presiding obediently over the cuts, the administration has applied meaningless “metrics” to programs while lowering graduation standards. The “metrics” suggest managerial obliviousness and look like an attempt to avoid executive responsibility. The lower academic standards place UNLV in competition for students with Nevada State College in Henderson, the junior colleges, and the for-profit educational piranhas such as the University of Phoenix. The new recreational facility presumably gives UNLV a leg up on student recruitment.

Student enrollment and retention at UNLV has been declining for the past few years in spite of continuing population growth in Southern Nevada and the expectations of the higher education system itself. Final enrollments declined by 3 percent between the fall of 2006 and 2007 following a year in which they declined by 1.7 percent. It seems likely that enrollment will drop again for the present academic year.

A variety of excuses are offered: tough economic times, competition from Nevada State College and the expanding junior colleges, increased costs of education, inadequate financing, local anti-intellectualism paired with the availability of high-paying jobs for relatively low skills (e.g., valets, table servers) and the like. Too little attention has been paid to poor educational quality as a more credible cause of the decline.

In comparison with weak regional public institutions, UNLV faculty salaries are high. But the salaries, along with generous merit awards and equity adjustments, are lavished on loyalty rather than performance. At the same time, UNLV is caught up in the claptrap of diversity, avoiding the problems of actually creating greater social equality, notably through quality education. Conservatives embrace diversity hiring because it obscures the existence of discrimination; liberals advocate it as solution for discrimination.

Yet, in denial of devastating historical inequalities, diversity hiring is a system of social spoils and political patronage that reflects America’s complacency with its social and economic stratification.

A variety of factors explain UNLV’s failure to either attract outstanding academic talent or to retain the competent: gross underfunding, self-centered and incompetent administrators, a poor academic climate, elected public bodies with weak commitments to education (let alone to public service), a citizenry that seems uninterested in education, an unattractive community that offers little in the way of cultural opportunities, a weak K-12 public education system and notably a rapacious business sector.

Chancellor Jim Rogers has been one of the very few to frankly acknowledge many of these problems, insisting with refreshing candor on the need for resources rather than administrative cleverness. In a series of trenchant memos, Chancellor Rogers has argued on civic, social, economic and moral grounds for enriching public education in Nevada.

The social climate of Las Vegas presents an impediment for recruiting professionals with families that demand the amenity of a civilized community. Despite being one of the wealthiest states, Nevada makes one of the weakest efforts to fund public services.

As a consequence, its child welfare provisions and its K-12 public school system are among the worst in the nation. This inattention, if not actually contempt, for the safety and prosperity of children is paired with an extraordinarily selfish business community, containing some of the most socially irresponsible corporations in America.

The Nevada gambling business has never paid its fair share for the civic health of the community but it now cries recessionary tears even while the Strip moguls ornament their vanities with priceless paintings and gems. They might heed G.K. Chesterton: “To be clever enough to get a great deal of money, one must be stupid enough to want it.” But the real stupidity, a moral narcissism, is the obsession of endless acquisition unmitigated by civic duty or good taste. Modern Nevada has been created as a tax haven for the rapacious and the socially irresponsible.

The UNLV endowment drive has fallen short of its very modest target. In recent years UCLA and the University of Southern California have each raised $3 billion while UNLV has barely raised $425 million. Considering the dearth of higher education in Southern Nevada — UNLV is its only public university — and the great wealth even in comparison with Southern California, the private sector owes UNLV a few billion dollars to put together what all the clamor has been about: a quality research university.

There is little innocence in public policy. The population, almost 40 percent of whom fit into traditional minority categories, has been accommodating. Nevada may have what Nevada wants, but it should not be allowed the comforting illusion of decency.

The core reason for funding a vibrant, intellectually productive UNLV is to pay respect to working people and others with modest incomes — the huge majority of Nevadans and their children who cannot afford to leave the state for education but who deserve investments in their intellectual capacities. A good university lifts civic life through its students. It ennobles a people.

It pays respect to civilization.

Next Sunday: What can be done to improve UNLV?

William Epstein is a professor of social work at UNLV.

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