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A plan to save, steel UNLV

Editor’s note: The following commentary is the second of two parts.

UNLV will not be able to provide higher education respectful of working people’s intellectual promise without an enormous amount of money and a substantial change in its academic climate and administration. Recruitment and retention of accomplished faculty and administrators has always been a challenge at UNLV. The current cutbacks, the prospect of even deeper ones, the unimaginative administration and the unattractiveness of Las Vegas and its public services — notably K-12 education — are pushing the more productive UNLV faculty to leave.

Current cutbacks have created such burdensome teaching loads that no promising scholar would ever damage his or her career by taking a position at UNLV. Only the desperate would come to work at UNLV.

Relief seems unlikely in the short run. During the siege of Fort UNLV, a variety of steps might be taken to avert starvation and perhaps even improve educational quality.

The four-year system in Nevada should be reconfigured as the University of Greater Nevada, combining UNR, UNLV and Nevada State College in Henderson under one central administration; junior colleges should not aspire to provide four-year programs. From the outset, the consolidation would eliminate the positions of president and provost at UNLV, saving almost $1 million, and the president’s position at Nevada State College; the three seated presidents could flip coins for the sole remaining position.

The consolidation would lead to more specialized course offerings, an increase in the quality of advanced degree programs and certain benefits of scale, notably a greater use of distance education across the institutions. A number of programs that are too small to be accredited would probably reach an acceptable threshold of size if combined. The simple increase in size would, in many instances, also represent improvements in quality. Marginal programs might become less so by merging with stronger ones. Additional moneys would be saved by consolidating deanships and chairs of programs, with the savings reallocated to faculty.

UNLV would also give up its public relations, publicity and fundraising staffs in deference to a much smaller, central staff that covers communications and fundraising for the entire system. This would save more millions and relieve the airwaves of some noisy hype. In any event, the private sector should cover the costs of private-sector fundraising.

The reconfigured system will support only one set of sports teams, divided in proportion to local population between UNR and UNLV. Nevada will give up its participation in Division 1 athletics and emphasize intramural sports, perhaps introducing co-ed bikini mudwrestling to improve ticket sales. The nearly $10 million state subsidy for UNLV’s athletics program would be reallocated to faculty.

Too few athletes graduate in the major sports to justify their standing as student-athletes; in fact, they are underpaid semi-pros. The public’s passion for diversions and spectacles might best be satisfied by professional sports teams that do not distort higher education. A Moving Rebels chess team might be substituted for basketball, baseball and football, perhaps even a math team that also juggles a variety of geometric shapes in designer underwear.

These simple reconfigurations would probably produce a bounty of about $15 million to be used to hire at UNLV 60 eminent senior faculty at $250,000 per annum (including benefits and perks). They would finally constitute a critical core of productive scholars sufficient to protect academic quality from the romantic impulses of careerist administrators. Like major universities everywhere, UNLV would then be run by its distinguished senior faculty.

Wealth in Nevada also needs some serious talking to, and perhaps even the occasional bit of slap therapy. Wealth in Nevada should be taxed more. UNLV’s endowed centers for the study of gaming might tear themselves away from the efficiency and necessity of short-term gaming profits and look into the effects of the Strip corporations on the quality of life and the legislative process in Nevada. The deplorable state of affairs in Nevada, poignantly harming its children, is what happens when the Nevada gambling corporations get a foothold in a state, a cautionary tale for attentive public jurisdictions.

Merit moneys at UNLV have been used more as rewards for obedience and imagined service than in recognition of scholarship. Teaching has been degraded into a chase after student approval. Thus, merit moneys should be reduced by 50 percent with the savings being reallocated to new hires.

Similarly, faculty who do not engage in research and who pass their years opining on the grandeur of the university in endless committee meetings should be required to accept much heavier teaching loads. Fraudulent faculty — professors who submit for promotion, tenure and awards renamed dissertations as if they were original books — need a stern rebuke rather than patient acceptance.

The state’s timid Legislature and its luminaries — more watchful than courageous — have failed to protest the governor’s debauched public budgets, going past hand-wringing to actually raise taxes. The Board of Regents, while refusing publicly to agree to a reduced budget, is quietly holding hearings to plan cutbacks if indeed the governor gets his way. The State Board of Education acts more like a marching and chowder society than a protector of schooling and children.

The situation calls for leadership. If the Gibbonsonic destruction of responsible government reduces higher education, K-12 schooling and child welfare below already substandard levels, the Board of Regents and State Board of Education should resign en masse rather than become complicit in civic sin. It would be a rare instance of dignity in public office.

William M. Epstein is a professor of social work at UNLV.

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