Higher dread

Nevada’s higher education system is preparing for the possibility of reversing decades of hard-fought progress. Under Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed 2011-12 state budget, the higher education system would be forced to make $162.4 million in cuts. UNLV alone would be gouged by $47.5 million, which would come after the university already slashed $49 million over the past four years.

Those earlier cuts were painful but they did not require the wholesale elimination of academic programs. If Sandoval’s budget goes through, however, the careful pruning of the past will give way to shutting down entire programs, departments and perhaps even colleges, according to university President Neal Smatresk.

Smatresk also raised the spectre of "financial exigency," which is akin to an unarmed form of martial law, in that it would allow college administrators to do things they normally would not be allowed to do, such as ignore contracts and fire tenured professors.

Smatresk outlined the situation for his faculty last week, and the reaction was emotional. Faculty Senate President Cecilia Maldonado broke down and cried while reading a prepared statement decrying the cuts. Greg Brown, president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said, "This amounts to foreclosure."

It was within this grim context that Bryan Spangelo, a UNLV biochemistry professor, outlined a provocative restructuring proposal to deal with the cuts while maintaining the system’s academic integrity. The system now has eight institutions: UNLV, UNR, College of Southern Nevada, Truckee Meadows Community College, Great Basin College, Nevada State College, Western Nevada Community College and the Desert Research Institute. Under Spangelo’s plan, half of those institutions would close. Preserved would be one university and one community college in the North, and the same combination in the South. He estimates this would save more than $50 million.

"Savings from the closing of campuses and removal of unnecessary executive positions could prevent the need for a declaration of financial exigency," Spangelo said.

There is logic to his proposal. It would go a long way toward protecting UNLV and UNR — the state’s most prized campuses — from the severity of the cuts they would face as part of a larger system. It also would ensure that community college courses continue to be offered in the state’s two main population centers.

The down side is that college courses would no longer be available, at least on an in-person basis, anywhere except Las Vegas and Reno. It’s a large state geographically, and forcing anybody living outside those two cities to travel for higher education is a significant burden. Still, forced to enact Sandoval’s budget, this indeed should be a serious consideration. After all, as Spangelo points out, the four institutions in the two biggest cities have 90 percent of the student population.

The problem with Spangelo’s proposal is its defeatist premise. As with Smatresk’s exigency strategy, contraction to four campuses should be seen as a last resort. In the meantime, advocates for Nevada higher education have three months or so to make their voices heard in Carson City.

This, in my view, is a cause worthy of the level of activism exhibited recently by public employees fighting for collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. The huge cuts that higher ed would endure under Sandoval’s budget are an affront to the basic understanding — proven and practiced throughout the country — that a person can improve his lot in life by getting an advanced education.

Not only that, gutting higher ed is a pound-foolish move for Nevada. Perhaps no other state has a greater need to improve the quality of its work force as a steppingstone to diversifying and stabilizing its economy.

The latest round of budget cuts to education begs a question that every Nevadan should be asking right now: What kind of state is this, and what should it be? Is Nevada merely a big company town for gambling and mining companies, a place where they can make their money unfettered by the needs and demands of society? Or is Nevada a political and cultural entity of greater ambitions, a place striving to create a high quality of life and sense of shared purpose for its current and future citizens?

If Nevada is the latter — if it is more than a safe haven for certain commercial endeavors, what in some corners of the world is called a banana republic — then cutting the higher education system by almost a third makes no sense. All you need do to understand this is look at 30 or more other states that have nurtured and cherished their educational institutions for decades. Those states take pride in and are strongly identified with the reputations and achievements of their universities. More important, those states have derived enormous economic benefits from the successes of their universities.

Before declaring financial exigency or closing college campuses, Nevada higher education advocates should put up a fight as never before. Don’t raise the white flag just yet.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. His column appears Thursday.

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