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In higher education, quality over quantity

In the week since Gov. Jim Gibbons’ State of the State address, I have alternated between outraged and bemused concerning his plan to gut the state budget.

I was outraged because of Gibbons’ stubborn refusal to come to terms with the idea that the best response to the budget crisis is a combination of program cuts and tax increases. Gibbons is sticking like a lemming to his no-tax pledge even though it would cripple the already hobbling state government.

I was bemused because I don’t believe Gibbons’ budget stands a chance once the state Legislature gets its hands on it.

In the past, the governor’s budget has served as the framework from which the Legislature works. Legislators will tinker here and there, but the governor’s basic plan generally remains intact. This year, I have the distinct feeling that lawmakers are going to toss Gibbons’ budget in File 13 and start over.

That said, we have to be realistic. As much as I would like the state budget to cover all the things that should be covered, it just isn’t going to happen this year. The economic crisis is too extreme, and while tax increases may occur, they most likely will be relatively modest. Therefore, some difficult decisions must be made.

So, in the spirit of President Obama, I want to approach the state budget crisis as pragmatically as possible. First of all, that means lowering my lofty expectations. Second, it means looking for smart and creative ways to reduce spending without making a huge mess out of Nevada.

Evan Blythin, a retired UNLV communications professor, offers an intriguing proposal along these lines. Blythin has been talking for some time about redundancies in the university system.

“Nevada cannot field more than one really good university,” says Blythin, who taught at UNLV from 1969 to 1998. “It’s a small state. We just don’t have the resources to multiply like that.”

The rise of UNLV in the 1970s has resulted in aggressive competition with the University of Nevada, Reno for resources. Each school wants to grow, not only in size but in prestige. They both want to have the full range of graduate programs. They both want to hire top professors and conduct important research. They both want to build beautiful campuses.

“The university is no different from any other organization,” Blythin says. “You want to build an empire.”

This competition, however, has resulted in two mediocre universities. Consider, Blythin says, what we could do if existing resources were dedicated to producing one great university with two campuses.

This is how it might work. Instead of having two journalism schools, we would have one really good one, located in either Reno or Las Vegas (probably Reno in this example). Instead of having two creative writing graduate programs, we would have one really good one in either Reno or Las Vegas (probably Las Vegas in this example).

So, a student who wants to pursue a journalism degree would go to Reno. A student who wants to earn a master of fine arts in creative writing would go to Las Vegas.

Keep in mind that we’re already doing this with our professional schools. The medical school is in Reno, and the law school is in Las Vegas. Maybe they should be switched, but that’s a question for another day.

The point is to eliminate redundancies, thereby saving taxpayer dollars, and to improve the quality of our higher education programs in the process.

It’d be messy, no doubt about it. Merging faculties couldn’t possibly occur without harsh words and hurt feelings, and some students who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to travel 420 miles to go to school would be out of luck.

But the alternative is impoverished universities and mediocre educations.

“Everybody’s going to scream and wring their hands at the thought of it, but that’s better than randomly cutting here and there, which will just devastate the place,” Blythin says. “The other way, at least there’s a plan.”

I have every confidence that most faculty at UNLV and UNR alike will think this is the worst idea imaginable. This is understandable, because it would thwart their empire building and threaten their turf. Some critics regard universities as havens of wild-eyed radicals, but this rarely applies to their everyday lives and careers. Ivory towers are hostile to those who want to challenge the status quo.

Yet these are unusually trying times, and they demand new fonts of open-mindedness and creativity. Blythin’s proposal to reduce redundancy of university programs has considerable merit, both fiscally and academically. It needs a champion in Carson City.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. He attended UNLV and graduated from UNR. His daughter attends UNR. His column appears Friday.

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