Return of the reluctant professor

Dina Titus was fired by valley voters in November, but the Democrat has no need for unemployment benefits. She won’t be lining up for mortgage relief, weekend school meals or any of the other debt-funded federal services she sponsored.

The ousted one-term congresswoman is back on the payroll at UNLV, having returned to work this month as a tenured political science professor.

Not that she’s thrilled to have landed in what has become a fall-back position. Her preference was to be back in Washington.

In fact, after more than 2½ years away from academia — and despite getting a nice pay raise from UNLV upon coming back — Titus is already contemplating her next long leave of absence.

Nevada will get a fourth seat in the House of Representatives as part of decennial reapportionment. That seat will be filled in the 2012 election, and the chance to get back in the game without facing an incumbent might be too tempting for Titus to pass up.

“I’m excited that we got that new seat,” Titus said after last month’s Census Bureau announcement. “It’s good for the people of Nevada to have another voice. And it’s good for me. I’m keeping all options open.”

Titus has those options not just because of her existing campaign infrastructure and a solid base of support, but because UNLV will always welcome her back on the job. No matter how partisan her positions are, no matter the nastiness of her campaign tactics, no matter whether she’s gone for one semester or five, the university can be counted on to hold her position and office until her eventual return.

That’s because the state’s university system, as a matter of policy, considers it highly advantageous for employees to serve in public office. The Board of Regents Handbook allows unpaid leaves of absence to faculty “to undertake work that benefits the Nevada System of Higher Education; such as, research work, advanced study, related consultation, teacher exchange and government service.” When you’re as dependent on state and federal tax dollars as a public university, it certainly helps to have friends in high places.

But there’s something unseemly — if not unconstitutional, depending on to whom you talk — about one person serving in two different branches of government, and being able to vote on matters that benefit her bosses and herself. It goes without saying that faculty members are expected to look out for the interests of the state’s higher education system (i.e., getting more money) as part of their authorized “government service.”

This mutual understanding has allowed Titus to serve just three semesters as a professor over the past five years. She was granted a leave of absence to run for governor in the fall of 2006; to serve as a state senator in the spring of 2007; and to run for and serve in Congress from summer 2008 through last month.

The argument can be made that Titus’ quid pro quo with UNLV benefits the university and its students by having an actual politician on the political science faculty. Lectures are a lot more interesting when the professor has practical experience to go with theoretical expertise. I imagine students would sit on the floor and stand in the halls to hear Titus’ anecdotes about Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama. She’s a great story-teller.

But lecturing clearly is not Titus’ priority. She’s teaching one class this semester, Political Science 401J, “Women in Politics,” a class that’s cross-listed with history and women’s studies 400-level courses. Her other duties this spring include some research, an administrative assignment with the university’s Black Mountain Institute and coordination of a fellow program and a research presentation series, according to the school.

At a university supposedly ravaged by budget cuts, where it’s darn near impossible for most undergraduates to earn a diploma in four years because of a lack of course offerings, where we’re assured professors are burdened by heavy lecture loads, a precious faculty position left open for nearly three years finally is reclaimed by an invaluable professor — and students get one class out of the deal?

When Titus last taught in the spring of 2008, she had an annual base salary of $101,206. But her current base salary is now $107,855 (a 6.5 percent bump) thanks to a merit pay increase resulting from her performance in the 2007-08 academic year and a 4 percent raise authorized by the 2007 Legislature — and voted for by Titus herself.

The Political Science Department’s budget is almost 12 percent bigger than it was in fiscal year 2008, when Titus’ long leave began, UNLV spokesman Dave Tonelli said. The school could afford to bring her back because of the salary savings created by her 2½ years of unpaid leave, he said.

If Titus’ position were truly essential, then why didn’t the university hire a visiting professor to provide classes in demand and publish research? If UNLV is so strapped for cash, why didn’t it deny her leave request and ask the 60-year-old to retire?

Leaving the job open — and giving Titus just one class to teach this semester — bolsters the perception that Titus’ position is not essential, and that UNLV’s fiscal woes are not as bad as they’re made out to be.

The more Titus remains in discussions about state politics, the harder it is to separate professor Titus from candidate Titus, someone who is viewed unfavorably by about half of registered Nevada voters. I don’t see how that’s good for UNLV or its goal of getting greater public support for its missions. The relationship is starting to make UNLV look like a subsidiary of the Democratic Party.

Witness the dustup over UNLV College Republicans pointing out that Titus cheated during an Oct. 14 debate against the GOP’s Joe Heck by referring to notes. The candidates were allowed to use a note card during closing statements, but were not supposed to be able to refer to pages of notes during the debate.

The student group launched a website this month that attacks Titus’ integrity — something expected of a tenured professor — as well as the integrity of the university and its administration.

The website prompted Sam Lieberman, chair of the Nevada State Democratic Party, to deliver a warning — and a veiled threat — to UNLV College Republicans. “If I were the young Republicans, I’d not be messing with Dina Titus, who is returning to their turf,” Lieberman told Las Vegas CityLife.

So Titus the politician can’t be criticized as Titus the professor? And if she is, she’ll retaliate against tuition-paying students?

Only in public employment and politics could someone so frequently declare they want a different job and be rewarded for it.

Titus is married to UNLV, but her soulmate is Democratic Party politics. She wants another fling.

I think Titus should follow her heart. And I think UNLV deserves better.

It’s time for both to move on.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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