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August 29, 2015

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higher education:

UNLV president’s somber warning on budget cuts moves faculty to tears

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Steve Marcus

UNLV President Neal Smatresk delivers his State of the University Address in this Sept. 15, 2009 file photo. On Tuesday he proposed a “financial exigency” plan in response to proposed budget cuts.

In what must have been one of his most painful tasks in office, UNLV President Neal Smatresk warned faculty leaders Tuesday to prepare for a budget catastrophe — news that left some in tears.

Smatresk at times sounded almost in mourning as he spoke to the Faculty Senate, saying he had instructed his provosts to start planning for more cuts in staff, departments and programs.

The faculty was angry and indignant.

“I’m sick we are destroying much of what we’ve built,” said Cecilia Maldonado, an educational-leadership professor and chairwoman of the Senate.

“This amounts to foreclosure,” said Greg Brown, a history professor and president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, a professor group.

Michael Bowers, UNLV’s provost, noted that UNLV is 54 years old and that he has worked there 27 years. “I never thought this day would come, but we have to plan,” he said.

The emotional display was unprecedented, Bowers said after the meeting, “because we’ve never had a situation like this before.”

He has asked five senior officials, including the athletic director, to identify cuts by Feb. 25 because $25 million in cuts have to be planned for by this July and $22.5 million by next July, the start of another fiscal year.

“We have to have a plan in place immediately,” Bowers said.

In an e-mail to deans and vice provosts, Bowers said, “The central teaching and research mission of UNLV should be protected as best as possible.”

He set general goals for cuts at 22 schools, departments and programs, with the larger targets exceeding $2 million.

The biggest target was on the College of Liberal Arts at $3.8 million. Other large targets were $2.9 million for the dental school, $2.8 million for libraries and $2.8 million for the College of Sciences.

Smatresk’s words were the grimmest yet in the agony over how the state’s fiscal crisis will play out within the ranks of higher education. Already, curricula have been slashed and faculty layoffs may be inevitable.

Under what is known as “financial exigency,” lifetime appointments could be broken and tenured professors more easily dismissed. In that case, whole departments and programs could close down with greater speed.

This month, the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents said it would be premature to consider such a move until the Legislature approves a final budget.

Smatresk told the Faculty Senate that the cuts at UNLV could total $47.5 million over the next two years. So a plan for financial exigency would have to be prepared, he said. That sum for two years nearly matches the $50 million in cuts over the past four years, mostly in nonacademic areas and mostly avoiding large cuts in professor positions.

The emotion followed soon after Smatresk’s announcement, when Bowers said the cuts would need to come mainly from academic programs as soon as this year.

“These targets will be painful to meet,” Bowers said, his voice beginning to break. “I’ve asked the deans to do the best they can.”

The emotion built again when Maldonado read a list of grievances, each beginning with “I’m sick.”

She said she is sick of politicians caricaturing professors with “our fat salaries and easy living.”

She said she is sick that the public doesn’t seem to understand the importance of higher education.

John Filler, a special-education professor and former chairman of the Faculty Senate, said, “There is nothing that we’ve done to deserve this.” His voice broke, people applauded.

“I can’t believe the taxpayers will let this happen but if they do,” Filler said, “let’s make sure this doesn’t happen without a fight.” More applauded.

In his brief address, Smatresk noted that he had been monitoring the first few days of the legislative session. He added, “I believe the proposed cuts could materialize.”

“It’s very clear our state is approaching a state of fiscal collapse” when it comes to education, Smatresk said.

The cuts, Smatresk said, will lead to a “smaller, more expensive, more selective institution.”

In a voice heavy with sadness, Smatresk said: “A white knight will not come in and dramatically change the situation.”

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