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July 1, 2015

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Higher Education:

UNLV professor’s proposal to close 5 Nevada campuses is met with skepticism

The plan proposed by a UNLV professor is simple.

Still, it has vast implications for more than 114,000 students, 7,000 professors and other employees at nine colleges and universities in Nevada.

His suggestion: Close five institutions of higher education and move their students and professors to the other four, where 90 percent of students go.

It would save $50 million over two years, the professor says.

The surviving institutions presumably would be UNR and Truckee Meadows Community College in the north and UNLV and College of Southern Nevada in the south.

Driving the plan is Nevada’s perilous economy and a budget that is underfunded by about a third.

Budget cuts proposed by Gov. Brian Sandoval for higher education exceed $162 million.

Budget discussions are in the early stages, but by May — the Legislature must approve a budget by June — campus consolidation may be on the table.

The plan is the brainchild of Bryan Spangelo, a UNLV chemistry professor. A member of the Faculty Senate, he said he studied the Nevada System of Higher Education budget while serving on UNLV’s budget-cutting committee the past two years.

His plan is “a way to start the conversation, which I think has to start now,” he said.

Last week, UNLV President Neal Smatresk said higher education would have to consider declaring a form of bankruptcy known as financial exigency, a blow to the prestige of UNLV and other campuses.

“My plan doesn’t try to leverage exigency, it tries to avoid it,” Spangelo said.

The proposal has little or no support among the 13 regents, who would have to approve it.

Ten oppose or are leaning against the plan, which was circulated last week. Three say they are keeping an open mind.

Opposing regents say closing a building, let alone a campus, does not mean immediate savings and would have far-reaching consequences.

Regent Kevin Page, an investment manager in Las Vegas and vice chairman of the Audit Committee, has no position on Spangelo’s plan but shares concerns of the opposing regents.

“It’s not that simple to go from nine to four” institutions, Page said.

But if the current level of higher-education cuts proposed by Sandoval is preserved by the Legislature, regents must consider some degree of consolidation, he said.

“If, and it’s a big if, the number stays at $162 million, then we’d have to look at it,” Page said.

Regent Michael Wixom, chairman of the Investment and Facilities Committee, strongly opposes Spangelo’s plan.

“You don’t really save money with consolidation,” said Wixom, an attorney.

“Saying it’s a Rubik’s Cube doesn’t even begin to describe how complex it is,” he said.

Objections include the plan’s sketchiness, the radical nature of the cuts and the cost of maintaining closed buildings. Regents say that keeping four institutions seems arbitrary, and since more of the closed institutions would be in the north, northern regents and legislators are sure to fight mergers.

And, practically speaking, where would more than 11,000 students go, they ask. Would they be herded into already crowded classrooms? Would low-income and minority students be denied access to education?

Further, detractors point out, a mothballed building requires maintenance and security.

“You can’t just turn the building off,” Wixom said. “It’s expensive to turn it off and you need money to turn it off.”

Regent Mark Alden goes further. “It’s all about Bryan,” Alden said. “It’s ludicrous. It’s all about saving his job.” Spangelo says Alden’s comment is “an unfortunate, personal, ad hominem attack” that doesn’t address the merits of his plan.

Spangelo suggested the plan at a UNLV Faculty Senate meeting last week where Smatresk said UNLV would have to draft a budget assuming the regents would declare financial exigency.

Spangelo acknowledges that consolidating would be difficult. “No one wants to talk about reorganizing a system that took many, many years to build.”

And he acknowledges that Northern Nevada would bear the brunt of his reorganization.

Western Nevada Community College, Great Basin College and the northern campus of the Desert Research Institute would be closed and merged.

Nevada State College and the southern campus of Desert Research Institute would also close under Spangelo’s plan.

Ron Knecht, the only regent to vote last year for deep cuts in the higher education budget, said he’s against both Sandoval’s budget and Spangelo’s plan as too radical.

“But this is very early in the game,” Knecht said.

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