Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012 | 3:54 p.m.
After four years of budget cuts, UNLV is poised to rebuild itself into a “first-choice” university, President Neal Smatresk said Thursday in his annual state of the university address.
Since the recession, state funding to UNLV has fallen $74 million, leading to reductions of 700 positions and 19 degree programs, as well as double-digit increases in student tuition.
But UNLV’s budget woes are easing, Smatresk said.
“Last year at this time, there was a lot of anxiety. We were worried about where the ax might fall,” Smatresk said. “Now, we are on firm fiscal grounds. We have strong fiscal reserves. We’re strong, and we’re going to move forward.”
Freshman enrollment at UNLV has climbed by 9 percent, and the university expanded its student services to meet a growing student population, Smatresk said.
The university hired 78 new administrative and academic positions, eight new student advisors and support staff and expanded its student housing and information technology departments, he said.
“We had a lot of holes after the budget cuts, and we knew we had to fill in those holes,” Smatresk said.
One of the top priorities for the university — recruiting and retaining high-quality professor — will hinge on its ability to offer competitive salaries and benefits, Smatresk said.
During the recession, UNLV was forced to implement a hiring freeze and furloughs and to slash benefits, especially health care.
UNLV plans to lobby the Legislature in February for funding to restore faculty salaries and benefits, Smatresk said.
Gov. Brian Sandoval is seemingly open to maintaining higher education funding, he said. “We need to first and foremost work hard this year with the Legislature and governor to restore benefits and salaries,” Smatresk said. “We are firmly committed to this. It is utterly critical that we are competitive in a marketplace economy.”
To attract professors, UNLV is also looking at improving its promotion and tenure process, giving more helpful feedback to professors to improve their teaching. In addition, UNLV invested $9 million into academic and research infrastructure last year, Smatresk said.
Last year, the university raised $50 million in gifts and pledges, compared to $34 million the previous year, Smatresk said. UNLV parlayed those donations into more endowed professorships and $500,000 in faculty opportunity awards, which help faculty make up some of the cuts.
With the formation of a new higher education funding formula, UNLV will be able to keep its own tuition and fees, which can be invested back into education programs, instead of supporting other Nevada institutions.
The formula also rewards UNLV for its research and degree completions, perhaps leading to a $2 million increase in state funding next year, if approved by the Legislature.
“We now have the backbone for a new formula,” Smatresk said. “It rights a historic wrong...It’s a far cry better than we have had in the past.”
UNLV will be focused on creating a more caring and collaborative community for its faculty and students, Smatresk said. The university just finished an extensive “listening exercise,” soliciting feedback from each department.
There is also a revamped campus master plan, the highlight of which is the UNLV Now project.
UNLV has been working on a public-private partnership to build a multi-use complex of retail shops and dorms, anchored by a 60,000-seat stadium.
The project will not be funded by state education dollars or student tuition. Developers will push to create a special tax district to finance the stadium.
This “game-changing” stadium proposal will transform UNLV into a first-rate university, Smatresk said. It won’t just attract more students but more business opportunities for Southern Nevada, he said.
According to a report released today by the university’s Center for Business and Economic Research, UNLV added $1.46 billion to the Nevada economy in 2011. The university’s athletic arenas — the Thomas and Mack Center, Sam Boyd Stadium and the Cox Pavilion — generated more than $365 million in direct spending to the economy, the report says.
For every state education dollar UNLV receives, the university returns $8 to Nevada’s economy, Smatresk said.
“It’s clear UNLV will be an economic engine for the region,” Smatresk said. “We are part of the economy of Las Vegas.”
That’s why the Legislature needs to approve the new funding formula and restore funding for emerging degree programs and faculty benefits, Smatresk said.
“UNLV is not a cost, UNLV is an investment, and you need to start investing deeply, before it’s too late.”