Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009 | 2 a.m.
The higher education system, with more than 1,000 employees drawing six-figure salaries, has long been a favorite target for fiscal conservatives eager to rein in government spending.
This week Chancellor Jim Rogers responded to assertions that the system pays its workers too much by issuing a public memo noting the work and qualifications of each of 106 system employees who are paid more than $100,000 a year. The list includes deans, vice presidents and UNLV’s general counsel, among others.
“An examination of their qualifications, along with an analysis of the markets among the best colleges and universities in the United States, would indicate that these people are all an important part of Nevada’s culture that must not be impaired,” Rogers writes. “If these people leave Nevada, Nevada will have no system of higher education. Be careful with what you tamper.”
Rogers’ 134-page missive is unlikely to silence his critics, however.
After reviewing the memo, Andy Matthews, a spokesman for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank critical of large government, wrote in an e-mail: “The majority of students leave (the Nevada System of Higher Education) with debt and disappointment, while these professionals earn salaries that put them in the top 10 percent of income earners nationwide. The Nevada System of Higher Education appears to have become a jobs program for professionals. We rob the poor to pay the Ph.D.”
Noting Nevada universities’ low graduation rates, Matthews wrote that instead of explaining why employees are qualified to earn six-figure salaries, Rogers should explain what those people are doing to improve the quality of higher education in Nevada.
Much of the chancellor’s memo focuses on workers’ qualifications, but it also includes information on their contributions to the higher education system. The entry about UNLV liberal arts Dean Chris Hudgins, for example, points out that Hudgins has raised more than $4 million in private funding to support his college.
The “health sciences system,” a pet project of Nevada’s outspoken chancellor, is meant to revolutionize the way Nevada’s public colleges educate future health professionals and conduct health sciences research.
But with the new year, the initiative to expand health sciences programs and make them more productive has suffered a setback.
Gov. Jim Gibbons’ 2009-11 capital improvement program budget includes only a fraction of the money Rogers and company wanted for health sciences construction.
The governor’s plan included $31.2 million of the $36 million higher education officials requested for a new building in Reno, but left out $29.5 million they wanted for a new building in Las Vegas. The $4.8 million difference between the allocation for the Reno facility and the requested amount is due to the fact that construction will cost less than anticipated, said Marcia Turner, vice chancellor of operations for the health sciences system.
Rogers says with public colleges facing potentially massive budget cuts, fighting for funding for the Southern Nevada project is not the priority.
“We’re just trying to stay alive with the basic things that a university does — teach English, graduate people with a bachelor’s degree, that sort of thing ... We’ve got to attend to first things first,” Rogers said.
The $65.5 million for the Reno and Las Vegas health sciences buildings was originally part of $88.7 million lawmakers set aside in 2007 for constructing and renovating health sciences facilities.
To get the funding, higher education officials had to raise $38.7 million in nonstate money to match Nevada’s contribution.
But with the state in the throes of a severe financial crisis and the chancellor and his staff making little progress toward the $38.7 million goal, the state took the $65.5 million back.
Gibbons’ decision not to include the entire sum in his capital improvement plan was a surprise to higher education officials, who thought the state had withdrawn the funding only temporarily.