Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011 | 2 a.m.
In August, Brian Greenspun turns over his Where I Stand column to guest writers. Today’s columnist is Neal Smatresk, president of UNLV.
As we survey the effect of the worst recession we have seen, virtually everyone agrees that the most crucial task our region faces is diversifying our economic base and expanding our export economy. Our governor and state leaders are wrestling with this problem, as regional businesses call for more aggressive economic development plans. But we won’t get there without a focused plan that maximizes the use of very limited resources, and we cannot achieve this goal without UNLV.
In surrounding states, deep investments in higher education have been the key to prosperity and a diversified economy. Utah and Arizona have shown that investments in research universities produce a vibrant high-tech economy. Focused investment in university research attracts new businesses, and the success of those businesses requires a highly educated workforce.
UNLV is the only research university in our region and is crucial to the success of any economic diversification plan for Southern Nevada. Our challenge is how we can best restructure to support our state’s economic recovery after losing $73 million in state support and more than 700 positions in the past four years.
The next phase of our existence will need to embrace a more selective, more focused, high-quality future. We can no longer be everything to everyone. UNLV must focus our limited resources on programs crucial to our mission, reputation and the needs of our region.
We are growing new revenue streams to support our mission, but we need legislative support to keep our tuition revenues, keep the profits we make by bringing in students from other states and countries, and replace a broken funding formula with one that encourages quality over quantity.
Even limited investments in UNLV can yield big gains for our state. Investments made in UNLV to date produce $1 billion in annual economic impact. Investments from donors such as the Lincy Foundation developed the Lincy Institute at UNLV and funded UNLV’s Brookings Mountain West, a partnership with the Brookings Institution. Access to some of the best economic development advice in the country is at our fingertips because of these connections.
Our new science and engineering building is becoming the center of innovation, commercialization and research support for partnerships with solar, information technology and biomedical companies. Our excellent faculty provides the foundation for lifelong learning across multiple areas of expertise, shaping Nevada’s future leaders.
With modest investments, we can emulate the Utah “USTAR” model (credited with generating more than $10 billion annually for the Salt Lake City economy), to recruit more “superstar” faculty to bring in major research grants and whose research attracts new business. We need to stop thinking of higher education as a cost and see it instead as a monetary and human capital profit center for the state.
The cuts have had an impact, but we are committed to preserving the integrity and reputation of the university. We no longer have the resources to serve everyone who wants to come to UNLV, so we will become more selective.
Our entering class this fall is the best ever at UNLV, and our honors college enrollment is the largest ever, with entrance requirements that are as selective as those at Stanford. Our freshman retention rate is approaching 80 percent, well above the national average for state universities.
We are focused on ensuring that students who start at UNLV have a strong curriculum, along with academic support and the classes they need to graduate in a timely fashion. But as we restrict class size, we will not be able to expand the number of graduates who serve our region. This is a problem for Las Vegas, where only 20 percent of the population holds a college degree, as opposed to about 40 percent in cities such as Phoenix, Denver and Salt Lake City. As our economy recovers and the state reinvests in higher education, we hope to see growth in the number of graduates we can produce.
UNLV is here to serve our students, our alumni, the community and its businesses. We encourage you to get involved. Visit our campus. See a performance. Come to a game. Take a look at our website. Talk to our students, our faculty and our staff. We think you will be impressed. UNLV is your university, and we are your partners in building a more prosperous future.