Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011 | 1:08 p.m.
UNLV President Neal Smatresk wants the recession-plagued university to play a key role in Nevada’s efforts to diversify its economy.
That message was clear this morning as Smatresk delivered his annual State of the University address.
In it, he spoke of linking the university's strengths to "enhanced cluster hiring," an economic development "interface with regional stakeholders" and pursuit of a research agenda that could help transform the Southern Nevada economy. All are popular concepts among the political, business and academic leaders seeking to broaden the region's tattered economic base.
Their strategies are key components of the university's efforts to restore state and federal financial support while making an appeal for additional private-sector funding for university programs, all of which they argue will lay the foundation for Nevada's economic future.
"These are critical features for UNLV. We won't get there without your help," Smatresk told the 350 people gathered at Artemus Ham Concert Hall. "I need your best ideas. I need to know when you're seeing barriers as to how to serve students and this region better."
Smatresk presented a brief video designed to rally the crowd, its tone reminiscent of an upbeat coach’s half-time speech.
"Yes we've been down, but this is Las Vegas. Don't ever count us out. It all starts and ends with education," said a narrator, who also spoke of a investing in the education of our youth, providing them with a better future.
Audience members rose to their feet, applauding.
It has been a difficult three years for UNLV, which like the University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada State College and the College of Southern Nevada, has endured multiple budget cuts, with a significant number of faculty members retiring or departing for jobs at other universities.
Support staff members, many of whom earn about $30,000 annually, have experienced reductions in pay, benefits and hours, forcing some to apply for food stamps. Faculty members have launched a campuswide food drive to help feed the men and woman who clean UNLV’s bathrooms and manage the day-to-day workings of individual departments.
"Anybody who knows me, knows I'm hopeful. I can't constantly live in a world where I look down. I believe our budget is stable," Smatresk said. "I believe we are at rock bottom."
Tuition increases have helped make up some of the lost funding, but the increases also have hurt students who lack the resources to meet the rising price tag. Some have dropped out. Others continue to go to school but are taking fewer classes.
Smatresk believes the university has seen the worst of reductions in faculty, administration, support staff and course reductions amid the toughest economy in 70 years and the ensuing federal, state and local budget crises. More tuition increases might be needed to retain and hire faculty members while continuing to offer key courses.
"We hope that it will be reasonable," he said, noting the money is needed for financial aid, scholarships and to attract "top-notch" faculty.
"But we can't do that without funding. We don't have a lot of room to expand."
The university does have $1 million to hire new faculty members but, he noted, it’s "a raindrop in the desert for trying to restore the cuts and benefits our faculty are currently facing. We're going to need a legislative solution to restore nationally competitive salaries and benefits to our faculty."
A student asked Smatresk why she and others should continue to attend the university amid the rising cost of classes.
His answer: UNLV remains "cheaper" than similar universities and continues to offers respected programs in engineering, hotel and information technology management.
The latter has the potential to build a significant partnership with SWITCH Communications, the privately owned high-speed communication center in Las Vegas, which reportedly handles data for Fortune 500 companies, defense contractors and national security agencies.
Meanwhile, the higher education funding process requires that all tuition dollars be transferred from individual universities to state government, which then employs multiple formulas to parcel out those dollars to all of the state's college and universities.
UNLV officials were vocal during the recent legislative session about their opposition to that process, which they say takes much more money from the university than is returned, a practice the UNLV president said he is committed to changing.