The Governor Strikes Back

January 20, 2009

Since last summer the governor has told the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE, that includes UNR) to plan for a budget reduction. Some of that reduction has taken place, and we have lost valuable colleagues, student and faculty services and funding support. Since the beginning of the budget discussions the UNR administration has never known the exact or even approximate amount of budget cut for which to plan. The chancellor has exerted control over the message from NSHE to the governor, legislators, the public and, to some degree, even within the campuses themselves. In spite of that, President Glick has tried to keep the campus informed with his town hall meetings. However, even at those meetings he could not provide much detail because the magnitude of cuts was still unknown. It wasn’t until a special December Board of Regents meeting a budget reflecting a 14% reduction went from the Board to the Governor. The Board would not send budgets reflecting even deeper cuts as the governor requested because the methodology used to plan larger cuts would have to be different from that used to plan a 14% cut. Our campus has been working towards that general figure since last summer, but still that figure was a guess.

Well, the governor’s state of the state budget message Thursday night removed the ambiguity about the magnitude of the cuts. Nearly 75% of the state shortfall has been targeted to Nevada higher education. (See  http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2009/jan/16/jon-ralston-cutting-educations-nose-spite-rogers-f for some speculation about the reasons for specific targeting of higher education.) The budget details are contained in about 3,000 pages of budget information, but the bottom line is that UNR as a whole is targeted for a 36% budget cut. The governor’s budget targets for the University itself (not counting the medical school, athletics, etc.) approaches 50%. While I personally believe the legislature will not pass a budget that severe, the cut will be somewhere between 14% to 36%. I’d like to be wrong about this, but it will take a creative legislative plan to addresses the revenue shortfall inflicted on higher education.

Where Are We Now? 

There is an upcoming pre-legislative hearing where we may get an indication of how disposed the legislature is to redress this effort to dismantle higher education. There is also a Board of Regents meeting February 5th -6th where a Board with three new members will try to delineate a strategy for carrying our case to the legislature and probably start discussing contingency plans. On February 12th, President Glick will host a Town Hall where all are invited to provide input and ask questions. I will announce coffee meetings open for interested faculty to talk directly with me informally and directly. New information and rumors will be unfolding at an ever accelerating pace as the legislative session moves forward. If you have not been reading the chancellors weekly missives (you are the only person in Nevada spared), you know that he states that 54 of the 63 members of the legislature have indicated some level of support for NSHE and higher education. It remains to be seen as to whether these statements will translate into any kind of meaningful action.

It is simply impossible to be anything but outraged by the governor’s disregard for the NSHE, the mission, the faculty, the students, and economic contribution the university makes to the state. The tone of the conversation has changed. This budget is both a blow to the health of our university and an insult to the hard work of all the members of our university community. The decision to gut NSHE while touting economic diversification is absurd. To ignore the economic contribution of the university is an astounding oversight. To advocate that a tuition increase can address the problem requires that one thinks students can’t multiply. If we passed this shortfall onto students, tuition would increase from about $4,000 per year to about $13,000 in the fall. Arguments that there is no need for a comprehensive university implies Nevada has no role in the generation of knowledge, no shortage of the sophisticated workforce new energy technologies require and no shortage of synergies between innovation and industry – all incredibly uninformed positions.

Every individual faculty member has the right to make whatever political statements he or she wishes. I am sure many of you are intending to enter into the public political discussion. There will be coordinated efforts by various parts of the university community to speak out to legislators and communicate a coherent message about Nevada higher education. There will be some coordinated activities on campus and in Carson City. I think one thing that might be particularly effective is for those of you who know legislators to call them and respectfully make whatever argument you believe will be most effective. Direct contact can be extremely useful and is the least easy feedback to ignore. Phone calls are meaningful as well. It is the legislators who will have to propose an alternative budget and vote in large enough numbers to override the likely governor’s veto. If you have any contacts or have influence yourself, now is the time to use it.

In my next blog I will describe the importance of participating in campus planning for how to allocate our resources so that we can make the best decisions possible about how to deal with whatever cuts eventually do emerge. In the meantime, this message is primarily to tell you that if you want to share any strategies or ask questions, the senate office is at your disposal. I think coordinated activity is likely to be better than uncoordinated effort, but each of you must decide how you want to represent our university’s interests.

Bill Follette
Chair, Faculty Senate


How Big is Higher Education?

January 17, 2009

In his budget proposal, Governor Gibbons claimed that Nevada pays a relatively high share of its General Fund expenditures on higher education, and so he proposes balancing the state’s revenue shortfall by cutting higher education spending by more than a third. The proposal cuts UNR’s instructional budget by half, and UNLV’s by more than that. Oddly enough, the Governor proposes hardly any cut for our athletics budgets, so our students will have football games to attend but no professors to take classes from.

One of my own professors once handed me a book called “How to Lie with Statistics.” The point of the book, of course, was to teach us NOT to do that, and how to recognize when it is being done by others. One of the lessons I remember was that if somebody wants to make a number look relatively big, they will divide it by a number that is relatively small. So when I heard the Governor’s statistic, I was skeptical.

First, how much are we talking about? During the last budget go-round, General Fund expenditures were roughly $3.3 billion per year, which sounds like a lot until you learn that the Gross State Product of Nevada was $130 billion dollars. State support of higher education totaled about $830 million, about 0.65% of state output. For those who claim higher education spending is out of control, two decades ago this share was 0.62%. Governor Gibbons now proposes a cut of 36% to this amount.

That is, to avoid having to come up with a tax equal to a fourth of a penny on each dollar we earn, Governor Gibbons is willing to destroy Nevada’s system of higher education.

And don’t kid yourself, because that is what this will do. Even if the proposal is dead on arrival in the Legislature, as I expect it will be, and even if he only made the proposal to poke a stick in Chancellor Rogers’ eye, Governor Gibbons has damaged us. Many of our faculty are distraught by this attack. We compete on national markets, and those faculty best able to find jobs elsewhere – our most nationally recognized scholars – will be among the first ones who leave. We have also been trying to keep our best students in Nevada, but now those who have been accepted at out-of-state schools will think twice before staying here, and when they leave, they won’t come back.

So what about the Governor’s preferred statistic? I already knew that Nevada has the smallest number of state employees as a share of state population, and the smallest share of state expenditures as a share of state output. But when I looked it up, I also found – for the most recent year that comparable data was available – that Nevada’s General Fund as a share of the state economy totaled only half of the national average, and was the lowest of the 50 states. Divide any number by something that small, and it will somehow appear bigger.

Let’s put the size of higher education in more meaningful proportions. As a share of our economy, our total expenditures on higher education are 50th in the nation. Because our net tuition revenue is relatively low (though California’s is lower), we are not actually the lowest in educational appropriations from the state, but these appropriations are still a fifth less than the national average. Relative to population, we are also 50th in the number of employees in higher education, and a third fewer Nevadans are enrolled in higher education than in the rest of the country. Take more than another third from that, as our Governor proposes, and we become a third world country. If you care about Nevada’s future, it is time to put your foot down and say, “enough!”

Elliott Parker, Chair-Elect


More posts on the budget issues

January 15, 2009

Regent Cobb said to us on his last visit that we should get more involved in trying to get our story out. I have been doing this the last month or so, and thought senators might want to know what I’m saying on their behalf.

The memo I wrote to Milt on 12-1 got sent around the state by the Chancellor. I wrote an Op-ed column in the Reno Gazette Journal, titled
Small government can hurt growth
.

and another in the Las Vegas Sun, Does our state government have a spending problem?

Former Senator Bob Beers wrote a “rebuttal” in the Las Vegas Review-Journal the following week: http://www.lvrj.com/opinion/36798264.html

And I wrote a reply in the Sun:
How much more state government can be cut?

I also wrote another memo to Milt on Jan. 1 regarding a look at state budgets over the last couple of decades, and another today to answer a number of people who said I should also offer solutions. Both are on my website, at http://www.business.unr.edu/faculty/parker, but in the latter memo I made clear I was NOT speaking as chair-elect, since some of my suggestions were likely not to be shared by others, including Bill — he told me so himself.

Elliott Parker, Chair-Elect