Smatresk on Sandoval's proposed cuts: 'Almost unimaginable'

Governor’s plan would mean 27.5 percent cut to UNLV

Brian Sandoval. Courtesy Photo.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed a cut in state higher education funding that he says will result in a 17.6 percent overall reduction, but he has promised to preserve the Millennium Scholarship.­­

Public funds allocated to the Nevada System of Higher Education would drop by less than 7 percent according to Sandoval’s plan.

However, counting the loss of one-time federal stimulus money that helped keep colleges and universities afloat in the last biennium, the actual shrinkage will be much greater.

In the Democratic response to Sandoval’s State of the State address Monday in which the governor released the budget, Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, said NSHE could suffer reductions of up to 36 percent by some estimates.

UNLV President Neal Smatresk estimated that UNLV, which has seen a $49.6 million loss in funding since 2007 — about 27 percent —would see further reductions of 27.5 percent if Sandoval’s budget makes it through the Legislature.

That would amount to a total loss of 52.5 percent since the onset of budget cuts four years ago.

“The cuts we took over the last four years would be replicated over two years,” Smatresk said, pointing out that UNLV now serves more students than it did when the reductions began.

“The level of this cut is almost unimaginable in terms of the consequences it would have on UNLV and higher education,” he said.

Smatresk said he cannot yet react to the proposal as though it was fact. The board of regents will still have work to do appropriating the cuts even if lawmakers were to accept Sandoval’s proposal as-is — an unlikely prospect.

“It’s not even prudent for me to react or to try to plan for a number that I don’t honestly feel can possibly hold,” Smatresk said, “because it would incite a reasonable amount of panic.”

Sandoval acknowledged concerns that if the Legislature under his administration cuts more from the already slimmed-down NSHE budget, Nevada’s colleges and universities might be forced to make significant changes.

Smatresk described two ends of the spectrum of possibilities if Sandoval’s proposal was to be adopted.

“They could force us to become the lowest-cost big institution in the country,” he said, describing a future UNLV that functioned like a large-scale junior college, with no graduate or professional programs and class sizes around 200.

“Or we could become a very small and quite expensive university,” he said, “which would certainly deny access to thousands and thousands of worthwhile students.”

Sandoval asserted that big changes might do the system good.

“Perhaps a new system is precisely what we need in this new era,” he said, citing statistics that show graduation rates at or below 50 percent for different facets of the system.

“Is it wrong that we admit some students that can’t make it?” Smatresk said in response. ” Is it wrong that there are students who come here and find that they don’t have the means to graduate? Is it wrong that we have students who move on and go elsewhere or have a life situation change?”
Sandoval described NSHE as “broken,” but Smatresk squarely disagreed.

“We’re not broken,” he said. “We do a phenomenal job with the resources we’re given in generating graduates for this region.”

Pointing to progress over the last three years in developing metrics for retention, rethinking general education requirements and establishing the Academic Success Center, Smatresk said the evidence shows UNLV is strong, given its circumstances.

With a view toward reinventing higher education, Sandoval said he will push to grant the NSHE Board of Regents autonomy over tuition.

Sandoval encouraged higher education leaders even before the release of his budget to increase student fees, and his office has been outspoken in pointing out that Nevada schools have low tuition compared to neighboring states.

But Smatresk responded that tuition hikes alone cannot close the gap Sandoval’s cut would produce.

“While I have been very open about saying that tuition change is in our future,” Smatresk said, “tuition change of this magnitude would be irresponsible.”

He explained that the proposed reduction would compromise UNLV’s obligations to provide excellent education and access.

“It would drive out enrollment and it would cause many students who are currently pursuing their dreams of education to simply not be able to continue,” Smatresk said.

Oceguera said the cost such a cut would confer on students would be unworkable.

“We must have a strong higher education system,” Oceguera said, “and we can’t price the cost of a college education out of the reach of Nevada students and Nevada families.”

But Sandoval expressed support for increased financial aid, proposing the allocation of $10 million to the Millennium Scholarship Fund and seeking to balance tuition hikes against access.

“I would … ask that at least 15 percent of any increased tuition be reserved to ensure access for those who need financial aid,” he said.

He called for greater attention to student achievement indicators and stronger links between college education and economic development. But he suggested that some of the data that shows low achievement might reflect most on teachers.

“We have great principals and outstanding college professors,” Sandoval said, “but there are also some who have no business teaching or serving as an administrator.”

But Oceguera suggested that performance is linked directly to funding and that Sandoval’s proposal would leave Nevada behind the competition.

“The governor is trying to save money by cutting per-pupil spending and we understand that,” Oceguera said, “but he is setting us on a course to drop from a lowly ranking of 46th among the states to becoming dead last.”

In K-12 education, Sandoval called for an end to teacher tenure and the elimination of programs that reward longevity and advanced degree attainment, but he asked for heavier reliance on achievement data. The governor’s budget would see the reallocation of some state monies that have traditionally been designated for education.

Sandoval called for legislators to use room tax revenue, that now funds teacher salaries, for other purposes, saying the move would “defray the costs of overall education spending.”

He also proposed monetizing the state insurance premium tax proceeds, which he estimated would bring in $190 million and help prevent further reductions in state services. He also called for a 50 percent increase in state spending on the Commission on Economic Development.

In addition, he asked for the formation of a new entity called Nevada Jobs Unlimited, which would enlist public- and private-sector leaders, including representatives of higher education, in the task of creating solutions to the state’s joblessness problem.

In all, Sandoval placed General Fund expenditures at $5.8 billion under his plan — within 1 percent of 2007 levels.

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