Las Vegas Sun

September 14, 2014

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Would UNLV budget cuts turn off donor spigot?

UNLV officials worry that the collateral damage of an 8 percent cut to state funding being proposed by Gov. Jim Gibbons could be that donors would not be so generous in the future.

On Thursday, Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Jim Rogers sent Gibbons a document detailing the reductions that could occur at UNLV and UNR if the state mandates that the institutions slash their budgets.

UNLV officials came up with a list of possible cuts that could affect staffing, programs, facilities, student services and infrastructure. The document says, "This should be considered an early list of potential options," not a blueprint of "actual reductions."

Among budgets that UNLV could slash is that of the Black Mountain Institute, a literary think tank, which relies heavily on private money. Delaying the opening of two campus buildings that received millions of dollars in private donations is also suggested as a way to save money.

"UNLV believes that the impact of these decisions would be significant, including the loss of faith by donors who have supported these major facility projects," the document says.

The proportion of UNLV's budget that comes from the state has dropped from 46 percent to 37.5 percent over the past two decades. And like other major universities across the country, UNLV is in the midst of a fundraising campaign, hoping to raise $500 million by 2008.

Bill Boldt, vice president for advancement at UNLV, said the school would consult with donors before taking any actions that could affect programs in which donors have invested. He added that delaying the opening of buildings would be a last resort.

But Gerry Bomotti, vice president for business and finance at the school, said UNLV might have to make some unsavory choices in the future. He said part of the problem for the university is that there's no way to predict how large the governor's request will become, because it jumped from 5 percent to 8 percent in about a month.

UNLV President David Ashley suspects donors might be less willing to give to UNLV if the school can't keep promises such as opening buildings on time.

"They'd be frustrated and some may be angry, and they believe there is a mutual commitment," he said. "They put their part in for it, and they expect the university and the system and the state to honor their part."

Ashley might be right.

Brian Greenspun, whose family owns the Las Vegas Sun and donated $37 million toward a UNLV building scheduled to open by summer, said he was upset to hear the university would consider delaying the structure's opening. The building, Greenspun Hall, will house programs such as journalism and media studies.

Pushing back the opening of that building and a new science and engineering building that received more than $5 million in donations would save UNLV $7 million to $8 million over two years. But at what future cost?

"People are reluctant to do business with people who don't keep their word," Greenspun said.

"We would not only be unwilling to give money in the future, we would feel that the university has reneged on its agreement on when and how it was going to open Greenspun Hall," he added.

And the effect of a large budget cut would not necessarily be limited to people who have already given to the university.

Donors expect the state to provide basic support for higher education, and they might be less likely to contribute if they see public funding and programs diminished, Boldt said.

Rogers and his wife, for example, give $700,000 each year to UNLV's law school. Slashing 8 percent of UNLV's budget could entail cutting law school funding by about $700,000 annually. Rogers said when he saw that he thought, "That's an absurdity. You take that money (away) and you want ours."

It's difficult to estimate the extent to which a budget cut would affect donors' willingness to give down the line.

The document Rogers sent the governor suggested the specter of budget reductions might have already jeopardized a $25 million gift from the Harrah's Foundation that could help pay for an academic building at UNLV.

But Ashley, Boldt and Thom Reilly, Harrah's Foundation executive director, said that wasn't the case.

"We're continuing our partnership with enthusiasm," Reilly said.

Rogers said given his heavy involvement with the higher education system, he wouldn't stop giving to the law school even if the university had to cut its budget.

But, he added, other donors might not have his level of personal commitment.

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