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November 24, 2014

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Gibbons’ budget would kill higher ed

In January, Gov. Jim Gibbons presented his executive budget for the 2009-11 biennium, including a $475 million cut in the Nevada higher education budget — a cut amounting to more than one third of the prior budget.

In fact, the cuts in higher education total about 75 percent of all of the budget cuts proposed by the governor. The scope is devastating and is shocking with its burden on only one part of the state’s budget.

The governor claims we in higher education didn’t cooperate in the budget-cutting process. That is not true.

The Board of Regents, in December, presented the governor with a written and specific methodology for reducing the budget by 14.12 percent. The board told the governor, in writing, that while cuts of that magnitude would do great harm, cuts beyond that level would be devastating. The governor’s office never contacted the board for more information.

The governor said Nevada spends, on average, a higher proportion of our state budget on higher education than other states. That statement is misleading.

Just because a poor man spends a larger proportion of his income on food than does a rich man, it doesn’t mean the poor man is eating well. Nevada is in the bottom third in terms of actual dollars spent per capita on higher education.

With the proposed cuts, saving the core functions at UNR and UNLV, would mean all five of the other colleges in the state would have to be cut. To save those other colleges would mean eliminating UNR or UNLV. In either scenario, we would be forced to do away with the medical school, the dental school and the law school.

The governor tells us to raise tuition and fees, raise money from private sources, and become more efficient. If we relied on tuition to raise needed funding, we would be forced to increase tuition to as much as three times its present level at some institutions.

The increased fee levels are well above average fees charged by our neighboring states, which would reverse a long-held fee policy in this state to keep college affordable for Nevadans. Of course, many students who could afford fee increases would undoubtedly leave Nevada. Those who could not afford the astronomical tuition would simply forgo higher education altogether. Without those students paying the increased tuition, the result would be drastically lower revenue.

Successful fundraising is a time-consuming and difficult process, taking many months or even years to accomplish. Even more important, experience teaches us clearly that donors don’t give to state institutions to cover operating expenses — they give for special projects that enhance basic operating budgets, which the state is supposed to provide. It is impossible for our system to raise $475 million, or even a meaningful part of that figure, before June 30, when our next budget cycle starts.

“Efficiency” is the familiar mantra for those who impose budget cuts. Institutional efficiencies are vital, but they are typically measured in increments of 5 percent or possibly 10 percent.

If we just kept professors and teachers in the classroom, and nothing more, the budget cuts the governor seeks to impose would force us to do away with all intercollegiate athletics, advising, counseling, student services, administrators, use of buildings (because we would have no operational funding), accounting and business operations, computer services, libraries, research, publications and myriad other services required to operate a campus.

Further, we would undoubtedly lose our institutional accreditation, thus rendering our graduates’ degrees valueless.

The governor’s budget would, for all practical purposes, eliminate higher education in Nevada in any semblance of the form that we know now. We can only hope the Legislature has a more sensible vision of our future.

Michael B. Wixom, chairman of the higher education system’s Board of Regents, lives in Las Vegas, and Jason Geddes, vice chairman of the Board of the Regents, lives in Reno.

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