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April 16, 2014

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UNLV:

Will budget cuts draw flame from spark of activism?

Some see response to threat of tuition increase as start

UNLV reduced the number of classes it offered. Favorite faculty members lost their jobs. Others took buyouts. Budget cuts made the fall semester a painful one for the state’s public colleges.

But not until the threat of a tuition hike materialized did students turn out to protest en masse.

Their showing — about 150 strong — at a December regents meeting prompted the following comments by Jim Rogers, chancellor of the public higher education system: “Let me say to the people in the back of the room that I am delighted that every one of you is here. My only question would be: Why has it taken you so long?”

His words reflected his long-held frustration over students’ apparent apathy in the face of budget reductions that could cripple public colleges.

Even as the chancellor rattles off weekly memos to legislators and the media expounding on the importance of higher education, students have largely remained mum in the public arena.

The silence is perhaps understandable. Most students at Southern Nevada’s public colleges work part time or full time in addition to attending classes. Few live on campus. At UNLV, about one in four undergraduates is 25 or older. Many of these older students have time-consuming obligations outside of school.

“The students that I talk to obviously have very busy lives,” said Steve Sisolak, a Clark County commissioner who was a regent for a decade. “I am amazed how many of the students are married, with families.”

Still, organizing students could prove worthwhile for people opposed to budget cuts.

A student-led movement, especially with an increasing number of young people voting, would be a powerful tool in swaying legislators against cuts. Nevada’s seven public colleges serve more than 100,000 students, or roughly one in 25 people in the state.

In the past, activism has come in spurts. A UNLV rally against budget cuts in late 2007 drew more than 200 people. Little activity followed in the months after.

But energized by the success of their December rally, student leaders are hopeful that efforts to organize their peers will continue yielding strong results. In conjunction with the December demonstration, more than 3,000 people signed letters protesting tuition increases.

“I honestly believe, and maybe I’m deluding myself, but I really do believe the students are waking up to this and (Rogers) will be pleased with the level of activism and involvement that students are going to begin to take,” said Adam Cronis, president of UNLV’s undergraduate student body.

A planned Jan. 22 demonstration supporting higher education will give student leaders a chance to prove themselves.

Student governments plan to distribute fliers on campus, place advertisements on cars, and use social networking sites and “the whole nine yards” to promote the event, which will feature speakers including politicians and business leaders, Cronis said.

“As representatives, elected representatives, of the student body and all that that means, I think we need to do more and we need to do better getting the message (about budget cuts) across,” he said.

Privately, many students grumble about problems reductions have caused. But whether they will show up to this month’s protest is another matter.

The main purpose of the December 2008 rally, after all, was to protest tuition hikes — not budget cuts. UNLV town hall meetings on the financial crisis attracted droves of staff and faculty members, but few students.

With the legislature convening soon, a strong turnout at this month’s demonstration could influence the budget cut debate. A poor showing would send the message that students don’t care — whether or not that’s the truth.

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