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July 29, 2014

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Daily Memo: Higher Education:

UNLV cuts recruiting frills to disarm fiscal hawks

Fancy dinners, stays at swank hotels aren’t uncommon, but officials aren’t taking any chances

Beyond the Sun

The culture of academia, including at public universities, calls for a level of pomp.

Candidates for top higher education jobs often enjoy fine dining and other perks while interviewing. Prospective students judge universities not only by their academic merits, but by the quality of recreation centers and social offerings on and around campus.

One result of Nevada’s financial crisis, however, is that UNLV is curtailing spending on frills, university officials say.

The College of Engineering shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to subsidize a private Blue Man Group show in early 2008 for participants in a high school robotics competition UNLV hosts. Now, with budget cuts, “we could not sponsor such an event,” Engineering Dean Eric Sandgren said.

In 2007 the university spent $576 on a dinner for eight at the Four Seasons Hotel while hosting an applicant for the higher education system’s position of executive vice chancellor of health sciences. Also that year, the school paid $839.80 for a three-day stay at the Ritz-Carlton for job candidate Bill Boldt, now UNLV’s vice president for advancement.

But as an indication that times have changed, UNLV President David Ashley said, “we have been paring back recruitment costs dramatically over the last year plus. We remain quite concerned and are continuing to limit such expenditures.”

He doesn’t want spending to haunt administrators the next time they make the argument to legislators and the public that the school has always been underfunded and has now been cut to the bone.

UNLV covered the Blue Man Group performance and recruitment expenses with overhead money it received from agencies that sponsor research, such as the National Science Foundation. When faculty members secure funding for projects, a portion goes to schools to reimburse them for overhead costs such as utilities.

UNLV leverages this money to support more externally funded research, and much of it covers expenses such as laboratory renovations and conference registration fees.

But the reimbursements, which topped $11 million in fiscal 2008, are one of the university’s largest sources of unrestricted revenue — money administrators can spend however they want within the limits of the law.

Purchases such as the show tickets, dinners and hotel stays, though not unusual for a school the size of UNLV, are the type that give fiscal conservatives ammunition in their battles against big government.

The College Republicans, the governor and others raised questions, for instance, about a $15,736.20 desk and matching peninsula that UNLV bought in late 2007 for Ashley’s office using overhead reimbursements.

Expenses UNLV charged to overhead accounts in 2008 while recruiting high-level administrators included a $190 dinner for three at the Bellagio’s Sensi and a $380 dinner for four at Spago, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant.

That summer, with the governor asking state agencies to plan for 14 percent budget cuts, the university spent $1,975.48 in overhead money on an extra large white board for Executive Vice President and Provost Neal Smatresk’s office, which doubles as a conference room. The price covered the delivery, installation and cost of the wall-mounted board, which has doors that shut to prevent visitors from seeing information written on it.

In explaining the purchase, Smatresk said that when he started at UNLV in 2007, “I moved into the provost’s office ‘as is,’ accepting no modifications, and furnishings that are over 13 years old.”

Sandgren, the engineering dean, called the Blue Man Group performance targeted advertising. The robotics contest draws top students from across the country, and the show gave UNLV an opportunity to “get exposure to this national audience,” he said.

The College of Engineering spent $85,329 on 1,710 tickets, but recouped $34,121 from attendees, said Gerry Bomotti, UNLV’s senior vice president for finance and business.

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