Thursday, March 12, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Jim Rogers, chancellor of Nevada's higher education system, has long called for more faculty and student participation in protesting budget cuts to state colleges. Toward that end, he's pushed officials at the College of Southern Nevada and UNLV to ask employees to contact their legislators, at one point saying he wanted 50 people a day from those schools to do so. Here are excerpts from some e-mails showing how the chancellor is mobilizing opposition to budget cuts.
- Download the e-mails
Beyond the Sun
As the state university system wages a battle against budget cuts, Chancellor Jim Rogers is marshaling on-campus forces in a lobbying campaign aimed at legislators.
Around the time the legislative session started, Rogers told high-ranking officials at UNLV and the College of Southern Nevada that he wanted people from each school making 50 contacts with state lawmakers each day. Rogers has the schools providing his office with daily updates on those lobbying efforts. At UNLV the assistant president/chief of staff in early February sent an e-mail to campus leaders, including deans and department heads, instructing them to tell the president’s office who had contacted legislators each day. A list of “talking points” attached to the note outlined UNLV’s legislative priorities.
The higher education system, Rogers said, “has a right and an obligation to tell legislators” how state money would be best invested. Having employees contact lawmakers is a way of “informing the legislators of what the system does — so the legislators can make informed decisions on what can be done with the system,” Rogers said.
The e-mails are just one facet of a top-down effort to orchestrate opposition to budget cuts. Some student and faculty leaders participated in advocacy workshops. Employees in Rogers’ office and on campuses compile information for weekly budget memos that often call for raising taxes.
Staff helped craft public service announcements promoting education that play for free on TV stations Rogers owns. The broadcasts direct viewers to a Web site run by higher education employees that encourages people to protest funding reductions.
Rogers even encouraged university system employees to vote in an online Las Vegas Sun poll on whether Nevada should raise taxes.
Many faculty members have welcomed the push for advocacy, saying taking part is clearly optional. Some gush about Rogers’ leadership. Others brush off the chancellor’s appeals, too busy to respond.
Nevada administrative code prohibits classified employees from lobbying for a political party or candidate at work. But the higher education system staff can use public resources such as
e-mail to contact lawmakers about budget cuts, as long as the use is limited, the system’s chief counsel said.
The system has paid lobbyists, and administrators tell workers to represent themselves, not their institutions, when interacting with legislators.
The degree to which other colleges involve staff in advocacy varies.
In a January message on budget cuts, UCLA’s chancellor directed readers to a Web site with links to resources on “how to help.” Arizona State University e-mailed employees with information on contacting lawmakers, but a primary purpose of the message was to instruct staff not to do so using school time or equipment.
At UNLV some administrators passed the assistant president’s directions to lower-level employees. The Academic Success Center dean, for instance, e-mailed staff to say, “It is incumbent upon you and me to be proactive and contact our legislators to make our case not to cut funding for Education. Please consider writing to your representatives.” The dean asked workers who reached out to legislators to let her assistant know.
Julie Tousa, acting president of the Nevada Center for Public Ethics, sees no problem with asking workers to promote a cause as long as participation is optional and workers do not face repercussions for not getting involved.
After reviewing university system e-mails related to the advocacy effort, however, Tousa called Rogers’ request for 50 contacts a day “excessive.”
“I can see staff feeling pressure to participate and it no longer feeling optional,” she said.
But although UNLV and CSN administrators relay to Rogers’ office daily the number of people who contacted legislators, they keep participants’ names confidential. Officials also don’t ask about the content of communications with lawmakers.
That doesn’t assuage Rogers’ critics such as Ron Knecht, a fiscally conservative higher education regent. Knecht agrees with Rogers that the governor’s recommendation to cut the college system’s state funding by more than a third is excessive — but takes issue with the chancellor’s methods.
“A lot of voters and taxpayers will have a real concern about whether we’re taking care of the business of education or spending a lot of time needlessly playing politics,” Knecht said after reading e-mails related to Rogers’ call for 50 contacts a day.
The daily contacts, though, may prove effective, building a foundation for legislators who want to see more funding for education.
“This isn’t the only place we are getting good mail coverage, but the university system is a special case,” Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, said. He said the “most articulate e-mails” have come from university personnel. “They are well thought-out. They were the best I’ve seen in many years that I have served here. They were not just cookie-cutter letters.”
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said the e-mails have made it very clear that “there is really outrage from the university community that their budgets are being cut so drastically.”
“We get hundreds of e-mails every day, and e-mails do have an effect.”
Sun Capital Bureau Chief Cy Ryan contributed to this story.