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UNLV aspires to be Tier 1 university in 5 to 15 years, president says

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Christopher DeVargas

UNLV President Neal Smatresk speaks to students and faculty during the State of the University address, Thursday Sept. 12, 2013.

2013 UNLV State of the University Address

UNLV President Neal Smatresk speaks to students and faculty during the State of the University address, Thursday Sept. 12, 2013. Launch slideshow »

In the next two decades, UNLV will become a Tier-1 research university, mentioned in the same breath as the universities of Michigan, Oregon and Washington.

That’s the vision of President Neal Smatresk, who announced a long-term plan for UNLV to become a top-100 college during his annual State of the University address Thursday.

“We want to be a top choice university,” Smatresk said. “We want every kid in Nevada to say ‘I want to go to UNLV.’”

It’s a lofty goal, but one that Smatresk believes is attainable for UNLV, a relatively small and young institution that faces an uphill battle to become Tier 1. Las Vegas is the largest metropolitan city without a Tier-1 university.

UNLV is currently classified as a Tier-2, “High Research” university under the Carnegie Classification of Institutions, which Smatresk called the gold standard of college rankings. Carnegie looks at a university’s degree granting and research capacity, among other factors.

There are 99 research universities with the Tier-2, “High Research” classification, representing the top 4.5 percent of the nation’s colleges.

However, Smatresk wants UNLV to be classified as a Tier-1 “Very High Research.” There are 108 research universities with that highest classification, representing the top 2.3 percent of colleges nationally.

UNLV has long aspired to become a Tier-1 research university. Since the 1990s, UNLV presidents have championed the university’s goal of becoming the “Harvard of the West.”

“It’s ambitious, but it’s not out of line with (what) other states (are doing),” Smatresk said. “We need to do this for our state. We need to do this now.”

Colorado and Utah made significant investments into their higher education systems in recent years, translating to more Nobel Prize winning faculty and a Tier-1 classification. Smatresk wants the same trajectory for UNLV.

A Tier-1 research university in Las Vegas — and Nevada — would double or triple UNLV’s current $1.5 billion economic impact, Smatresk said.

A top-tier UNLV also would create a highly qualified workforce that can attract new businesses, bring in large federal grants and private industry contracts and create new patent-winning inventions and businesses to spur Nevada’s lagging economy.

Smatresk wants UNLV to become a Tier-1 university from five to 15 years from now. “It’s a reasonable time (frame) to breach to the top 100,” he said.

However, Smatresk acknowledged that UNLV faces many challenges in becoming a top-tier university.

UNLV is largely a commuter school with a lackluster football program that doesn’t engender the passionate alumni fanbase that bolsters alumni giving. The university also is a minority-serving institution that caters to many first generation college students. It’s a diversity that Smatresk is proud of, but acknowledges is a more difficult population to get to the graduation stage.

Furthermore, UNLV is woefully underfunded, underenrolled and understaffed when compared with Tier-1 research universities.

To bridge the resource gap, UNLV must generate at least $40 million in the short-term from the state and the local community to hire more faculty and put more money to research.

However, that doesn’t include any money for capital improvement projects and only represents half of what UNLV lost in the recession.

To truly further its Tier-1 aspirations and compete among the best universities nationally, UNLV will need hundreds of millions of additional dollars to support a larger university, Smatresk said. Furthermore, UNLV needs more research space, particularly biology, chemistry and technology laboratories, to help expand its studies of health sciences, gaming and unmanned aerial systems, he added.

Getting the financial support from regents, lawmakers and taxpayers for a Tier-1 UNLV will be difficult as Nevada slowly pulls out of the recession. Funding for education and new school buildings is tight, and UNLV will be competing against its sister Nevada colleges and universities as well as the Clark County School District for more money.

“It’s ridiculous we have to compete,” Smatresk said. “We’re pitting young kids against old kids. But if you want to build our state economy, you have to invest in higher education.”

Students also will have to shoulder the burden of UNLV’s ambitions to become a Tier-1 university.

UNLV students, who have among the lowest tuition costs in the country and graduate with among the lowest debt nationally, will face higher tuition rates, Smatresk said.

“We’ll need modest tuition increases,” Smatresk said. “It’s necessary, but it has to be a slow, steady and multistep plan. We want our students to be able to prepare for them.”

• • •

When compared with current Tier-1 research universities, UNLV is woefully underfunded, under-enrolled and understaffed.

That’s according to President Neal Smatresk, who launched a new initiative Thursday to help UNLV become a top-tier research university.

To match the caliber of other Tier-1 institutions, such as the universities of Colorado-Boulder, Oregon and Utah, Smatresk said UNLV needs the following:

    • 3,000 more students.



      Currently, UNLV has about 27,364 undergraduate and graduate students.

      For comparison, the universities of Utah and Colorado each have more than 31,000 students.

    • 300 more faculty members, requiring $40 million more in state funding.



      Currently, UNLV has about 780 full-time faculty members.

      For comparison, the University of Utah as more than 3,000 full-time faculty members.

    • Between 2 million and 4 million more gross square feet of research space, requiring $40 million annual increase in capital investments.



      Currently, UNLV devotes 201,320 gross square feet of space to research facilities, such as biology and chemical laboratories. This represents 3.3 percent of the university’s total space.

      For comparison, the University of Utah devotes 902,969 gross square feet of space, or 9.3 percent of its total space, to research.

    • Double the amount research dollars, including an $80 million increase in sponsored research per year.



      Currently, UNLV spends $37.7 million annually on research, receiving $30 million from the federal government for research.

      For comparison, the University of Colorado-Boulder spends $372 million annually on research, receiving $313 million from the federal government for research.

    • A $300 million increase in its endowment, helped by a $60 million increase in annual gifts.



      Currently, UNLV has an endowment worth $168.6 million and it received $30.3 million in gifts during the 2010-’11 school year.

      For comparison, the University of Utah’s endowment is worth $668.7 million, and it received $140.7 million in gifts during the 2010-’11 school year.

    • A $300 million increase in revenues, from the state, student tuition and fees and federal grants.



      Currently, UNLV’s annual revenues total $545.6 million.

      For comparison, the University of Utah has annual revenues of over $3 billion.

    • A 20 percent increase in graduation rate for undergraduate students.



      Currently, UNLV’s six-year graduation rate is 42 percent.

      For comparison, Arizona State University’s graduation rate is 57 percent and University of Colorado-Boulder’s graduation rate is 68 percent.

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