Where was the outrage? More than 400 UNLV employees and students packed a town hall meeting on the second-floor ballroom of the UNLV Student Union last week to hear details about Gov. Jim Gibbons’ latest proposal to balance the state budget—cut another 8 percent from the university, an action that will surely devastate entire programs and cost untold jobs, not to mention the loss of upwards of 2,300 students, and all the revenue they bring to the city.
But the mood on this particular day was surprisingly ... normal. At times, it felt like I was watching the video for “Black Hole Sun,” with everyone putting on their best face even though something unimaginably horrible is on the way. Two guys behind me talked about their kids’ trips to the doctor, and how grateful they were to have such great health-care plans. To my left, a couple talked about their TV-watching habits: “I can’t believe how knowledgeable I’ve become watching Cash Cab,” one offered.
The only animosity I overheard was about the university’s own staff. After a loudspeaker announced that there were still some seats available up front, someone in the back muttered, “six-figure moderator.” But that’s about heated as it got. As President Neal Smatresk detailed the cuts the university has already suffered—since 2007, UNLV has lost $45 million a year, and that the proposed cuts would bring the total cut to 27 percent—he made sure to sprinkle some of the buzzwords meant to fire up a crowd–“taking pride,” “strength in unity,” “heroic measures.” Through all this, not a single hint of discord rippled through the crowd. It was downright civil. If Smatresk was trying to rally the troops, Gibbons can’t exactly be quaking in his boots right now.
System Chancellor Dan Klaich offered the bureaucratic equivalent of comic relief, drawing laughs with his facial expressions when asked about Gibbons, and his succinct answers (“yes”) to drawn-out questions. He indicated at the outset he hadn’t intended to speak, but probably did more talking than anyone that day. Looking like he really didn’t want to be in his suit, he called Las Vegas “the most impatient city I’ve ever seen in my life. People don’t want to hear the word ‘No,’” and pleaded, “This is the time we have to get outraged.” Applause, but little else.
“You’re all pretty quiet,” Regent Kevin Page admonished the gathering, telling everyone to call their legislator NOW. Nods, but little else.
Question-and-answer period arrived. Surely now would be the time to get a fire going. And sure enough, a woman from the classified staff stood and gave an impassioned plea on behalf of her division, some of whom “have cut their medications in half, cannot buy meat and are living out of their cars.” But like someone trying to start a wave, it fell dead on the crowd. A few words from Smatresk about how classified “gave ahead of everyone,” and that “we need to honor that,” and then it was on to the next question. No gasps. No yells. Just ... the way it is, apparently.
One member of the crowd asked a very telling question: Exactly what position are you telling us to take? Page replied, “We don’t need bullet points. Tell ’em what’s in your heart.” I got the feeling that what was in most hearts in the room that day was, “Give us bullet points!”
The question that seemed to draw the most interest from the crowd was that of the accreditation process, which is coming in April. Smatresk was cagey, offering, “We’ll be as united as we can to help preserve jobs,” and that despite the budget issues every campus is going through, “make sure you’re ready for the visit in April.” Throughout the room, “we are screwed” looks were exchanged.
Perhaps attendees are just waiting until the meeting’s over to plan their method of attack, I thought. But talk seemed to return to matters other than the future of most of these people’s jobs. One guy said, “I didn’t hear anything in there that I didn’t already know.” Call it ... righteous resignation. Goods and services may be cost more these days, but one thing that’s still free is getting pissed off. There just wasn’t much of it in the room that day.