Education under siege: A first-hand account from a UNLV professor

In refusing to raise taxes, Gov. Brian Sandoval is leaving UNLV with troubling decisions.
Photo: Justin M. Bowen
Lynn Comella, Ph.D.

Should the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents declare a state of financial exigency as a way of dealing with Gov. Brian Sandoval’s draconian cuts to higher education, I could be one of hundreds of professors at UNLV who would lose their jobs. My research profile (ranked “excellent” by my peers), teaching accomplishments (also ranked “excellent”) and service to the university (again, “excellent”) would amount to nothing. UNLV would be forced to eat its own in a perverse form of cannibalism, and I would become a faceless, nameless, cost-saving measure totaling $63,440.

There’s no way that I, or anyone else for that matter, could have predicted this scenario four years ago when I stepped onto campus for my job interview. Signs of growth were visible, and everyone I spoke with was excited about UNLV’s future. This was a university on the up-and-up, I was told. Come and be part of it.

By the time those of us who were hired that year arrived at UNLV in August 2007, the tone had changed dramatically. Nevada was already showing signs of the recession, and the first round of budget cuts was under way. We were asked to sit tight and weather the storm.


By the Numbers
53.7% Increase in undergraduate reg-istration fees (since Spring 2007)
63.3% Increase in graduate registration fees (since Spring 2007)
$5,465 Nevada students’ registration and other mandatory fees
$18,755 Out-of-state students’ tuition, registration and other mandatory fees
27% Budget cut since 2007
1,000 Fewer class sections since pre-recession
540 Fewer staff and faculty positions since pre-recession

But the storm has never subsided. In my short time at the university, state funding to UNLV has been slashed by more than 30 percent, an amount totaling $49.6 million. There have been hiring freezes, salary freezes, state-mandated pay cuts and the elimination of entire departments and degree programs. The assault on higher education has been relentless, and now Gov. Sandoval is proposing more cutbacks that could bring an additional $47.5 million in reductions to UNLV over the next two years—a plan that would leave a blighted, eviscerated university in its wake. It doesn’t take a degree in economics to recognize that dropping a bomb on higher education as a strategy for economic revitalization is just plain dumb.

Living with the threat of financial exigency is like staring down the barrel of a gun. Professors across campus are demoralized and beleaguered, and many of us have more questions than answers. It’s not clear, for example, if faculty who would lose their jobs under this emergency measure would qualify for unemployment benefits. Graduate students nearing completion of their Ph.D.s worry that their departments will be eliminated, and that they’ll be left shouldering student debt with no degree to show for it. And if UNLV were to lose its institutional accreditation, a distinct possibility should this plan come to fruition, students wonder if any degree from UNLV would be worth the paper it’s printed on.

I love my job and the life I’ve built for myself in Las Vegas, but it’s hard to remain optimistic when all I’ve known in my four years at UNLV is an academic institution under siege in a state where political leaders place no value on an educated citizenry. Every budget plan offers the same solutions: cuts targeted at the very institutions that should be shaping Nevada’s future.

I’ve talked frankly with students about what a declaration of financial exigency would mean for them and the value of their degrees. At the end of one such discussion last week, a student raised her hand: “Should this happen, and if you were a student at UNLV, would you stay and finish your degree?” she asked.

I was conflicted about how to answer. While I am deeply committed to providing students with the best education I can, I don’t want to give them the impression that Nevada lawmakers care about their futures when by every indication they don’t. At what point do you say, “Why pay to sit in a house on fire?”


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