By Douglas Unger
The 80th session of the Legislature saw a great deal achieved: clean energy policy, criminal justice reform, increasing the minimum wage, background checks on gun sales, a pro-choice abortion bill, and more. I don’t know why our politicians, including Gov. Sisloak, didn’t consider higher education more integral to these achievements. Nevada’s 7,000 faculty and 100,000 + students turned out as never before to vote for these leaders, and our research and scholarship supported and defined progressive goals.
Welcome to Nevada politics: high expectations turned to disappointment.
This year, both UNLV and UNR celebrated R1 “research highest” status, for the first time ranked among the top 131 universities in the nation. Oblivious to this milestone, the Legislature chose to cut research funding by roughly $30 million, most deeply affecting UNLV. Though the overall NSHE budget did increase by about 11 percent, most of this will cover enrollment growth, the largest remaining portion directed to our community colleges. Capital projects will add $126.6 million for new construction at CSN and Nevada State College, with an additional $20 million for a new engineering building at UNLV, where students conduct experiments in cramped storage rooms. The iconic architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, wrote that the space within becomes the reality of a building. Faculty and students will inhabit and define the reality of these new spaces.
All session, as Legislators climbed through at least seven levels of the Dantesque inferno of the K-12 budget, the rationale for higher ed seems to have been to invest mainly in community colleges, or K-14 rather than K-20. The Nevada Legislature isn’t alone in this. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education explores how states are disinvesting in research universities, favoring more basic skills learning rather than research that fuels longer-term prosperity. Studies show Nevada as one of the states most vulnerable to worker lay-offs by automation, perhaps 20 percent of the labor force over the next decade. Most higher education talk in Carson City revolved around the vocational, such as training nurses, HVAC techs and heavy machinery operators, little about adaptability, versatility to think critically or do research so students might better shape their lives to a transforming economy.
We must share part of the blame for this: system leadership and faculty representatives missed something in our advocacy. And all session, support for higher education felt poisoned by the push for the AJR5 constitutional amendment to eliminate the independence of the Nevada System of Higher Education, or NSHE (on the ballot now for 2020). State leaders criticized NSHE as acting “like a separate branch of government.” They treated regents with suspicion and even derision, muting their voices. By the end, Legislators had turned their backs on the human capital on which a quality education most depends.
We face a salary crisis at our colleges and universities: severe compression, when junior faculty are hired at levels near or surpassing more senior professors, and salary stagnation is causing talented scholars to leave. By 2021, Nevada faculty will be earning 15 percent below the national average. Our faculty remain the only class of state employees who have no schedule to earn raises other than two promotions over an entire career for academic faculty, and administrative faculty earn raises generally only by changing jobs or if a supervisor retires or dies.
Our faculty governments teamed with the Nevada Faculty Alliance to do all we could to pass SB 214, which would mandate NSHE to study and propose an “in rank” compensation system to address the salary crisis. We also supported SB 459, which, like SB 135 that passed in a compromise form for classified state employees, would have allowed collective bargaining for faculty, fulfilling one of Gov. Sisolak’s implied promises. Faculty wrote letters. Our representatives went door-to-door and testified to earn support for these bills in that hermetically isolated, buzzing hive of competing interests of the state Legislature. One after the other, we saw both bills mysteriously “pulled” from final committee agendas to die.
Add to this a surprise “error” (as reported in The Indy) in the closing budget for NSHE to comply with AB542 to award a 3 percent cost-of-living increase (or COLA) for all state employees (at 2 percent inflation per year, a 3 percent COLA still means a loss of 1 percent in purchasing power over the biennium). This accounting mistake underfunded the percent for faculty and staff by $6.4 million, which, if uncorrected, our schools must make up for from base budgets. UNLV and UNR will be hit hardest. Class schedules may be tight because of hiring freezes. Long planned projects of benefit to students will be postponed. We still hope this error can be fixed. Careless accounting should never become a policy.
Though my term was up June 30th as Council of Senates Chair representing state faculty, colleagues still approach me feeling demoralized, some even questioning why they turned out in the last election or voted the way they did. I tell them NSHE leaders and faculty must bear some responsibility, me as much as anyone. We did not make our case effectively as to how the missions of our colleges, institutes and universities depend on one another as do the gears and springs of a mechanical clock―goals to improve student access and success, to close the achievement gap for minorities and underrepresented groups, for workforce development and research are carefully synchronized, dependent on one another.
Our research funding now needs serious repair. We must test more effective messaging to the public and our elected leaders to support research. We must make the case as to why it’s most essential now to address salary issues and invest in human capital so we can maintain the high excellence our students and state deserve. We must rewind our clocks and prepare for next time, starting now, with great expectations for the 81st session less than two years away.
Douglas Unger is the immediate post-Chairman of the Council of the Faculty Senate for the Nevada System of Higher Education.