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Students at UNR's Joe Crowley Student Union on Nov. 15, 2018 (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent).

As the economic and public health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic continue to ripple, several regents on Thursday excoriated millions in legislatively approved budget cuts, charging that legislators left them few options with just weeks before the state’s seven colleges and universities plan on reopening their campuses for limited in-person instruction.  

“If those 63 people are in charge of higher education in this state, God help us,” Regent Trevor Hayes said, referencing a ballot measure that would remove the regents from the Constitution. “There is no understanding in Carson City. I don't know what happens to people when they get in the building, but they do not understand the importance of higher ed funding, or they think we can just keep raising tuition on the backs of our families and our students to supplement the money that they take away.”

That ballot measure, Question 1, has been routinely framed by the regents and the chancellor as a measure that does little to reform higher education but grants the Legislature more control over the board. Proponents, however, have charged that it provides needed oversight to a body long mistrusted by the other branches of state government. 

Also among the legislative critics was Board Chair Mark Doubrava, who told regents that watching budget discussions in both legislative chambers was “quite disturbing for me to see.”

“My take on the Legislature was, ‘We’re going to hold your chancellor and your CFO [Andrew] Clinger hostage, and we’re going to say we want to take $50 million more on top of what’s already been approved, and we can cut some deal quickly and reduce it to $25 million,” Doubrava said. “I just don’t think that’s a way to run the state or Legislature.”

The Nevada System of Higher Education has been planning for steep budget cuts ever since state revenue projections plummeted in the spring — projections that prompted Gov. Steve Sisolak to request that all state agencies draw up plans for possible cuts of 6, 10 or 14 percent for the 2021 fiscal year, in addition to a mandated 4 percent cut to the near-finished 2020 fiscal year. 

In a sweeping set of initial budget reductions approved in April, NSHE slashed operating budgets, froze hiring system-wide and sought to prepare for the implementation of furloughs and increased student fees should they be required to follow the most dire of those early estimates. 

But proposed reduction measures have only expanded over time as the severity of the state’s budget crisis came into sharp focus this month. In a special legislative session meant to plug 2021’s $1.2 billion statewide budget hole, legislators and the governor approved an additional $25 million dollar cut, raising the total amount cut from NSHE’s 2021 budget to more than $135 million.

Those cuts did not sit well with Hayes, who said it was unfortunate that legislators do not understand the importance of higher education “no matter how much we try to explain.”

“We, as higher ed, are a key to the solution to the problem of an economic downturn,” Hayes said. “We’re going to help to dig that out, we’re going to help to get that even higher when we’re going through the good times. 

But Regent Lisa Levine pushed back on that notion, saying in part that calling the Legislature the problem “is just poor politics,” especially if legislators might weigh even deeper cuts in the near future. 

“People don't trust [NSHE] to do the right thing with the money, and we need to show that we're trying,” Levine said. “And I'm very grateful to hear that there are small ways that we've already shown improvement … but that is just one way that we need to be thinking.”

Levine, who was appointed to the board earlier this year to replace Regent Sam Lieberman after his unexpected death, said that she hoped future budget decisions included discussion about “transformative change” and that the board must “really think critically about how we're making these cuts.”

Thursday’s budget discussion was information-only, however, and much of the decision-making will lie in an upcoming regent’s meeting scheduled for August 7. 

Limited reopenings remain on-track, for now

Regents also heard presentations from each institution on how they planned on executing limited reopenings of individual campuses to accommodate the return of at least some in-person instruction for the fall semester. 

Following a list of 10 guidelines laid out by NSHE, those reopening plans followed similar themes. Broadly, every institution has moved most classwork online, embracing a mix of synchronous classes — those taught at regular times through video software such as Zoom or BlueJeans — and asynchronous, or more traditional online classwork that is absorbed at different times for different students. 

Institutions have also broadened resources for instructors, created guidelines for testing and contact tracing, implemented mask mandates and created additional rules for social distancing while on campus. 

Still, regents expressed some concern that — despite robust planning — in-person instruction may remain elusive or outright impossible amid spiking coronavirus cases statewide. 

“We can appreciate how these plans are fluid and nimble, but I have to say — I mean there's a chance that we may have no students on campus,” Doubrava said. 

With the start of the semester now roughly one month away, Chancellor Thom Reilly said the system will continue to monitor conditions and follow the guidelines laid out by state, local and federal health authorities, adding that each institution is “prepared to pivot” should the need arise. 

Still, even amid the drastic rise in coronavirus cases, Nevada’s higher education system is among the majority of institutions nationwide that have opted for at least a partial reopening. A tracker maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows roughly half of U.S. colleges still plan for in-person fall semesters, while another 34 percent have pushed for a hybrid model and just 12 percent decided for an online-only semester. 

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