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OPINION: Budget woes at UNR: Is it too late to change course?

Kent Ervin
Kent Ervin

A new business building. Extra millions for intercollegiate athletics. iPads for entering students. These initiatives by the leadership of the University of Nevada, Reno, could potentially help recruit students, but students need classes to complete their degrees on time and instructors to teach those courses. While students have fewer course options, UNR is facing a $21.5 million budget shortfall for the 2024-2025 academic year which will likely result in additional budget cuts to academic programs.

If UNR had unlimited financial resources, expenditures for new buildings, expanding university support of athletics and other new initiatives might be fine. Unfortunately, UNR is in a budget crisis, currently facing shortfalls of $25.1 million in fiscal year 2024 in the state-supported operating budget, following a $13.9 million deficit in fiscal year 2023 and a $9.8 million deficit in fiscal year 2022.

The current UNR leadership has been on a spending spree, committing $10.25 million a year for the next 30 years for a new business building, giving athletics a $10 million a year increase in university support and spending up to $4 million a year on iPads. My analysis of public salary records for multiple years for the Nevada Faculty Alliance indicates the current UNR administration has added $4.5 million a year for executive positions and executive salary increases over and above regular cost-of-living adjustments and merit raises. This adds up to nearly $30 million in new annual spending for priorities of the UNR administration that do not directly support the core educational mission of the university.

These expenditures, along with projected enrollment increases that did not materialize ($10 million, i.e., for budgeted new spending), higher utility and other expenses ($6.2 million) and underfunded cost-of-living adjustments have resulted in budget deficits. To address the shortfalls, the UNR administration is holding vacant or eliminating up to 108 positions and mandating 5 percent budget cuts across all departments, both of which make it more difficult for students to get the classes and services they need.

The UNR administration has attributed budget cuts to the underfunding of cost-of-living adjustments by the state. But the full $21.7 million a year in underfunding beyond fiscal year 2025 could have been more than covered if the UNR leadership had not been spending profligately on priorities other than the rank-and-file faculty and staff who directly serve students and who have suffered from lagging salaries for years.

With the UNR administration’s budget cuts to academic departments and holding over a hundred positions vacant, there are necessarily fewer regular faculty to cover the classes students need to graduate. As a result, departments need to rely more heavily on adjunct faculty. However, faculty members told UNR student senators that qualified short-term instructors have not been easy to hire; the College of Business eliminated its adjunct positions due to a lack of funding and the College of Liberal Arts cut adjunct lecturer pay 30 percent, which means they receive about $27,000 a year for a full-time teaching load. That makes the positions unattractive, negatively impacting the experience of students, who already report limited class options and time slots

UNR must act decisively and wisely to avoid the fate of a few other state flagship universities. Last year, West Virginia University made massive cuts to academic programs after promised enrollment boosts failed to materialize and pay for the millions spent on administrators and buildings. Recently, the University of Arizona announced deep cuts, due, in part, to failed budget projections, spending a large portion of its budget on athletics programs and out-of-control spending. 

Is it too late for UNR to change course? Not if there is a will to shift priorities back to the university’s core educational mission. Solutions could include eliminating newly created executive positions, capping institutional contributions to athletics, taking a more targeted approach to addressing student technology access, limiting future ad hoc raises for executives and committing to a more transparent decision-making approach through shared governance. Additional cuts to academics and student support services are not the answer.

Why is a recently retired chemistry professor, who could be enjoying other activities, spending time writing about these issues? Leaving aside that many working faculty at UNR fear retaliation if they speak out, I believe passionately that UNR needs to return to its core missions as a comprehensive university prioritizing teaching along with excellence in research and service to Nevada. Recent management decisions have put these core missions in a precarious place. After 33 years as a dedicated member of the faculty, I would hate for the treasure that is the University of Nevada, Reno to be lost.

Kent Ervin is foundation professor of chemistry emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno, and past president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance.The Nevada Independent welcomes informed, cogent rebuttals to opinion pieces such as this. Send them to [email protected].


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