In 2007, higher education in Nevada enjoyed its highest funding levels ever, its coffers holding more than $641 million in legislatively approved dollars or nearly $800 million in today’s money.
Within two years, revenue had collapsed under the weight of the Great Recession. Multiple rounds of cuts from then-Gov. Jim Gibbons and the Legislature dropped annual appropriations to just $500 million. Over the course of four years, the system cut roughly a third of its overall budget.
Even with millions in federal bailout money cushioning the blow, deep cuts were made to nearly all facets of the state’s higher education system as colleges and universities gutted support services, eliminated entire degree programs and laid off faculty.
Today, students, faculty, administrators and the regents feel a sense of deja vu, but now delivered orders of magnitude faster.
“It came out over a couple of years versus one big kick and you know, with a recession, you could see things trending downwards, and you weren't sure where entirely it was going to go,” Regent Jason Geddes said. “But it wasn't just jumping off the cliff and wondering when you're going to come back up.”
As the immediate public health impact of the coronavirus came into sharp focus beginning in March and into April and statewide revenue estimates plunged — eventually totaling roughly $1.3 billion — Gov. Steve Sisolak told all state agencies to prepare a range of budget plans as the state braced for impending cuts.
By April, regents had done just that, approving three plans based on different revenue scenarios proposed by the governor, including cuts of 6 percent, 10 percent and 14 percent for the 2021 fiscal year, as well as a flat 4 percent cut for the nearly-finished 2020 fiscal year.
These plans were initially pitched, in part, as a deliberate avoidance of the layoffs and program cuts made during the recession. Only under the worst of those scenarios — 10 percent and 14 percent — would the system contemplate staff furloughs and student fee increases, relying instead on gutting operating budgets and implementing wide-ranging hiring freezes.
“Back then we tried to focus as much money into the classroom as we could and ended up cutting things like counseling, writing centers, math centers, tutoring,” Geddes said. “They ended up inhibiting student success and student performance across the board, and I think that was an issue that we probably that we're not looking at doing again.”
But in June, after Sisolak announced the system would need to cut 19 percent of its 2021 budget — 5 percent higher than original worst-case estimates — regents scrambled to fill the hole with a one-time injection of money from a “market fluctuation account,” a kind of rainy-day market fund used normally for deferred maintenance or special projects.
Then came the first special legislative session of 2020, and with it, steeper and steeper cuts. With no federal bailout appearing on the horizon and the political prospects for potential revenue increases a political pipe dream, legislators and the governor turned instead to slashing the state’s general fund by nearly $700 million.
Those cuts included yet another cut of $25 million, a number negotiated down from an original proposal to cut an additional $50 million overall.
As that money evaporated, so too has the hope that layoffs or curricular review could be avoided.
“Avoiding the layoffs and avoiding curricular review was at the 14 percent level, and then we had to hit 19 [percent] with very little notice,” Geddes said. “And then after the session, we’re above 23 percent. When we talked about ‘holding the line,’ our threshold was right around 20 percent, so I think those are discussions we'll have.”
In public meetings, some regents have chafed at the rush to cut higher ed instead of other state programs, saying instead that legislators “don’t understand” either the value of higher education or the long-term ramifications of the cyclical disinvestment by the state.
Among those critics is Regent Trevor Hayes, who, like several of his board colleagues, has complained of a mistrust of the board and its action dating back years.
“We need to be able to provide services to more students now, and we're going to have to do it with significantly less,” Hayes said. “The Department of Health and Human Services got a big cut when they have more people needing their services — and it's tough to reconcile that.”
Pointing to years of growth that came in the wake of the Great Recession, Hayes touted the broader success of Nevada’s higher education institutions, including steady enrollment gains at the community colleges and Nevada State College and the designation last year of both UNR and UNLV as Carnegie R1 research universities.
“There's so much good going on in higher ed during that time [post-recession], and I believe it was part of the recovery that we've been hearing about,” Hayes said. “And it just kind of cuts it off at the knees.”
But not every regent believes the fault lies with the Legislature. At a regents meeting last week, Regent Lisa Levine called attacks on the Legislature “poor politics,” especially if lawmakers are forced to make even deeper cuts in the coming months and years.
Levine, a former congressional staffer and NSHE outsider appointed earlier this year to fill the seat of Regent Sam Lieberman after his unexpected death, told The Nevada Independent that she was “surprised” once she began work on the board.
“Certainly the special session showed that there were definitely a lot of areas that need to be worked on for NSHE to be more transparent and accountable, so that legislators and the public know where the money's going and feel confident that if they put more resources into NSHE, that it's going to go into investing in higher education where it should,” Levine said.
Levine said that NSHE as an institution “just has a systemic mistrust issue,” adding that the blame for that issue did not fall on anyone currently at the helm of the system.
“But I think that you see that that mistrust has hindered NSHE’s ability to be as strong of an advocate as they want to be for students, faculty, staff, and all those whom higher education should serve,” Levine said. “And that's why we’ve got to get it right, especially if the economy doesn't turn around as fast as we all hope it does.”
Complicating the relationship further is a looming vote on Question 1, a proposed constitutional amendment that, put simply, would remove the regents from the Constitution. Critics — including many regents and NSHE administrators — have charged that the move is nothing but a maneuver to open the door to regents appointed by the governor and a change that does little to affect higher education outcomes.
Supporters of the move, however, have charged that the system has long cloaked itself under the protection of its “antiquated” constitutional status, and that Question 1 would provide badly needed legislative oversight.
Now, even two weeks after legislators wrapped up budget negotiations, more tough decisions lie ahead for NSHE. A regents meeting set for Friday, August 7 will determine the first steps of exactly how the system will cover the additional $25 million cut.
Students, faculty caught in the middle
As budget negotiations have played out, drastic cuts have once again thrown outcomes for students and teachers into doubt.
“We feel like NSHE has been the whipping boy,” Kent Ervin, a chemistry professor at UNR, said. “And we know there's been a poor relationship between the NSHE administration at the system level and the Legislature, but ultimately these budget cuts come down to badly hurting state employees and hurting students and the services we can provide to students.”
At UNR, the long term ramifications of the 2010 cuts proved especially damaging as administrators — most notably then-provost, now-President Marc Johnson — organized a curricular review process that slashed whole programs and consolidated others, triggering layoffs in the process.
In April, Johnson made a point during meetings with regents to note that UNR would avoid any further reviews, but added that any cuts would set back momentum at the university “quite a bit.”
Now, with a clearer picture of the budget, that aversion is likely no longer possible. In an NSHE memo sent to regents during early debates over the additional $25 million cut, UNR administrators said they expected to implement $1.65 million in “staff reductions,” with most of the cuts focused on appointed and classified staff.
For Greta de Jong, a history professor at UNR, the continued disinvestment in higher education has been a “short-sighted” move, especially in the context of the history of higher education and its broader relationship to the economy.
“If you look back at the mid-20th century, you can see that the decades when the U.S. invested heavily in higher education were the most prosperous decades this nation has had,” de Jong said. “And that's because the public sector and the private sector aren’t separate, they don't compete with each other — they’re complimentary to each other.”
Amid these negotiations, frequently stuck on the outside-looking-in are the tens of thousands of students across NSHE’s eight institutions.
Manifesting on social media, sometimes even as tongue-in-cheek memes, many have expressed an as-yet unending frustration with being stuck with the blunt end of these cuts, especially as they continue to pay thousands, or sometimes tens-of-thousands in tuition and fees for their degrees.
“Students are feeling the pain, we have been impacted by this pandemic at every single level,” Joshua Padilla, UNLV’s student body president said.
Complicating the money problem is the rapidly-approaching reality of a college semester amid the coronavirus, and what that semester will look like. Institutions across Nevada have implemented various plans with largely the same result, shunting many classes online while leaving some intact as hybrid or fully in-person experiences.
Pointing to a mix of expensive tuition, shrinking services and the realities of learning in the midst of COVID-19, Padilla said it felt as though students were being “hit from every single corner” with less and less institutional support.
“Knowing the administration, faculty — we know, they want to help us and they want to figure out ways to either give us more money or help make the resources that they do have be more effective for us, but then they can't even do that,” Padilla said. “Because once you get to the NSHE level, and then even at the state level, you know, they're getting hit with other things. So, I mean, it really sucks.”
For Ervin, there is still a small — perhaps temporary — silver lining: “It feels like 2008, it does not yet feel like 2010 or 2011.”
“But with what we just heard from GDP and unemployment staying high, things just look really dire for the next biennium unless there's suddenly a vaccine and an economic turnaround,” Ervin said. “What I really fear for is the next budget cycle, where we no longer have any cushions.”
Updated, 8/2/20 at 11:20 a.m. - This story was updated to address a transcription error in a quote attributed to Regent Lisa Levine. Levine said "... more resources into NSHE," not "more resources into energy."