(Michael Chamberlain/Nevada Business Coalition) – No, it’s not the intrastate football or basketball rivalry.
Representatives of UNLV and UNR this past week expressed differing views on the purposes of their taxpayer-funded institutions. Do they exist to provide an educated workforce or to do, well, something else? Both of their arguments, however, miss the real issues that are at stake.
UNLV President Neal Smatresk, in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun, claimed the university should be considered a profit center and money spent on higher education regarded as an “investment.”
Invariably the more higher ed degrees you have, the more diversified the economy is, the stronger the tax base is and the most recent recession has had less impact.
A highly educated workforce makes your economy more robust and buffers you from the effects of recession.
UNR Provost Marc Johnson, on the other hand, believes in a different mission.
“I guess my attitude toward (the survey) is that college is not a job-training activity,” Johnson said. “The university can’t be held responsible to get people jobs.”
Johnson said the university strives to create well-rounded graduates.
Smatresk’s claim that spending more on higher education has insulated states from the impact of this recession is simply not supported by facts. States such as California, New Jersey and New York that are held out as shining examples of the positive effects of increased higher ed spending have also suffered greatly during the downturn and have had to deal with large budget shortfalls as well. New York’s Democratic governor, Mario Cuomo, was able to push through $10 billion in spending cuts to balance his state’s budget without raising taxes.
While the academic arguments about a university’s mission may interest some people, the fact is they are playing with taxpayer dollars – money that Nevada’s families and businesses are forced to provide whether or not they agree with the mission and how it is carried out.
The members of the higher ed establishment have not been good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
For years, these universities have tried to be all things to all people – portraying themselves as economic drivers, while at the same time accepting students with little chance of succeeding, funding frivolous or self-indulgent research, and offering degree programs that ill-prepare students with skills that employers value. Increased financial support in recent years has been spent to increase administrative bloat and pad the six-figure salaries of those who devote little time to teaching.
In 2009, there were 254 employees at UNR and 201 at UNLV who were paid more than the current salary of Nevada’s governor. Not all of these are professors who attract massive amounts of outside funding to their universities. If that were true, these schools wouldn’t need increased support from taxpayers.
So those within the higher education establishment can argue all they want about what they are supposed to accomplish. Whatever they decide, they need to do it in a much more efficient and frugal manner than they’ve shown a willingness to do in the past.
When the economy was flourishing and the state was awash in prosperity and tax dollars, few people paid attention. But people are paying attention now. That is the new paradigm the higher education system must adjust to.
(Michael Chamberlain is Executive Director of Nevada Business Coalition).