Photo By Dennis Myers Nevada higher education chancellor James Rogers chats with reporters at a regents meeting.

Nevada higher education chancellor James Rogers keeps calling Gov. Jim Gibbons. The calls have not been returned, Rogers says.

Last week, Rogers gave up and sent out a mocking report on Gibbons’ plan, or lack of one, for the universities, community colleges and other arms of higher education in the state.

“There are alternatives to starving the entire higher education population,” Rogers wrote, parodying Gibbons’ approach to the state budget crisis. “Rather than a slow death, let’s kill off part of the population so the others will have nourishment. Here are some choices: A. Our two universities have the largest state budgets. Why not just take it out of their hide. … B. If you wanted to make Sophie’s Choice, you could focus the cut on just one of the universities. If it were UNLV, over 55 percent of its budget would disappear. … If it were UNR, over 70 percent of its budget would disappear, and it could lose 11,974, leaving it with about 5,000 students. … C. You could close the doors of the College of Southern Nevada and thus send its population of almost 40,000 students to work in unskilled jobs throughout Clark County. … Another choice would be to close the three Northern community colleges, Great Basin College, Truckee Meadows Community College, and Western Nevada College. … This would throw 21,000 students on the street.”

After six pages of that kind of thing, Rogers probably shouldn’t look for that phone call any time soon.

The two men have a history. In 2005, Rogers launched a campaign for governor after Gibbons was already in the race. The Rogers effort was short-lived, but lasted long enough for him to make some public comments questioning the intellectual capacities of Gibbons (“not very bright”), prompting a Gibbons representative to call Rogers’ bosses on the board of regents to complain.

After Gibbons won the governorship, Rogers had to do some rapid backpedaling and in a self-evaluation he submitted to the regents last year, he said he had worked out a good relationship with the governor. That section of the self-evaluation may now be inoperative.

Assessing harm
The issues between the two men are fairly simple. Gibbons, bound by an election campaign “no new taxes” pledge, is cutting state budgets because of declining state revenues during the recession. The first round of cuts was 4.5 percent, but now there’s another 14.1 percent to cut, and Rogers believes that will do harm to the university system that will not be reparable even when better times come back.

“K-16 is a malnourished, sick, weak, worn-out being,” Rogers wrote. “Its ribs show, even bulge. Not only can it not compete … [but] in the political and economic name of ‘balance the budget regardless of the consequences,’ our governor has ordered that NSHE [Nevada System of Higher Education] present a plan to further cut the limited financial bare bones ‘rations’ of the NSHE education system in the next biennium.”

Rogers also did a round of media interviews in Southern Nevada, dissing Gibbons and calling for the election of a legislature that is more sensitive than the governor to higher education issues. The scornful tone of the Rogers memo was considered by some campus leaders to have undercut its effectiveness.

“Jim Rogers doesn’t do sarcasm well,” one said.

“That’s the problem with his tirades,” said another. “When he does have something to say in strong terms, it gets less attention because he’s always that way.”

Moreover, the problem with focusing on personalities in these disputes is that kind of coverage obscures the real issues and the impact of those issues on students. Even without Rogers’ bombast, regents are sounding genuinely alarmed about what will happen to higher education in Nevada if cuts at the level Gibbons demands are made. The damage could, they say, be deep and permanent.

“One of the guiding principles I’ve tried to follow over the last few weeks is not to speak in hyperbole, but it’s really tempting,” says Regents chair Michael Wixom with a laugh. He says he’s “frightened” by the damage that could be done to higher education.

Wixom says at the next regents meeting, in Reno this month, will have to deal with three issues—”What we want to offer, how it will be offered, and to whom we want to offer it.”

Among the options: Shutting down some campuses, reducing the number of students served, increasing tuition, doing away with programs.

Wixom says the universities are still “under market” in tuition levels but that increases would be a real disservice for students at the community colleges and at Nevada State College.

“You’re dealing with students who are underserved traditionally … students who come from economically challenged backgrounds,” he said. “And they can’t afford huge tuition increases. You just can’t do that to these kids. It’s just not fair. And these are the access points for a lot of disadvantaged students. There’s some real Hobson’s choices that we have to make.”

Wixom is so demoralized by the choices that he says he finds himself bursting into laughter at “gallows humor” from time to time. He says it is probably even more difficult for the public to understand how things could have gotten so bad so fast.

“It takes a long time for political will to begin. In defense of the public, this has all kind of hit the public over a period of a few months, and so it’s hard for them to get a handle around it because they really don’t understand what we’re faced with.”

University Regent Howard Rosenberg, himself a professor, has increased the size of his classes and added a class, something he says many of his colleagues are doing. But there are diminishing returns on those techniques—at some point classes become too large for effective teaching—and there are technical limits on them—the facility for one of his art classes accommodates only 25 people.

Cuts at the level now being proposed, Rosenberg said, will be ruinous to the system. “The chancellor and I have a difference of opinion on one thing,” Rosenberg said. “He calls us mediocre. I don’t agree. I went to Harvard, and I can tell you the kids here get as good an education as they get at Harvard College.”

And that’s the point, he said—severe cuts will roll back investments made in Nevada higher education over a long period and set the system back years, squandering the system’s successes. When a budget crisis is over, even though the recession ends, the campuses will not return to where they were before, he said. Instead, they’ll have to start making the same investments again.

Up to now, Rosenberg said, the damage has been kept out of the classroom. Instead, cuts were made in areas where Nevada communities most often get the benefit of a higher education system, such as agricultural extension. But the next round of cuts not only can’t be kept out of the classroom, but also, community college campuses will almost certainly close.

“President [Carol] Lucey told us at a regents meeting that if there was another round of cuts, she would be forced to close campuses,” Rosenberg said, referring to the president of Truckee Meadows Community College.

Wixom says he is a fan of Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki’s proposal to float a nearly $800 million bond issue backed by future earnings from the state’s portion of the lawsuit settlement with the tobacco corporations. “I want to make sure that gets a full airing” at the regents meeting.

Rogers is less certain. He listed the Krolicki plan among options on the only non-caustic page of his memo, but said, “I applaud the creative thinking but caution that there is a cost to this plan.” Since 40 percent of the tobacco funds are already used for education—a scholarship program—and the rest for health care, Rogers suggests those are not funds that can be spared.

It’s also a reminder that while the higher education system is struggling, so are programs that affect the public more directly, such as various health care programs.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...