Photo By Dennis Myers At a program at the UNR journalism school last week, former Nevada governor Richard Bryan, left, chatted with economic development executive Chuck Alvey and former UNR president Joe Crowley, right.

On Jan. 15, as word spread that Gov. Jim Gibbons was recommending that the University of Nevada, Reno’s budget be cut nearly in half, Jeff Ceccarelli was alarmed. He put in a call to his friend Emmanuel Maragakis, the interim dean of the College of Engineering.

Ceccarelli is president of NV Energy, formerly known as Sierra Pacific Power Company. He’s also a UNR engineering graduate and for several years has been working with the college to develop an academic minor in renewable energy. Over three years, NV Energy had provided three-quarters-of-a-million dollars for the program, which included development of a geothermal lab on the Redfield campus and a partnership with another corporation, Ormat Geothermal, so the notion of UNR’s budget being reduced so severely was upsetting.

“And we’re very concerned,” Ceccarelli said. “In fact, I was on the phone talking with the dean up there right away.”

Maragakis remembers his call.

“I assured him and discussed that with him,” he said. “One of the areas we concentrate on is renewable energy, so we were as concerned as he was.”

There was just so much Maragakis could tell Ceccarelli at that point, since the campus will not know the real picture until the Nevada Legislature finishes writing the budget.

“The only thing we can do here is keep a positive attitude, plan for cuts, and try to protect our core mission,” Maragakis said.

Whatever he said, it reassured Ceccarelli.

“As we sit here today—of course things can always change, with budgets—but our program should be fine and should be healthy and should continue to meet our objectives,” Ceccarelli said later.

The program is an exciting one—it made UNR a pioneering institution in a curriculum that is new in higher education, and it will provide NV Energy/Sierra Pacific with a source of trained professionals. There was also an additional project in which the state’s community colleges will train technicians for renewable projects. Ceccarelli’s voice communicates his excitement.

“We took this concept and, in a real short time, got it from an idea to the classroom. … There’s nothing like this, that we know of, in the country.”

Downtown, at the headquarters of Economic Development of Western Nevada (EDAWN), there was similar concern. EDAWN has a mission of luring businesses to the area and aiding them once they’re here. For four years, it has had a program called Target 2010 whose purpose was to try to do something about Nevada’s reputation as a low-wage Mecca. And to succeed, says EDAWN director Chuck Alvey, the state needs a strong education system.

“Basically, in our Target 2010 study, we wanted to go after what we call high-yield jobs—those that pay high wages, give benefits, companies give back to the community, low environmental impact, target industries and are … headquartered here,” Alvey said. “And when you’re going for those high quality jobs, generally they’re looking for strong higher [education] and K-12 system. And so it’s hard to recruit out-of-state companies if you don’t have a strong higher ed system.”

Naturally, as the program was reaching its target date, it was of great concern to Alvey and his organization to hear talk of such great cuts in state support for education.

Partnership

Most Nevadans are probably not all that aware of how interrelated the business community and higher education are. UNR has working relationships with numerous corporations like International Game Technology and Mariah Power. The corporations get research and other forms of aid; the campus gets greater expertise and financial support.

In 1983, Gov. Richard Bryan recommended to the legislature creation of the state economic development program, and that program still exists in essentially the same form as it was created then. Last week, Bryan said education support has to be fundamental in any economic development effort, and that Gibbons’ recommended cuts are counterproductive.

“I think that’s misguided. … It is somewhat of a false premise to say that the only thing that business is looking at is a low tax base,” Bryan said. “But businesses also look at quality of life issues. We also looked at education, not only in terms of the workforce that they need, but of the worker that they’re trying to attract to come to a state. So education at the university is all part of that. And so it’s not just … this tax focus to the exclusion of anything else.”

He also said the state needs more attention to technical skills—a suggestion that tracks exactly with the kind of program Ceccarelli envisions in the community colleges.

“In fact, oftentimes I think we have lost in the mix because we have not had some of the things that other states have in which there is a more educated workforce in some of these technical areas that don’t necessarily require a university degree, but they clearly require skill levels that are far beyond what you get out of our basic K through 12 education,” Bryan said.

Some legislators have expressed concern about whether Gibbons understand the relationship between business and higher education.

Howard Rosenberg, who has just stepped down from the Nevada Board of Regents, says the governor needs greater understanding of the role of higher education in business.

“Number one, you need educated people to take educated jobs. Number two, you need a standard of living and a way of living that’s conducive to people moving here, to do the kinds of business in order to keep this state going the way we need it to go.”

Gibbons last week posted a podcast in which he defended his higher education budget and proposed the campuses become more imaginative about how they use donated funds, including business grants.

“[U]sing significant general fund dollars for higher education keeps the higher education system dependent on general tax dollars,” the governor said. “This means system administrators are less likely to pursue other ways to make the system independent—like business or corporate donations, alumni donations, athletic revenue, federal grant, and tuition adjustments.”

In a letter to Gibbons, UNR economist Elliott Parker responded, “Research grants go to fund research expenses, and if we tried to spend those funds on instructional costs somebody would have to go to jail. Your budget would not increase those other revenues, but instead would decrease them. It will cost us our most productive researchers who bring in the most outside funding, it would scare away potential donors, and it will encourage our best students to go elsewhere.”

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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...