Governance Beyond the Campus

Faculty in Nevada are involved not only in institutional governance but also in the legislative process.
By James T. Richardson

Nevada has a unitary system of public higher education, with eight institutions serving some 100,000 students in the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE). Included in the NSHE are two research universities, a world-renowned freestanding research institution, one recently established state college, and four community colleges, including one of the largest in the nation. These diverse institutions operate under the auspices of one board of regents, whose members are elected—a method of selection almost unique in the nation.

Faculty have been involved in the governance of the NSHE and its institutions for many years. Senate chairs from all institutions attend meetings of the board of regents and may speak on any issue before the board. In any given year, most of the NSHE senate chairs are members of the Nevada Faculty Alliance (NFA), the state conference of the AAUP, which was established in 1984. The NFA cooperates with the faculty senates on a variety of issues and has worked particularly closely with them over the past two years, as NSHE institutions have faced severe budget cuts. As the legislative history of Nevada’s recent budget cuts demonstrates, faculty involvement in governance both on and beyond the campus has been crucial in blunting the negative impact of the current financial crisis on Nevada’s colleges and universities.

Budget Problems

Nevada, with its tourist-based economy, has led the nation in per-capita and percentage drops in state general-fund revenues during the current recession, suffering more than a 40 percent decline in state revenues compared with what was needed to maintain services at the 2008 levels. This decline has led to major cuts in nearly all state services. The budget proposed by the governor in January 2009 contained a 36 percent overall cut in funding for the NSHE, including 50 percent cuts to the instructional budgets of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the University of Nevada, Reno, as well as a cut nearly that large for the new Nevada State College in Henderson. The governor also recommended drastic cuts in the state health plan for public employees and retirees as well as a 6 percent cut in salaries for all state employees for the next biennium.

The governor’s budget engendered considerable criticism. Leading the opposition was NSHE chancellor Jim Rogers, a media mogul who had become chancellor five years earlier and had made higher education funding and development into a major political issue in Nevada. Rogers was very critical of the governor’s budget, and the constitutionally autonomous board of regents supported him, refusing to cooperate fully in the governor’s plans to cut budgets drastically in anticipation of the 2009 legislative session. NSHE officials had already reluctantly made cuts of between 8 and 10 percent, leading to hiring freezes, some terminations of nontenured professional positions (mostly in administration), and six-month delays of step increases in salaries in the community colleges and of merit awards in other NSHE institutions.

Legislative Outcomes

When the legislative session ended, NSHE funding was cut by about 12.5 percent overall, instead of the 36 percent recommended by the governor. (About half of the reduction in the funding cuts was made possible by the use of one-time federal stimulus funds.) The cuts varied by institution, mainly because of differences in enrollment growth in recent years but also for political reasons. The legislature allowed tuition and fee increases of up to 10 percent a year, which brought the overall cut in state support down to about 10.5 percent for the system. The legislature approved a 4 percent salary cut because of continued deterioration in revenues during the session but accomplished the cut through a temporary, two-year furlough program rather than a direct reduction in individual salaries. Various agencies, the NSHE, and the school districts were allowed some flexibility in determining how (or even whether) they would institute furloughs. (The Nevada Supreme Court issued a lengthy court order in July explaining why the judicial system was refusing to comply with the furlough program, and the larger school districts also are apparently not going to comply, citing contractual obligations.)

The governor’s most drastic recommendations for the state health plan were not implemented either, although there will be significant benefit cuts and cost increases in the coming biennium. The effort to change the state’s retirement program resulted in some changes for future appointees, but these changes will not have a direct impact on faculty, since most are in an alternative retirement program.

Faculty Involvement

The chancellor’s office encouraged all NSHE institution administrations to work with their faculties in developing budget-cut scenarios prior to the legislative session, and this was done on most campuses. NFA chapters and faculty senates were involved in these discussions, either formally and directly or informally in town-hall meetings and other forums. The response of the board of regents to requests from the governor for budget-cutting plans was discussed in open meetings, and faculty were supportive of the board’s refusal to accommodate some requests that seemed unnecessary or overly punitive.

The NFA has been involved in the lobbying efforts of the state higher education system since 1985. Lobbying meshes well with the NFA’s activities in the political arena, where it operates a political action committee that endorses political candidates and works to assist those it endorses. Since 1985, an NFA representative (this author) has been a registered lobbyist in each biennial session, working with others from NSHE administrations to promote and protect the interests of higher education in Nevada. A long-term agreement among system officials, the NFA, and the University of Nevada, Reno, makes this lobbying possible, with the NFA partially reimbursing my home departments for my time. As an NFA lobbyist, I drive from Reno to Carson City almost daily during the 120-day session, working with legislators and testifying on relevant bills and on budget and fringe-benefit issues. Other NFA leaders have also sometimes assisted in the lobbying efforts.

Since 1984, leaders of the NFA have met regularly with governors, their budget directors, and other staff prior to legislative sessions. Indeed, it was in the first such meeting, in fall 1984, that then governor Richard Bryan agreed to add a budget category for merit increases that still exists, usually at 2.5 percent of overall salaries a year. This merit money funds the community college step system and the merit pool at other NSHE institutions. NFA leaders have also served on various boards appointed by governors and the regents over the years, including committees that have focused on higher education funding formulas.

During the last legislative session, the NSHE lobbying team was headed by executive vice chancellor Daniel Klaich (who has since been named chancellor) and included representatives from several NSHE institutions as well as two contract lobbyists. The NFA paid particular attention to health care and collaborated with other interested groups of state employees and retirees on the issue. This “benefits coalition” was effective in working with legislative leaders to prevent the most serious of the changes to the state health-care plan that the governor recommended.

NFA and NSHE representatives also were involved in developing the furlough program that was eventually adopted in lieu of the direct salary cut the governor recommended. The language of the bill required one furlough day each month for all state employees, but also, in recognition of the constitutional autonomy of the board of regents, allowed for the option of finding other ways to cut budgets that would be the equivalent of the 4 percent salary funding reduction.

Legislative Aftermath

At the time of the last legislative session, NSHE institutions had already cut budgets to about the level required by the new legislative action. These cuts had not been painless. Overall staffing levels had  declined by as much as 15 percent at some institutions—a reduction that was accomplished mainly by not filling vacant positions, although some appointment terminations were unavoidable. The number of vacant positions and terminations across the system totaled more than a thousand.

Despite the large cuts that had already been made, legislative leaders supported a mandated furlough program for all state workers or an equivalent cut in funding for salaries: the classified staff of NSHE institutions were being forced to take a one-day monthly furlough without pay for two years. However, the furlough mandate seemed illogical to many for professional employees, because a large number of such employees within the NSHE are funded from nonstate sources. In some cases, furloughing a professional employee would not save the state any money, and funds saved might even be remitted to a funding agency outside Nevada.

Related to this problem was the fact that the official NSHE code governing system personnel actions included language that precluded furloughing tenured professors without a declaration of financial exigency. Few in the system wanted to make such a declaration; thus there was a problem of equity and fairness in how a furlough program might be constructed and implemented. The code also required one year’s notice even for nontenured longerterm employees, making it difficult to institute a furlough program at all for the first year of the biennium, which began one month after the close of the legislative session.

Chancellor Klaich was in charge of developing a set of recommendations for implementing the budget cuts. He approached this task systematically, seeking input from all quarters and taking steps to develop a proposal that would engender the broadest possible support. Student leaders from all campuses were involved in the discussion as well, since the legislature had allowed an expected fee increase of up to 10 percent a year. Many thought that because the students were seeing their fees increased and all classified employees were absorbing a real, if temporary, pay cut, professional employees should also be required to sacrifice in some equivalent manner.

Klaich established a task force made up of faculty and administrators from throughout the system to review alternatives and make recommendations to him about how to implement the furlough plan with professional employees. He planned to consider the alternatives, discuss them with the eight institution presidents, and make recommendations to the board of regents.

NSHE general counsel Bart Patterson chaired the task force. The group was composed of a mix of systemwide representatives, including two vice presidents for finance, the system human resources director, a community college legal counsel, a staff member from the payroll office, one classified staff representative, a vice provost from one university, and four faculty members, including this writer. The other faculty members included a representative of the faculty senates, the chair of the senates’ System Compensation Committee, and the incoming state president of the NFA. (All four faculty members on the task force were NFA members.)

Faculty throughout the system were concerned that wholesale code changes might be made that would seriously undermine tenure and academic freedom. Few faculty members or administrators wanted financial exigency declared, but the reluctance to declare financial exigency raised the specter of possible emergency changes in the code that would allow terminating tenuretrack positions or furloughing tenured faculty members without notice. Thus faculty representatives on the committee were wary of any proposals that might entail major code changes, and they took the position that if such changes were to be instituted they should not be done without adequate deliberation.

After four lengthy meetings over two weeks, this group produced an eleven-page report that was then circulated to the president of each state institution of higher education for review. The presidents, in turn, had several meetings with Klaich to discuss the recommendations, but their effort to reach a consensus was complicated by their institutions’ different financial situations and patterns of enrollment growth. Eventually, however, the chair and vice chair of the board of regents made recommendations to the rest of the board.

One recommendation was not to declare financial exigency or make any major permanent code changes as a result of the legislative mandate. Another recommendation was to allow presidents to make decisions about budget cuts at their institutions for the first year of the biennium but to institute a one-day a- month furlough program for all nontenured professional employees for the second year of the biennium. This approach would honor the oneyear’s- notice provisions in the code. All tenured faculty members were expected to increase their workload by an amount equivalent to the salary cut experienced by other professional staff (which for most would mean teaching an extra course). The Desert Research Institute, a freestanding research arm of the system that operates without tenure on a strictly entrepreneurial model, was exempted from the furlough program entirely, except for a few statefunded positions in its administration. One emergency code change was recommended to implement the plan outlined above, but it was narrowly drawn and specifically designed to expire at the end of the next biennium.

The board meeting where the recommendations were considered offered a clear demonstration of the open and consultative manner in which the NSHE currently operates. The fee increase and proposals for furloughs were presented together, with student leaders agreeing to the necessity of a fee increase and faculty leaders generally supporting the package of recommendations concerning furloughs. On two areas of disagreement, regents listened attentively to the arguments of faculty leaders and obviously shared some of the faculty’s concerns. One such area concerned faculty members who were probationary for tenure. Faculty leaders argued that these faculty members should be treated the same as tenured faculty members and allowed to teach another course instead of taking a temporary pay cut through the furlough program. Faculty leaders also sought to expand the exemption for the Desert Research Institute to include other operations that were not funded by the state at other NSHE institutions. Neither argument prevailed, however, and the overall proposal was approved by the board of regents unanimously and is now being implemented.

There remains much concern and misunderstanding about the way the furlough program has been implemented in Nevada higher education institutions, but more townhall meetings and other forums are being planned to explain what was done and why. The concern notwithstanding, the process that was used shows that faculty involvement in governance is alive and well in Nevada. We have a strong board of regents that is open to faculty input, good administrative and faculty leadership at our institutions and in the chancellor’s office, and responsible student leadership as well. Given this mix, and our culture of mutual respect, Nevada should come out of this recession with a stronger system of higher education.

James T. Richardson is director of the Grant Sawyer Center for Justice Studies and the judicial studies program at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has served the AAUP in a number of capacities, including as president from 1988 to 1990, and he helped organize the Nevada Faculty Alliance in 1984. His e-mail address is [email protected].