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Senate questions college presidents about impacts to students and staff after NSHE budget cuts

By Lucia Starbuck
Published: Last Updated on

The Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) is already facing a $120.9 million impact from the COVID-19 pandemic, and now must cut at least 14% of its budget to offset the $1.15 billion deficit to Nevada’s General Fund.

The Board of Regents Chancellor Thom Reilly told members of the Nevada Senate that NSHE will be making a 16% budget reduction, for a total of $109.6 million.

The NSHE reductions are proposed to come from several different areas.

NSHE placed a hiring freeze and is holding vacant positions, resulting in $24.1 million in budget savings, and reduced operating and travel costs by $7.4 million.

NSHE also proposed a temporary student surcharge, including an additional $6 per credit for undergraduates at universities, $8 for graduate students, $5 for students at Nevada State College and $3 for students at community colleges. Reilly said the surcharge is expected to generate $10.1 million.

Lastly, the Board of Regents recommended furloughs for NSHE staff, but those savings are not included in the $109.6 million proposed reductions. The Board of Regents proposed NSHE professional staff will have 12 days of furlough, for a savings of $21.1 million. Reilly said he will be taking 18 days of furlough. No staff, student workers included, were laid off during spring semester 2020, Reilly added.

However, NSHE employees are stating that the furloughs will put a strain on them.

There were dozens of protestors gathered outside of the Nevada State Legislature building on Friday morning, as the public is not allowed inside during the special session in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. There were Black Lives Matter protesters, pro-President Trump protesters and anti-mask demonstrators. There were also a few state workers protesting the proposed 12-day furlough, including Adam Barrington.

Adam Barrington protests outside the state capitol Friday, July 10, 2020 during the 31st special session. Image: Lucia Starbuck
Adam Barrington protests outside the state capitol Friday, July 10, 2020 during the 31st special session. Image: Lucia Starbuck

Barrington has worked at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) for over a year and is part of American Federation of State County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 4041.

“Part of the huge struggle was, well, we don’t want to have furloughs again. People have still not been made whole from the last rounds of furloughs,” Barrington said. “Now they’re facing an even worse crisis with the pandemic included and the budget cuts and the furlough pay cuts, essentially. It is a really tough situation. The unfortunate thing is it just feels like it all came crashing down very quickly.”

Laura Naumann, an associate professor of psychology at Nevada State College called in to the senate’s session to let the senators know the sacrifices K-12 educators and NSHE faculty are making. 

“Faculty, much like our capable teachers, are going above and beyond to serve our students academically and to support them emotionally during these unprecedented times. We’re being asked to do more work, often beyond the scope of our job description, with less resources and days lost to furlough, all while navigating our own personal challenges incurred by the coronavirus pandemic,” Naumann said.

NSHE has received some funding, including $59.9 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Half of that funding went toward students for emergency financial aid, which, for the most part, has been spent. The other half was used to offset the state budget reduction, according to Reilly.

The Board of Regents also allocated $50 million from its market fluctuation account to offset some of the proposed budget reductions. The account was created in 2010 after the Great Recession.

Budget reduction impacts on students

The college presidents were questioned by multiple senators about how students will be impacted by the budget reductions. Some shared that their biggest challenge right now is scheduling a combination of in-person and remote classes. A majority stated that the hiring freeze will be one of the biggest impacts, as there are gaps that need to be filled with professors, instructors, advisors and other crucial staff.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) President Marta Meana said UNLV will heavily rely on letter of appointment and part-time faculty.

“How will students be impacted? They’re impacted in many ways,” Meana said. “I mean, budget cuts always impact students over and above the surcharge because we’re not able to completely provide them with the experience and the support that we can when we’re not working under these conditions.”

Rendering of the new Advanced Engineering Studies Building, courtesy of PGAL+SMITHGROUP JJR
Rendering of the Advanced Engineering Studies Building, courtesy of PGAL+SMITHGROUP JJR. UNLV will no longer be able to construct the building due to state budget cuts.

Meana added that UNLV will no longer be able to construct the Advanced Engineering Studies Building. A large chunk of funding for that project was approved during Nevada’s 80th legislative session in 2019.

“We’re heartbroken about the state allocation for the engineering building, that allocation of $20 million, we went ahead and bonded for a matching $20 million. So it kind of hurts. It’s a double penalty, as we now are saddled with the debt service for a bond that we would never have taken out, had the state not generously allocated this money to us,” Meana said.

College of Southern Nevada (CSN) President Federico Zaragoza said the budget reductions will have an impact on connecting students with advisors.

“One of the areas that the budget reductions do impact us is in our student support system; our aspirational goal was to reach 350-1 advisors to students, and given the budget reductions, we might have to kind of delay that aspiration,” Zaragoza said.

Western Nevada College (WNC) President Vincent Solis echoed his colleague’s concerns, stating that with hiring freezes, students will have less one-on-one time with the college’s staff. Solis stated that WNC has 14 non-teaching positions and seven teaching positions vacant.

“For a campus our size, that’s a tremendous amount of folks that we don’t have in place to help our students,” Solis said. “Additionally, our campus is going through a very dynamic change in our student demographics, with 30% of our students [being] minority students. So, not having the access and that personal one-on-one time with the students in a live setting has been detrimental because one thing that we found out is that the digital divide is real, and for students that come from rural Nevada and students that come from minority groups, we’re having some real issues in terms of connecting them. We’re doing our part to get computers and equipment, but there’s still issues on their end, in terms of accessibility and access.”

Great Basin College President Joyce Helens stated that the college will be impacted by a lack of access to technology as well.

“Since we have been so much online, serving 84,000 square miles of rural and frontier Nevada, we are going to 72% online in the fall,” Helens said. “What I’d say would have suffered because of the circumstances is investing in technology and services to students. We have to keep up with technology in order to be able to serve across our vast geography, even things like old phone systems and technical labs will suffer.”

The presidents also shared that institutions are already facing impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Karin Hilgersom, TMCC President.
Dr. Karin Hilgersom, TMCC President.

Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) President Dr. Karin Hilgersom said students and staff are in a vulnerable spot.

“As a community college, as you know, we serve many first-generation, diverse student populations, and they themselves, as well as their families, have been disproportionately impacted by this tragic pandemic,” Hilgersom said. “Our faculty and staff are also in a pickle, once in a while, because they have school-aged children, and they’re trying to figure out how to continue to teach at a level of excellence from their busy households.”

UNR President Marc Johnson stated that several students did not have housing once the school closed in mid-March. 

“We actually kept 91 students in the dormitories who just had nowhere to go, including our foster students and the like during the spring of 2020,” Johnson said. “We sent most of the students home at spring break, and I asked them not to return, but we did have a those 91 students who just really had nowhere to go. We will provide housing options to those who are homeless, they have families who won’t accept them anymore and foster youth. We did learn that it will be safe to have two people to a room, but not more dense than that. So, we will only be able to house about two thirds of our capacity due to those space limitations.”

Reilly said about 5% of UNR’s dorm population and 10% of UNLV’s dorm population remained on campus during Spring 2020.

UNR and UNLV are also expecting a large loss in revenue because sporting events have taken a huge hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some students hold concerns about additional fees that they will potentially have to pay as a majority of colleges in Nevada are going to be offering a mix of in-person and online classes.

Joshua Zerbel, who called during public comment, stated that just because fees are not going up to take online classes, students are having to pay extra to work remotely.

“Since we are moving to a very large online presence, I worry that a lot of the professors will not be jointed, they’ll be very disjointed, and they’ll be using different programs, essentially making those students have to pay for two or three different online homework programs, which could cost them upwards of $200,” Zerbel said. “I would like to see an administrative mandate through NSHE, or something to that effect, to where professors can not use third party homework and testing programs. They have to use the WebCampus platform, which is what we use for everything else, and it’s free.”

Reilly said enrollment at colleges in Nevada has not been impacted and remains about the same as before the COVID-19 pandemic, and enrollment at community colleges has slightly increased. 

A majority of the presidents on the Zoom call commented that there has been an increase in enrollment in online classes and that the amount of returning students seems stable, but there has been a decrease in incoming freshmen.

Funding for PPE for students returning to class in fall

Nevada State Senator Yvanna Cancela on the third day of the 31st Special Session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, Nev., on Friday, July 10, 2020. (Pool Photo by David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Democratic State Senator Yvanna Cancela asked about what costs for personal protective equipment (PPE) will look like as students return to the universities in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

UNLV President Meana did not know how much has been spent. 

“We have spent already on PPE, and plexiglass, and all of the other sanitation protocols that we are going to have to, and have already started to implement,” Meana said. “So, we are collecting all of these expenses to investigate their eligibility for FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] grants, but certainly our expenses in that regard are significant.”

UNR President Johnson said the university has already lost $32 million during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In a range of items, including loss revenues from events that we had to cancel, dormitory rents and food service rents we had to reimburse back to the students when they left in the middle of the term. We have been keeping the hand sanitizer and other sanitation equipment industry running pretty smoothly these last few months, and we’ve collected materials so that we have a face mask for students who come to class, and forget theirs and hand sanitizing equipment, and desk sanitizing equipment for every classroom and every office. We’ve had to buy cameras for our smart classrooms so that we can do Zoom at the same time we do in-class presentations. We’ve spent quite a bit on that as well,” Johnson said.

Some smaller colleges in rural Nevada are being impacted more, according to Great Basin College President Helens.

“The smaller institutions in rural Nevada have been hard hit and stretched because of these expenses. For Great Basin College, it’s been around $250,000, but we’ve been very fortunate that our local businesses have assisted us with things like 800 masks,” Helens said.

WNC President Solis said the school has spent a total of $700,000 to keep the campus safe. 

CSN President Zaragoza said the school has spent more than $300,000 on supplying PPE, placing plexiglass and maintaining spacing requirements. TMCC President Hilgersom stated the college has spent $350,000 in COVID-19 mitigation. Nevada State College Provost and Executive Vice President Vickie Shields said the college has spent about $300,000. 

The Desert Research Institute’s Interim President Dr. Kumud Acharya stated that the institution has spent a similar amount of money on safety measures to small colleges in Nevada, but noted that the institution did not receive funding from the CARES Act.

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