As for so many others, 2020 has been a tumultuous year for the Nevada System of Higher Education, with a new chancellor appointed to lead the NSHE Board of Regents and new presidents appointed at the state’s two largest institutions. All of this comes amid a massive budget shortfall for the system resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Assembly Bill 3, passed during the 31st special session of the Nevada Legislature, reduced NSHE’s budget by more than $135 million, with steep cuts to its institutions and programs initially amounting to $110 million before an additional $25 million was tacked on.
This amount comes out of NSHE’s total legislatively approved budget of $694 million and came at a time when institutions were attempting to decide on their pandemic reopening plans.
The University of Nevada, Reno, saw initial cuts of $25 million from its total budget in addition to $1.67 million from its statewide programs and more than $7 million from the School of Medicine. Cuts to UNR’s budget, according to the school, now total some $39.2 million—or a 20% reduction to its fiscal year 2021 appropriations.
To help make up for its budget shortfall, UNR and its fellow NSHE institutions have implemented hiring freezes, furlough days for faculty and a one-year student fee surcharge of $6 per undergraduate credit and $8 per graduate credit.
Students at UNR in August started an online petition to have the surcharge reversed—also asking for late fees to be waived and for general student charges for services like the gym and the student union to be cancelled for those engaged in online learning. The petition secured 726 signatures but stalled before reaching its goal of 1,000.
UNR: situation remains “fluid”
On Tuesday, Sept. 29, UNR sent an email to faculty and staff about its budget situation. It noted that while “some of this shortfall has been addressed through one-time measures such as the federal CARES funds and a one-year student fee surcharge, University funding remains significantly below budgeted levels.”
It also said that the school’s athletics department and dormitories were disproportionately affected by the budget shortfall since all sports—save football—have been postponed, and dorms are operating at reduced capacity.
“Our situation remains somewhat fluid, and there is still some uncertainty about our future funding levels,” the email read.
It also outlined vaguely “where things stand and the possibility of further budget reductions”—including the likelihood that the mandatory six days of furlough for faculty mandated in AB3 will be doubled beginning as soon as December and that a statewide hiring freeze, “including all positions in NSHE regardless of funding sources, is expected to continue at least through the end of the fiscal year.”
The email noted that UNR’s various divisions and departments have been given a large degree of discretion in determining how to best adjust their respective budgets and that some “have elected to eliminate or not fill positions where duties will no longer be needed given the realities of COVID-19.”
With the potential for further funding reductions for higher education in Nevada, UNR and its fellow institutions are awaiting updates on revenue projections and a “clearer picture of the state’s financial health” when the Nevada Economic Forum meets again sometime later this year before the start of next year’s state legislative session in February.
New UNR president former Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval has spoken about the future of funding for the school in the short time since he assumed the office. Though he’s given no specifics on how additional cuts might be made, according to a story in Nevada Today—the university’s public relations publication—”Sandoval said as more budget reductions more than likely still loom for the University in the face of the COVID crisis, he will take the approach that budget reductions across the board will not be the answer.
“He said he favors something more strategic, where university strengths will not be diminished and where student success will continue to be an institutional priority. He said he wants to position the University in a way where the budget reductions will not diminish the University’s ability to quickly rebound from the time of COVID.”
Uncertainties remain surrounding budget reduction committee, constitutional status of NSHE
In August, the NSHE Board of Regents voted to create a budget reduction response committee, as well as an affiliated ad hoc advisory group. The board said at the time that it would further detail the committee’s duties and areas upon which it would focus during a September meeting.
The committee is expected to look at strategies to generate revenue and cut costs through measures that remain as yet undetermined but could possibly include campus mergers or closures, the elimination of certain programs at schools, and the possible sale or lease of school-owned real estate.
According to NSHE Public Information Officer Francis McCabe, the board of regents is still working to finalize the committee’s mission statement and membership. He said more information concerning it should be available in the coming weeks.
In November, voters will decide on a ballot measure that would remove the constitutional status of NSHE’s Board of Regents. Ballot Question 1 began as Assembly Joint Resolution 5 in 2017.
Having successfully passed two legislative sessions, its fate is now in the hands of voters who will decide on Nov. 3 whether or not to remove NSHE’s constitutional status and thereby allow the state legislature to review and change how higher education in Nevada is governed.