A strategic approach to funding challenges

On June 3 and 4 in Reno, the University of Nevada, Reno will present the Nevada Board of Regents with final recommendations on steps to balance the UNR budget. Not unlike many businesses that have had to absorb sharp downturns in revenue during the recession, UNR is confronting a 25 percent reduction in state appropriations over a two-year period. The current challenge facing UNR is to reduce spending by $11 million annually, on top of $33 million in annual reductions already implemented.

In this situation, UNR had two very different choices in how to proceed. One option was to adopt across-the-board budget cuts that "spread the pain." The alternative was to adopt a thoughtful approach that couples strategic vertical cuts with spending policies that protect the strength and viability of the most vital programs.

While it may have been tempting to propose across-the-board spending cuts, which might have been easier to sell politically, UNR has instead taken a much more forward-thinking approach.

Under the leadership of University President Milt Glick and Provost Marc Johnson, UNR developed a curricular review proposal that establishes priorities, streamlines and consolidates a number of programs, and eliminates a small number of others, in a way that affects the least number of students. In fact, only about 3 percent of the university's 17,000 students are affected by the proposed changes, and most of those who are affected will still have an opportunity to complete their degree before their programs are phased out.

UNR's strategy in addressing this challenge is of great interest to the region's business leaders, and to the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce and its nearly 1,500 members. Chamber members include most of the region's major employers and hundreds of small businesses, as well as agencies and non-profit groups dedicated to our economic vitality.

Business owners and managers understand how important an asset the university is to the region's long-term economic vitality and quality of life. Many of UNR's programs, including the part-time MBA program, are nationally rated and respected.

Furthermore, UNR graduates will be prime candidates to fill key positions at northern Nevada companies as the Baby Boom generation of workers begins to retire in larger numbers in the coming years. Building upon the strengths of the university's key academic programs also has broad implications for economic development, since companies evaluate the access to quality workers, and educational resources, as key considerations when deciding where to locate offices, plants, stores, and warehouses. In short, UNR, along with the Desert Research Institute, Truckee Meadows Community College, the Washoe County School District, and several other institutions, comprise the heart of our region's education foundation.

While business leaders have first-hand knowledge of intense competition, some may not realize that universities also face competition, for students, respected faculty, and public and private grants, and donations. The strategic approach adopted by UNR to the budget crisis helps protect UNR's competitiveness in key program areas.

Business leaders also are pleased when they learn that the proportion of classes at UNR being taught by the full-time faculty (as opposed to adjunct faculty) has risen sharply the last several years. This demonstrates the commitment of the university and the faculty to delivering quality education services in a cost-effective way. UNR is serving 40 percent more students than it did a decade ago, as well.

At a recent meeting with the Business Advocacy Council of the Reno-Sparks Chamber, chaired by Grant Sims of C.B. Richard Ellis, Dr. Glick and Dr. Johnson explained to us that under the plan, vital programs including science, engineering, business, education, and psychology, are largely protected from deep cuts. So are the cooperative extension program, and key components of the agriculture educational and research programs.

Moreover, UNR has been engaged in broad consultation with stakeholder groups, faculty, the business community and others, to refine its proposal and come up with the optimal approach toward balancing the budget. One example of this commendable flexibility has been in the case of the College of Education, where Dean Bill Sparkman and his staff have identified constructive refinements to the original plan.

The initial proposals for curricular review include: 1) closing the Department of Animal Biotechnology; 2) closing the Department of Resource Economics; 3) reorganizing certain agriculture, biotechnology and natural resources programs; 4) reorganizing the College of Education; 5) eliminating degree programs in several foreign languages (while retaining courses in those languages); 6) closing the interior design program; 7) closing the supply chain management degree program, which produced 12 graduates in 2008-09; 8) streamlining the manner in which statistics is taught across different disciplines; and 9) closing the Division of Nutrition, which duplicates the Department of Nutrition.

These proposals have been reviewed by faculty committees, which are providing recommendations for Dr. Glick's consideration. The process will then move forward with a final review by the Board of Regents in June.

In time, it is hoped that education reforms will be adopted at the state level. Reno-Sparks Chamber priorities include allowing the university to retain the tuition dollars it collects (rather than send it to Carson City) and permitting the university to adopt more flexible employment policies. While these much-needed reforms will provide long-term benefits, they won't be enacted soon enough to help with this round of budget reductions.

The Reno-Sparks Chamber has not taken a position on specific program budget decisions, but strongly believes that UNR is to be commended for seizing this opportunity to shape the UNR of tomorrow through a strategic, transparent and consultative process today.

NNBW readers are invited to hear from Dr. Glick at the Reno-Sparks Chamber's Business Networking Breakfast on Thursday, August 5, at the Joe Crowley Student Union Ballroom on the UNR campus. The breakfast program will provide a chance for business networking, followed by an opportunity to hear from Dr. Glick, and ask questions, shortly before the start of the fall semester.

Tickets to the August Business Networking Breakfast with Dr. Glick are available now at 775-337-3030, ext. 3046, or online at www.renosparkschamber.org.

Doug Kurkul is chief executive officer of the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce.


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