Wednesday, February 23, 2011

UNLV Faculty Alliance weekly member update

Dear UNLV NFA members,

Its been a long week since last Tuesday's Senate meeting. A lot has been written in the press about the financial crisis at UNLV, which you've been able to follow if you are receiving our daily bulletins and weekly updates. (If not, or if there are colleagues who would like to receive them, there's a simple sign-up box on the NFA website.

I think the most important thing for us all to keep in mind is that this will be, as it has been for at least the past 3 years, a long and arduous road for everyone, and there is no simple solution or silver bullet that will make our situation go away. Nor is there any inevitable, irreversible outcome that is pre-ordained. The situation is just as unpredictable this week as it has been for the past several months or years. And no one at any level is entirely able to understand, or control, the entire outcome. It was remarked to me today "I don't know what to believe so I believe anything." I responded that "I don't know what to believe either, but I'm least likely to believe those things that are simple or easy."

So that means we need to be smart and keep our heads. It is, I believe, important that the faculty remind the community, the state government and the Regents not only what irreversible and deeply detrimental damage a financial exigency, and the budget that would induce it, would do the future of the region and the state -- but also to remind them of the seriousness with which faculty have and continue to approach the state's structural budget crisis. This article  on our blog my best effort to make that case by reviewing not only the specific sacrifices we have made but the measures we have supported to avert exigency over the past three years.

As I see it, we are in the first of what promise to be many phases of the long and arduous road we'll have to travel this year as an institution and as a faculty. The current phase is not the phase in which an actual declaration of exigency will or will not be made nor in which an actual exigency plan would be implemented. The current phase, it seems to me, involves two issues that are really much larger: discussions towards a budget plan for implementing cuts in the case of an exigency and discussions towards a budget plan that would avert exigency. By no means is the latter an alternative that holds no pain for faculty, students or UNLV. But also by no means is the former an unavoidable outcome. That is, we should be seeking all measures to avert exigency but we should not expect that merely averting exigency would avert crushing cuts to our programs.

The current phase, it seems to me, will run through at least March 10 as the Provost compiles a budget plan which may or may not be presented to the Board of Regents on that date. In reality, it will run through the end of the legislative session in June (or later).

In the mean time, rumors are, of course, running rampant about what will be in that plan, and published news reports may begin soon to appear reporting on one or another aspect of it. My personal view is not to put a lot of stock in such reports. As I told one reporter who called today for a comment on the plans in one particular college, "any plan that has been leaked to you is obviously being leaked for a reason and not because the Provost has already adopted that idea."

For the faculty leadership, then, this is a time to ask questions about that plan's outlines and intentions and to inform ourselves about what sort of choices can be made in developing budget plans under normal circumstances and under exigency.

Since last week I've been working closely with Senate chair Maldonado and vice-chair Miller in reviewing comments and questions that have been submitted through the Faculty Senate office and which have been emailed to me. We have requested a meeting with President Smatresk and his key vice-presidents to discuss further some of these questions, and we expect that meeting to take place very soon.

Please continue to submit questions and ideas that address the budget issue broadly -- about the process and about the parameters of the cuts. Please continue to send news, views and thoughts from your various colleges and departments. And please let me know, as many of you have already, if you are able to offer any particular insights or expertise -- legal, financial, political, communications, linguistic -- which might benefit the faculty's ability to play an active role in this process in the weeks and months to come.

There are many questions at this point about what is, and is not, permissible under exigency and without exigency. These are hard questions to answer because there is so little practical experience -- especially under our Code, by-laws and in the Nevada political and legal system. Many of these will have to be figured out in the months ahead and we do, of course, have a legal defense program to defend NFA members. We have also been researching declarations of exigency at public institutions, which is historically very rare.

At the same time, I  continue to believe that merely the letter of the Code or case law precedent from other states is much less valuable to us than having credible, constructive and engaged points to make -- to the administration, Regents and of course state government.

Among the many dimensions on this will be played out, first and foremost of course is the state legislature. We will be reporting to you on important events and opportunities to express our views.

The of these, on which more detail to follow, will a legislative "field hearing" on education budget cuts, to be chaired by Senate Majority Leader Horsford, next Monday February 28th at Green Valley High School from 5 to 7 pm. Faculty are encouraged to attend and to be prepared, if interested, to speak about the impact on our students and the community of cuts to K-12 and to higher education.

Another will be March 3, when the Higher Education subcommittees of the joint "money committees" (Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means) discuss the NSHE budget. This will be in Carson City but there is likely to be a video-conference to the Sawyer Building in Las Vegas. Even though there is not necessarily going to be an opportunity for a great deal of direct testimony, this is a good target date to communicate to legislators on not only (or even primarily) the budgetary needs of higher education but also something that is poorly understood, I believe, outside of our university -- how much work we all do, all the time, to improve the quality of education and quality of life in the region.

For instance, I think we need to say more about how much time faculty devote to updating curriculum and courses and to providing out-of-class guidance, instruction and opportunities for students at all levels -- and what positive impact that sort of commitment has on students, even though such work is time-consuming and not built into our incentive system -- but we believe in it and our students tell us they benefit from it.

A second level, of course, is the Board of Regents, which will meet March 9 - 10 and will likely discuss, but not act upon, budget plans for the System and its institutions. UNLV's faculty leadership, and our NFA chapter in particular, is an influential voice with many Regents, several of whom have already communicated with us to learn more about the situation for faculty.

Away from the prospect of a declaration of financial exigency at UNLV, but not away from the budget, we will be reporting on the very important, but little mentioned, issue of our health coverage. Today, Wednesday, there will be the first PEBP budget hearing and on Thursday the PEBP board will meet to discuss premium rates for the coming year. And perhaps even more importantly, at the March Board of Regents meeting, the Regents will discuss the report of the NSHE Task Force (on which we will be reporting more soon). One important aspect of this issue, also little understood off of our campus, is that higher education faculty are almost entirely outside of PERS and instead have a defined-contribution, "401-K style" retirement plan that has significant participant involvement (we pay half our own retirement contributions from our own paychecks already) and which has much less administrative cost for the state. Faculty therefore by and large do not contribute to the longterm liability of the state for retirement benefits. Although not directly related to health coverage, that point is an important one for us to communicate whenever possible.

In the meantime, please stay involved and informed; read and pass along our emails, encourage your colleagues to join our mailing list and to consider joining the NFA. For those of you who are already members, please let me know if you are interested in serving on a committee or holding an office on our next chapter board (for which elections will be held later this term, to take office July 1).

In solidarity,

Gregory Brown
Professor, Department of History, UNLV

President, UNLV Faculty Alliance
Vice-President, Nevada Faculty Alliance
Co-chair, NFA PAC

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