Commission for the Future of the University of Nevada, Reno
In the past three decades, the University of Nevada, Reno has experienced unprecedented growth. Numbers tell this story. Between 1990 and 2009, the state-appropriated budget increased 100% (in inflation adjusted dollars), its student population increased fifty percent, and it administrative staff increased nearly 200%. Of course, this growth came amid a dramatic expansion of the state. For many years, Nevada was the fastest growing state in the country. Moreover, during this period of expansion, funding for higher education consistently lagged behind that of other public obligations, like K-12 and public safety. Still, the changes these numbers describe are apparent to anyone who has a history with the university. A student from the 1980s can visit campus today and barely recognize the place from which they graduated. Compared to the past, the university has more students and more faculty; more buildings with more technology in them; more administrative units and more services; more centers and institutes and more grant funded research.
In 2008, that period of growth came to an abrupt end. From 2008-2011, the University’s state appropriated budget declined nearly 40%, and the campus downsized or eliminated two colleges and many more departments. Hundreds of people were fired - including 60 tenured faculty, the most at any public university in the country during this economic crisis - and many more positions were left unfilled. Today the campus has a level of resources it last saw in 2003-2004.
Looking forward, the University faces a radically changed landscape. It will not soon recover from the financial crisis of the last few years. Optimists predict that state-appropriated funds will remain flat for the foreseeable future, which, when inflation is taken into account, means an effective decrease. Pessimists believe that more budget reductions are on the way. In the meantime, long-term challenges are becoming more pressing. For example, the campus must decipher how to adopt and adapt to new technologies. It must figure out how to manage a significant ongoing demographic shift among young people in the state of Nevada. It must adjust to a more global and competitive educational marketplace. And it must accomplish these things in an increasingly hostile political atmosphere and uncertain economic environment.
It will be difficult, but not impossible, to navigate this landscape. The UNR Faculty Senate has sponsored this Commission to begin a conversation about how to do just this. Consisting of both academic and administrative faculty members, this Commission will devote the next year to studying the university and meeting with its various stakeholders (both on and off campus). It is charged with applying the data it gathers to two specific tasks:
Given the fiscal constraints within which UNR will be operating over the next 10-15 years, the institution will not have the capacity to be comprehensively excellent. However, it certainly can be excellent in specific areas. What are these areas? What can and should the university strive to be excellent in? In answering these questions, the Commission will want to catalog the university’s current strengths, discern how the university can and must meet the needs of the state, and think closely about the changes taking place in higher education generally. On the basis of this thinking, it will identify opportunities for the university to gain distinction nationally and internationally.
In the aftermath of the recent budget crisis, it has become apparent that state support for UNR is likely to remain flat, if not shrink somewhat, in the next 4-8 years. This means that if UNR is to grow resources, it will have to do so through its own entrepreneurialism. What strategic partnerships (with business, civic organizations, and the like) can and should the university expand and develop to bring new resources to the campus (in the form of internships, curriculum, graduate research/students, and so on)? What partnering activities are already taking place on campus? Which of these is especially successful and why? Which should be expanded or amplified? What other partnership opportunities might the university pursue?
The Commission will begin its work in December 2011 and report back to the faculty senate in December 2012. The senate will vote on recommendations made by the Commission. Those recommendations accepted by the senate will then serve as a catalyst to a conversation with the President about how the University can achieve excellence in this new landscape. In turn, these conversations will inform the University’s self-study undertaken as part of its accreditation process, and also its strategic planning process, which must be completed in 2015.
This university can be excellent even at a time when it faces great challenges. It simply requires making the right choices.