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Trouble in the Ivory Tower

Is unlv.edu an Oxymoron?
by Ken Ward

rying to shed its stereotype as Tumbleweed Tech, UNLV is a university in transition. But, fittingly for a school known primarily for its run-and-gun basketball program, the game has been a ragged one.

In its headlong rush for respect, growing pains have popped up. The tension between faculty and administration hangs ominously over the Maryland Parkway campus. The academics-vs.-athletics conundrum remains unresolved. And funding issues are more contentious than ever as the state budget pie shrinks.

Since her arrival in July 1995, President Carol Harter has spouted the popular mantras of academe and business. First she talked about making UNLV one of America’s "Premier Urban Universities." Then she pledged to make the campus more "student-centered." But most tellingly of all, she considers herself a "CEO."

Harter’s pseudo-business model has shaken the Ivory Tower. For a faculty already shell-shocked by the bloody battles involving former President Bob Maxson and coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian, the new regime has been both invigorating and confounding.

The good news is that there seems to be more consensus about the university’s mission. But that’s the bad news as well.

Harter’s call for more faculty research is seen by some as an appropriate and long-overdue challenge. The president’s supporters share her belief that the school will never be taken seriously until it engages in serious research and develops a faculty work ethic that generates more published work. This view is enthusiastically embraced by UNLV’s expanding graduate programs.

Yet many long-time faculty members bridle at the emphasis on research. That mandate, they say, subverts Harter’s other goal of being student-centered.

As proof, adjunct English professors point to their new offices. They are housed in a double-wide trailer at the south end of campus. There is only one phone line and no restroom. And there’s precious little space for student-instructor conferences.

Though these 42 English adjuncts teach thousands of students each year, they clearly do not hold an esteemed position on the faculty totem pole. In fact, they were abruptly removed from their previous digs to make room for something called the Department of Consciousness Studies. That three-person department doesn’t have many students, but it does have a wealthy community patron who helps to fill the school’s coffers.

The hasty relocation—and the motives behind the move—have stoked suspicions about Harter’s agenda.

"It’s like UNLV just discovered 1917 and Frederick Taylor’s command-and-control principles of management," says political science professor Craig Walton.

Making The Grade

ctually, Harter is an unabashed devotee of James E. Fisher, a former president of Towson State University in Maryland. He is a prime advocate of "transformational" leaders who take charge on campus. He maintains that "collegial leadership is an oxymoron."

CEO Harter believes that change is good, and that decisive actions are needed if UNLV is ever going to gain recognition and crack lists like U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of universities.

Indeed, UNLV made the U.S. News roster for the first time last year. But the school hasn’t exactly become Harvard West. Its entry is buried in the back of the book among "regional" campuses, rated behind 500 other colleges.

(So eager to hype the accomplishment, the administration’s public relations team sent out a press release stating that the university had been rated "seventh best" in the West. But that was wrong. The school actually was seventh among regional schools that didn’t make the national rankings, appearing with the likes of Sonoma State, Western Washington and Tark’s current school, Fresno State. The smaller University of Nevada, Reno, by contrast, earned a position in the national section.)

Disgruntled UNLV faculty members say Harter is shortchanging students in her lust for a national reputation.

By requiring more research and publication work, professors are spending less time teaching students. Here’s how it works. A math professor is scheduled to teach four classes of 25 students each. In reality, research assistants are called upon to teach two classes of 50 students each.

"They’re engaging in subterfuge," says Evan Blythin, a professor who recently retired after 28 years. "They’re using serfs."

The same academic shell game is played in lecture halls across the country. But the UNLV model is particularly dicey. As the university hires more tenure-track Ph.D.s and graduate assistants, lecturers are being phased out altogether.

"The Ph.D.s are doing research, so they’re not teaching. And the graduate assistants don’t want to teach because they’re working on their degrees," says Blythin. "It’s a model that’s falling apart."

Administrative tasks are even counted against teaching time. Take Harter, for example. She’s counted as a tenured member of the English Department. According to UNLV’s formula, the president is teaching eight classes per year. Obviously, she’s not really doing that, so her fictional 192 students are added to other classes. This occurs with every faculty administrator.

Compounding the "bait and switch," these faux instructors also pick up merit pay bonuses . . . as teachers. Indeed, 33 of UNLV’s top 40 administrators got merit boosts last year, compared to just 40 percent of the school’s business professoriate.

Meantime, lecturers are biting the dust. There have been mass firings in English, music, chemistry, mathematics and communications studies. In one ironic twist, a lecturer was handed her Notice of Nonreappointment and, two days later, received a letter awarding her merit for superior teaching. That same lecturer also got a letter from the provost praising her work with the honors program. Thanks for the memories.

Research Bureaucracy

arter’s vision of a research-oriented, student-centered campus seems to be inherently conflicted. In a state where funding is driven by enrollment, Harter is pushing more exclusive, graduate-style programs. The president’s critics suggest that this obsession has squandered political capital and invited others into the market.

The private University of Phoenix and a host of career colleges have sprung up in recent years. But UNLV officials were taken aback when a group from Henderson floated a proposal to start a state college in that city. The initiative—pushed by state Sen. Jon Porter, R-Boulder City, and Assemblyman Richard Perkins, D-Henderson—envisions a teachers’ college that would help to meet the needs of Nevada’s rapidly expanding K-12 population.

Despite a decade of teacher shortages, UNLV’s college of education has dithered. Students in the program say they are frustrated with the lack of classes and the poor quality of coursework. "Almost halfway through the program, I don’t feel any more qualified than I did two years ago just after receiving my bachelor’s degree," says Deanna Di Dio, a graduate of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

Pressed by the potential competition, Harter & Co. have reversed course and now are actively pursuing the idea of building satellite campuses around the Las Vegas Valley. And in a remarkable display of chutzpah, Harter claims UNLV is best equipped to train teachers. "We don’t need another layer [of bureaucracy]," she wrote in an op-ed column in the Las Vegas Sun.

Bureaucracy, however, seems to be UNLV’s forte.

Harter, like other top university and college officials in the state, has profited handsomely from annual raises. She has doled out merit pay increases to her administrators, taking funds that resulted from leaving faculty positions vacant. While faculty members gave up merit increases in the early ‘90s to help square the state budget, administrators have had no such pangs of conscience. And, somehow, UNLV continues to create new administrative positions despite a statewide freeze on hiring.

Currently, the school is seeking a 49 percent budget hike while expecting an enrollment increase of just 6 percent. Legislators have already declared that request dead on arrival. Faculty members have even less confidence that any of the largesse will trickle down to them or their students.

"They’re raiding teaching resources. We advertise a $10,000 banquet but we give the students a $2,500 buffet," says Blythin, who found out firsthand that UNLV doesn’t consider textbooks as publishable research by faculty. (Curiously, however, the school touts its "research" on esoteric topics such as the ruminations of bordello workers and female news anchors.)

Such bizarre inconsistencies have raised questions about Harter’s competence as an administrator. "It seems to be the Peter Principle at work," says one business lobbyist who tracks statewide education issues. "There’s a sense that she really doesn’t know what she’s doing."

To be fair, Harter isn’t completely in control of her own destiny. While she may talk a good game, much of it remains in the hands of the school’s athletic boosters.

The president admitted as much when she unveiled plans for UNLV’s newest structure, an 80,000-square-foot modular building. Dubbed the "Bubba Building" because it is a windowless, prefabricated unit, the structure won’t win any design awards. But it was all UNLV could afford because the school’s slot tax allocation had already been earmarked for upgrades to the Thomas & Mack Center and Sam Boyd Stadium.

When asked why none of those funds had been reserved for academic uses, Harter acknowledged, "It was a political decision."

Walton puts it more bluntly. "She’s admitting that she’s not the president, the boosters are."

Fight for Money

n educrat from a small state university campus in upstate New York, Harter has a tough row to hoe. Tark is long gone, but his ghost lingers at a campus where sports have always been paramount. A majority of the university system’s board of regents sustained the athletics-first agenda when they approved the expansion of the sports complexes. And they cheered when the school, desperate for respect on the gridiron, managed to scrape up $1 million for John Robinson in hopes that the fired Southern Cal coach can resurrect the Rebels’ football program.

For better or worse, the regents may be lining up with the president now. The Southern Nevada trustees are publicly grumbling that UNLV isn’t getting its fair share of funding. Regent Steve Sisolak notes that the school gets only about $7,000 per student compared with $10,000 for UNR, which still has more doctoral and other post-graduate programs. Yet the president should be careful what she wishes for. A North-South battle over funding could inflict serious collateral damage on the university system if it occurs on the floor of the Legislature.

None of this should suggest that the southern campus is on a starvation diet. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been dedicated for a new law school, a new library, a parking structure and other improvements. UNLV’s request for $336 million in operating funds represents fully one-third of the systemwide budget.

If faculty and administration are of one mind, it is on the subject of money. They are, after all, in this together. Many tenured members of the Faculty Senate even approve of efforts to replace part-time adjuncts with full professors.

Where they part ways is in the management of academic departments. Harter and her top aide, Provost Doug Ferraro, have pushed to reorganize schools into "interest teams." The college of business was heading in this direction until its chief, Elvin Lashbrooke, announced he was returning to Michigan State University.

Las Vegas media reported that Lashbrooke’s departure stemmed from his frustration over the business faculty’s unwillingness or inability to produce more scholarly research. But professors say that Lashbrooke’s plan to convert the school into interdisciplinary programs had run into a wall of opposition. Lashbrooke’s days were numbered when he prematurely told a national conference of educators that his plan was moving forward when, in fact, it wasn’t decided.

Governance continues to be a hot-button issue at the university. A poll by UNLV’s Faculty Alliance roundly criticized Ferraro’s job performance. Harter stated that she would ignore the survey. Meantime, she has refused to release her own performance evaluation and has resisted faculty efforts to rate other top administrators. The debate has deepened rifts within the Faculty Senate.

Professors who have spoken to Harter say that it’s difficult to communicate with her. "She very brittle, very hard to talk to, because she’s so defensive," says one faculty member who asked not to be identified.

Blythin predicts that, like Lashbrooke, the days are dwindling for the president and her crew. "They’ve got their moment, and then they’ll be gone," he says.

Maybe. But others say Harter is UNLV’s best hope for the future. Following on Kenny Guinn’s interim tenure, she has kept the Athletic Department clean. She has also helped to raise $70 million in private funds over the past three years, though a portion of that was for athletics and such academically dubious undertakings as that consciousness studies department.

Focus on Teaching

learly, much more needs to be done. The administration could mend its fences with restive faculty members and legislators by forswearing future merit pay hikes. Then, in the interest of student-centered learning, Harter & Co. should revisit their student-teacher funding formulas to ensure that classroom instruction is honored and rewarded. As long as teaching is viewed as a tertiary responsibility behind administration and research, students will be shortchanged.

Harter deserves credit for chasing down private grants. But she cannot rest on her laurels. Public universities everywhere are having to rely more heavily on private funds. UNLV’s Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies is a good example of entrepreneurship that truly pays for research. Only through aggressive grantsmanship can the university expect to pay for world-class research without sacrificing undergraduate instruction.

The school also ought to accelerate its involvement with Internet-based distance learning. The old industrial-based model of education is being eroded by the Internet and by satellite campuses. It should reward faculty authorship of textbooks. It should redouble its energies toward the core curriculum and resist the pieties of multicultural studies.

And speaking of political correctness, Harter and her minions could earn more respect on campus if they would curb their impulse for mind control. The administration’s anal-retentive approach has stifled political discourse by requiring student groups to submit proof of insurance before speakers can be brought on campus. Law school students are now challenging the university’s "code of conduct," which amorphously dictates "good taste" in campus speech. Apparently, these future litigators don’t like being treated as if they are in kindergarten.

Ultimately, the most significant challenge may be in the hands of the Legislature. Amazing as it may seem, Nevada state law does not require higher education to be funded. That odd omission leaves UNLV and its brethren at the mercy of political whims, and makes long-range planning difficult at best.

With virtually open enrollment in the nation’s fastest-growing city, UNLV has almost unlimited growth potential. But that doesn’t mean it should expand exponentially. The landlocked campus is already bulging at the seams with 21,000 students. What’s more, nearly half of the school’s freshmen must take remedial English or math because they’re not ready for college-level work.

Gov. Kenny Guinn’s proposal for Millennium Scholarships could inflate enrollment even more. Those $2,500 grants may even fuel a legislative plan for a separate Henderson college to ease the strain. That, in turn, might even allow UNLV to tighten its entrance requirements (currently at a 2.4 GPA, though that can be waived).

But before cooking up a new campus or state college system, lawmakers need to keep UNLV’s cauldron from boiling over.  NJ

Ken Ward is a Las Vegas-based free-lance writer who covers education, politics and development issues.


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