Professor Michael Young began to think last year that he should look for a job outside of Nevada.
It was not the craziest thought; the recession was in full swing and legislators were slashing the higher education budget.
Young was a departmental director at the Desert Research Institute. Now he’s an associate director at the University of Texas, Austin.
During the recession, Nevada has had a difficult time keeping research professors like Young.
The best students already seem to be leaving for out-of-state colleges. The same thing seems to be happening with faculty.
“It turns out, ironically, that the state of Texas has big economic problems as well,” Young said in a phone interview. “But there’s a very fundamentally different level of understanding in terms of what the university does for the economy and for the future of the state [in Texas]. You don’t really hear that a lot in Nevada.”
What you do hear is the president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas telling faculty that the university may go bankrupt. You hear Gov. Brian Sandoval proposing a $163 million cut to the state’s universities and colleges.
At the same time, Nevada’s public figures have championed economic diversification through hiring innovative faculty, providing start-up funds and building a research engine. These professors will presumably leverage millions in federal grants and build Reno or Las Vegas into high-tech research hubs where start-ups will provide manufacturing jobs.
It sounds great. One day we will talk of Silicon Valley, Seattle and Reno as the tech hubs of the West.
But then reality sets in.
“It’s hard to imagine a young faculty member … why would that person go to a university where 30 percent of its budget is being cut?” Young asked. “It’s not an incentive that a lot of young people would take.”
Young said he left Nevada for various reasons, among them the state’s fiscal woes.
Steven Wells, president of the DRI, said that the institution has lost 21 faculty since 2008.
“We’ve had people who have been here five to ten years suddenly leaving and our investment in them goes with them,” he said. “Michael Young is a prime example. I tried to do whatever I could to keep him.”
Wells said that researchers like Young aren’t tenured. They support themselves through grants they receive largely from the federal government.
But the DRI’s administrative costs do come from the state. The state must also attract graduate students to work under researchers like Young.
“These researchers within these institutes have to believe that there’s a future here and that the state is interested in bolstering the fledgling research infrastructure that we have,” said Jim Croce, director at the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization.
Data provided by the Nevada System of Higher Education showed that Young had brought about $3 million into Nevada via grants during the past two years. He’s just one of many professors at the DRI, UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno who collectively brought in millions of dollars to the state and have since left.
Where’s the money?
The recession has left the state’s coffers running dry, the federal stimulus is running out and “new spending” are dirty words at the Legislature.
A Senate committee on economic development heard testimony this week from Croce, who talked about expanding his organization’s link between university research and the renewable energy sector.
Senators immediately wanted to know the cost.
“Does that mean investing general funds into the system so that they have the capacity in their budget to go out and recruit their researchers?” asked Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno.
Croce replied that yes, Nevada would be “literally buying” faculty to come to Nevada.
Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, followed by asking what the state would need to do.
“At a minimum we have to stop the bleeding and make sure we have a healthy NSHE base,” he said.
Higher ed needs “drastic reform”
Others argue that the higher education system already has enough money.
“You’re really good at coming and asking for money,” said Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, to Dan Klaich, NSHE chancellor, at a higher education hearing this week. “But what we need now is help and places where we can make reform. Drastic reform.”
Her comments echo those of the governor’s senior adviser, Dale Erquiaga.
“You’ve got to have money to spend money,” he said during a January press conference.
Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki said that the universities can help with economic development, even as their budgets shrink.
“It can be done today,” he said. “It’s about directing resources.”
He said that universities can help faculty gear their research toward commercialization.
Nonetheless, those same faculty have been and still are leaving.
“It’s not like you flip a light switch and you get your research back,” Young said. “To me that’s probably one of the saddest parts of the story. …When the economy is doing well, the state is going to continue to suffer through this because the research infrastructure is gone.”