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Western Nevada College braces for fallout from forum

David C. Henley
Special to the Nevada Appeal

Fall semester classes begin Monday at the Carson City, Fallon and Douglas campuses and far-flung rural centers of Western Nevada College.

But according to college president Carol Lucey and Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich, what transpires today at a meeting of the Nevada Economic Forum also will be of great importance for the future of WNC’s 5,700 students who return to classes in three days.

The Economic Forum is charged with estimating future state tax revenues and presenting these estimates to those who prepare the state budget. If these revenues continue in a downward trend, further cost-cutting and even greater budget cuts will be required at the state’s community college and universities as well as all branches of government.

“Things right now are not looking good,” Lucey said, referring to projections that Nevada’s economy will slide for at least the first six months of 2010.

“I am holding my breath, but I fear we will have a grim day today when the forum’s projections are announced,” Klaich said. “The state is hundreds of millions in the hole, and Nevada’s budget planners are saying cost cuts will range from 6 to 10 percent.”

“If these cuts occur, there will be a complete revamping and reduction of state services in all areas. Nothing will be spared, and this includes the community colleges and universities,” he added.

Budget slashing at WNC began nearly three years ago when tax revenues began plummeting as a result of the nationwide recession. WNC was forced to freeze salaries and cut faculty, staff and administration positions by not filling vacancies, trim its operational budget and impose an emergency fee surcharge on students that is still in effect.

Today, WNC has a 25 percent smaller workforce than it did before the cuts, which lopped about 14 percent from the college’s budget for the past two years.

The hiring and salary freezes remain in effect, and the school is not able to fill critical teaching, staff and administrative positions, said Lucey, the holder of a Ph.D. in physics, who has been teaching physics classes to alleviate the shortage of instructors.

Hiring restrictions have reduced the size of the freshman rural RN nursing program because of faculty shortages, and the national accreditation status of WNC’s surgical technology degree program is jeopardized because there are no funds to hire a full-time, certified coordinator of the program, Lucey said.

“At this stage, we’re managing to cope. … Everyone is doing double-duty,” she said.

Lucey added that she continues to resist enrollment caps, “although de facto caps already are in place because many students cannot get the classes they want because of faculty shortages.”

A tuition rise from $60 to $63 per academic unit took place last semester.

Ironically, as WNC’s financial woes mount, the school is awash in students. During the just-finished fall semester, the total enrollment and the full-time, degree-seeking enrollment shot up 19 and 35 percent, respectively, reflecting students’ desire to learn new skills and earn degrees during a period of heavy unemployment.

“The current spring total enrollment looks like it will go up 24 percent, and the full-time, degree-seeking enrollment may rise 40 percent. We are facing havoc in placing these new students in light of cost-cutting,” Lucey said.

Klaich said students are entitled to know that they have a “reasonably clear path to get the programs and classes they require and graduate on time.”

And he says he is “terrified” at what might happen today at the Economic Forum meeting in Carson City. Assuming the news is bad and academic and professional programs will face slashing and even elimination at some schools, “it would take years to recruit new faculty, build new programs and regain lost accreditation when the economy improves,” Klaich said.

• David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.