It was five years ago when Jim Rogers, then-chancellor of Nevada’s universities and community colleges, announced that the state’s higher education system was a “total disaster.”
The nation in 2009 was in the grip of a spiraling recession, and Nevada had been particularly hard hit by plunging revenues from tourism, gaming and sales taxes, an escalating housing crisis and rising unemployment.
The Nevada System of Higher Education was forced to make drastic budget slashes because of the dwindling state revenues, and as a result several university departments were merged or closed altogether and there was even serious talk about shuttering or consolidating the campuses and rural centers of Western Nevada College, Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno and Great Basin College in Elko.
“We’re facing an unparalleled crisis in the history of Nevada,” Regents Chairman James Leavitt stated at the time.
But because of the implementation of drastic budget cuts that reached 31 percent in following years, WNC, its Fallon campus and the other community colleges managed to be saved, although the rural centers were closed, several teaching and staff positions were eliminated, retiring faculty and staff were not replaced, class sessions were decreased by nearly a third, Fallon’s nursing program was closed and transferred to the Carson City campus, class sizes mushroomed, student theatrical and musical performances done away with, building maintenance was deferred, and tuition and student fees were hiked.
But fast-forward to September, 2014.
Today, things are “looking up” at the Fallon campus and the entire WNC system, says Chester “Chet” Burton, whom the Regents appointed WNC interim president in the fall of 2013 following the retirement of President Carol Lucey who had headed the college for 15 years.
The former WNC vice president of finance and administrative services and, earlier, the college’s controller and fiscal director, Burton is well-known in Fallon and Western Nevada, having served as Naval Air Station Fallon’s supply officer before retiring from the Navy with the rank of commander after 20 years of USN service.
Burton’s wife, Amy, was an English and journalism teacher at Churchill County High School and a reporter and feature writer for the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard. And the two Burton children graduated from Churchill County schools.
Interviewed in his office at the main campus in Carson City, Burton says the recession has abated, the college’s budget has stabilized and WNC is on an “upward track.”
The Legislature and Board of Regents have “gotten the message” about the importance to the citizens of Nevada of WNC and the other community colleges, and “we are now recovering from the hangover of the drastic budget cutting of years past,” says Burton, 57, who has a BA from Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University and an MA in business administration from the University of Virginia.
Burton, who will be eligible to apply for WNC’s permanent presidency when his current contract as interim president expires in 2016, adds that he also is encouraged by the rising enrollments at the Fallon campus and throughout the WNC system.
The Fallon total headcount has risen 1 percent to 422 from a year ago, and the Fallon full time equivalency or FTE which is included in this figure (FTE is the number of students taking 12 or more units) has risen 6 percent to 197 during this period.
The Carson City campus headcount and FTE are, respectively, 3,102 and 1,681, the Douglas County campus in Minden’s headcount and FTE are, respectively, 289 and 95, and the entire WNC system’s headcount and FTE, respectively, are approximately 4,000 and 2,356.
The system-wide total headcount and FTE both reflect a 5 percent rise, which is “good news,” Burton added.
“We are in a state of rebuilding. WNC is a great bargain. Our classes are smaller than those at UNR, and at WNC we charge $90.50 per class unit. At UNR and UNLV, the cost is $188 per unit. Nearly all of our courses can be transferred to UNR, UNLV and other four-year schools,” he said.
Churchill County Commissioner Bus Scharmann, who retired in mid-2011 from his position as dean of the Fallon campus and WNC’s rural centers after 34 years at the college, said he appreciates and endorses Burton’s rebuilding efforts and believes WNC has, indeed, begun to surmount its earlier difficulties.
“Chet Burton is doing well and is beginning to salvage the hard-hits we took in year’s past. But we’ve got a long way to go,” he added, noting that the Fallon campus enrollment is down nearly half from that of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN. He may be reached at email@example.com.