Nevada Las Vegas Shoots for Academics

Times Staff Writer

With a bitter faculty-administration conflict largely resolved, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is trying to build an academic program worthy of its basketball team.

The Runnin' Rebels consistently are ranked among the nation's top 20 collegiate basketball teams, but few academic programs at 28-year-old UNLV have achieved similar distinction.

Three years ago the 12,000-student campus was plunged into turmoil when the University of Nevada Board of Regents approved a faculty code that allowed, among other things, campus administrators to order mental examinations for misbehaving professors.

The code became a national embarrassment for UNLV and led, directly or indirectly, to the resignation of the campus president, a decision by the chairman of the Board of Regents not to seek reelection and to other changes on the governing board.

Things are better now.

The "most egregious" parts of the faculty code have been eliminated, including the provision for mental examinations, said Gary L. Jones, associate professor of political science and former Faculty Senate chairman.

Policy Role Resumed

Members of the Board of Regents have stopped interfering in the day-to-day administration of the Las Vegas campus and have resumed their role as policy makers for the entire University of Nevada system, which includes a four-year campus in Reno, four community colleges and the Desert Research Institute, also in Reno.

Robert C. Maxson, UNLV president since the summer of 1984, has proved to be not only a good fund-raiser (the campus has received more than $10 million in private gifts since he arrived) but also a strong leader who controls the entire campus, including the sometimes boisterously independent athletic department.

For example, fund raising for athletic scholarships and other sports purposes, once carried out by an off-campus booster organization called the Rebels Club, has been taken over by the university.

"I'm a great believer in athletics . . . but I've made it clear that I'm the president of the athletic department as well as the English department," said Maxson, a somewhat evangelical figure who speaks with a soft Arkansas drawl but has a steely look in his eyes. "I've been as gracious as I can be, but I've made it clear that I'm going to make the decisions."

Maxson is in a better position to make these decisions stick because he is the first UNLV president to make as much money as head basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Maxson's salary and benefit package of about $150,000 is about $10,000 more than Tarkanian's, according to university officials. The coach derives additional income from a television show and a newspaper column.

Maxson's high salary and housing and automobile allowance have caused some problems within the university, however, because Joseph Crowley, president of the older Reno campus, makes $87,000. (The state's governor, Richard Bryan, is paid $65,000.)

Maxson's accomplishments extend beyond the realm of athletics.

He was partly responsible for persuading the Nevada Legislature to appropriate $14.7 million for a new college of engineering and computer science. The college is expected to play an important role in the Las Vegas effort to diversify its economy, aimed at making it less dependent on gambling and hotel revenue and more on high technology.

Pleased as Maxson is with the engineering college, he is even prouder of a $1-million gift from Margaret Elardi, owner of a successful casino in Laughlin, Nev., that will make it possible for UNLV to offer $10,000 scholarships to each of Nevada's 53 high school valedictorians every year.

As a result, this fall 20 valedictorians enrolled at the Las Vegas campus; nine went to the university at Reno.

A new honors program, enrolling 40 freshmen, also started this fall. However, most students who enter UNLV have modest academic backgrounds.

A year ago, entering freshmen had an average composite score of 17.9 on the American College Testing exam, while the national average was 18.7. On the Scholastic Aptitude Test, entering freshmen averaged 433 in verbal ability and 472 in math skills, just about the national average.

Maxson is also pouring money into biology, performing arts and the College of Hotel Administration, all considered to be among the strongest programs on campus.

"I'm a great believer in watering the green spots," the president said.

The College of Business and Economics hopes to achieve national accreditation by the spring of 1987 and expects to offer a master's degree in business administration for working executives beginning in 1986 and a doctoral program starting a year later.

In addition to financing the new UNLV engineering school, the Nevada Legislature granted the University of Nevada system a 28% budget increase for the 1985-86 and 1986-87 academic years, the largest increase in recent university history. Included was money for an 11% faculty pay increase this year and a 3% to 5% increase next year, along with money for merit increases.

For the first time in many years, no bills were introduced to abolish faculty tenure.

"I think the university's credibility has been completely restored," said Joseph Foley, a Las Vegas attorney who is a member of the Board of Regents.

John R. McBride, former chairman of the regents, warned, however, "The board shouldn't be too sure about the Legislature's support--that could turn out to be transient."

Although conditions on the Las Vegas campus clearly are better than they were three years ago, some serious problems remain.

5 Years in School

Nevada's per capita expenditures for higher education still rank among the lowest in the nation, so Maxson's fund-raising skills will be sorely tested.

James Deacon, professor of biology and chairman of the Faculty Senate, said money is needed to replace obsolete equipment, hire more secretaries and other support staff for faculty, improve undergraduate counseling and faculty evaluation and make new doctorate programs possible.

Although faculty salaries are higher, they are not high enough to attract professors the university would like to have in such fields as mathematics and computer science.

Maxson's efforts to apply a firm hand to the university's athletic program have encountered resistance from some enthusiastic off-campus basketball and football boosters.

Last year's football team, champions of the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference, had to forfeit all of its victories because seven academically ineligible players were used. At the time, Maxson said he was "terribly embarrassed."

It is still the case, as it has been for years, that only a small percentage of players on the highly touted UNLV basketball teams graduate in five years.

A study by two psychology professors found that basketball players and other UNLV athletes receive much higher grades in physical education classes than in their other course work and that in many cases these grades enable the athletes to remain academically eligible to play.

Some professors are still unhappy about some parts of the faculty code.

They do not like language that permits the university to dismiss tenured professors in cases of curricular or financial "exigency," although faculty leaders on both the Reno and Las Vegas campuses concede that no one has yet been terminated for such reasons.

Nor do they like the fact that the code spells out various offenses for which professors can be disciplined but says nothing about non-teaching staff.

"There are still parts of the code that are in place that are pretty frightening," said Craig Walton, professor of philosophy. "I hate to tempt the gods this way. What we have now is a peace of men and not of law."

'Turned Things Around'

Walton and others hope to persuade the regents to change parts of the code they find objectionable but Dan Klaich, chairman of the Board of Regents, said the board is not considering any code changes.

The malaise into which the university as a whole, and the Las Vegas campus in particular, had drifted three years ago seems, however, to have lifted.

"I think we've turned things around," Maxson said. "There was a great deal of dissension between our faculty and our board . . . but I'm happy to say all those areas have been resolved and I don't hear much about that anymore."

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