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Ana Ley
 

Internal criticism shaking up UNLV's hotel college

10 August 2015

UNLV's prized hospitality school is in upheaval, with faculty and staff airing a litany of grievances over department cutbacks, slumping morale and clashes with leadership.

"It's a toxic work environment," said retired hospitality professor Curtis Love, who left his job at the hotel college three months ago. "People feel so threatened."

Southern Nevada's economy is fueled by a $50 billion tourism industry, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and the hotel school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is a valued institution — one regularly ranked among the nation's best hospitality programs. The first-ever internal survey, which offers a rare glimpse of the inner workings at one of the university's signature programs, highlighted concerns among faculty that rampant dysfunction is jeopardizing the college's reputation as an industry leader.

"This was once a premier college of hotel administration, but no more," one survey respondent lamented. "We are a shadow of what we once were."

A COLLEGE DIVIDED

The hotel college review, conducted by faculty from UNLV's business school, found that at least 45% of those surveyed are unhappy at work. More than half of the school's 88 faculty and staff members took the anonymous online survey, and their responses were compared with those from a similar questionnaire distributed to the entire university in March. By contrast, only 15% of employees in the university-wide survey said they are dissatisfied with their jobs.

Common themes raised in the hotel college survey included a lot of criticism — and some praise — of Dean Stowe Shoemaker's leadership style. Concerns also were voiced about the recent consolidation of the school's four departments, an exaggerated emphasis on research and a lack of transparency from decision-makers.

Many of those surveyed wrote about a climate of fear and retaliation created by Shoemaker. At least 63 of the 184 comments in the survey named the dean as the main problem, though some said they supported him. A few offered mixed criticism, praising his ability as a scholar but condemning his management approach.

"When I look at these comments about me personally, I think — OK, clearly there are some areas that I need improvement on," Shoemaker said during a July interview. "My goal at the end of the day is taking care of our students, so I don't take it personally. This is not about me — this is about education."

SWEEPING PROGRAM CHANGES

Employees who spoke to the Review-Journal on the condition of anonymity because they fear retribution say the survey reflects years of mounting frustration at the school, whose organizational structure has undergone a dramatic transformation under the leadership of Shoemaker and his predecessor, Donald Snyder. The survey was carried out at the request of hotel college faculty.

Sweeping change began when Snyder — who went on to a brief stint as UNLV's interim president — announced in 2010 a plan to disband the school's four undergraduate departments and eliminate nine majors, funneling classes into a single course of study. The eliminated bachelor's programs focused on tourism and convention administration, food and beverage management, hotel administration management, and sports and recreation management.

The consolidation, which shaved millions in costs as UNLV grappled with the aftermath of the recent economic downturn, aligned the hotel college with other well-regarded hospitality schools that have a concentrated curriculum structure, such as those at New York's Cornell University and the University of Houston. Snyder said the move also united faculty, who had grown divided since the departments were established in 2004.

But many within UNLV's hotel college dislike the streamlined structure. They say the school can't produce specialized graduates the way it once did. Another big loss: Department chair positions were cut in the restructuring, reducing faculty's ability to influence major decisions made by the dean, such as granting tenure to a professor or determining the fate of school programs.

Since taking the helm in 2013, Shoemaker has followed Snyder's lead in restructuring, and he has implemented other changes of his own, such as emphasizing faculty's focus on research-oriented work. That, too, has displeased many faculty members.

"The dean doesn't seem to care at all what the faculty think about anything," another survey respondent wrote. "He's running this college like a dictatorship, which is why some people want the departments back. The dean is not a leader — he is a ruler."

AN INDUSTRY LEADER

Administrators and faculty alike worry that internal strife will tarnish the hotel college's image. The school is highly regarded: In 2009, the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research ranked UNLV as having the fourth-best hospitality and tourism program in the world, preceded in descending order by The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Cornell University and Michigan State University.

They also fear that negative attention will compromise efforts to draw donations for a new $56 million hotel college building. It's about $13 million away from that goal.

But industry leaders in Southern Nevada who recruit from the school seem unfazed.

"From a hiring perspective, students here have working knowledge that some other schools can't give them," said Dan Nogal, head recruiter at Boyd Gaming Corp. "This is one of our most well-represented colleges."

Boyd is one of three casino companies that each gave the school $2.5 million in June to fund the new facility. About 200 of Boyd's 20,000 employees are UNLV graduates, including Nogal.

Casino developer Dave Hanlon, who was president of the Rio in the 1990s, lauded Shoemaker's efforts to raise the school's research standards, even if he is doing it to the chagrin of some faculty and staff.

"Whenever you have any kind of change, some people will be resistant," Hanlon said. "I say, if you're perfectly glad where you are and you're not moving forward, you're moving backward."

A NEW VISION

After the spring review's release, UNLV administrators led a group meeting with hotel college staff and faculty to discuss their concerns. Led by interim Provost Nancy Rapoport, the discussion launched an administrative effort to collaborate with employees on a new vision for the school, which could produce another curriculum restructuring — the third in just over a decade.

They will gather again this month once classes resume.

"What I would like to see is a good, full discussion of what we want to accomplish in the next 10 years," said Rapoport, a UNLV law professor who became provost July 1. "It's time for the whole university to envision top-tier status and figure out what goals we can set to make that happen."

Shoemaker said he hopes the meetings will launch a better dialogue with his employees.

"Everybody who works at the college loves the college," Shoemaker said. "We all have the same goals. Now, it's just: 'How do we best take care of our students?'"
Internal criticism shaking up UNLV's hotel college is republished from CasinoVendors.com.
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