Las Vegas Sun

March 26, 2019

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Ex-UNLV institute head fears witch hunt

The former executive director of UNLV's Institute for Security Studies says he is concerned that he is being set up to take some of the blame for the recent problems at the counterterrorism organization even though he left the agency a year and a half ago.

Lee Van Arsdale, who ran the institute from its inception in July 2003 through February 2005, said he was surprised and troubled by a notice he received from UNLV last week saying that his "character, alleged misconduct, competence or health" may surface at Friday's special Board of Regents meeting on the institute.

The letter was one of 19, all with the same generic language, that UNLV General Counsel Richard Linstrom sent to current and former university and institute employees whose names are expected to come up during the meeting.

Under the Nevada Open Meeting Law, Van Arsdale and the other recipients - including former UNLV President Carol Harter and some of her top administrators - have to be notified in writing and given an opportunity to attend.

"These are routine letters containing statutory language that are not intended to target any individual," Linstrom said.

Van Arsdale, though, wrote the general counsel's office last week expressing his concern about "both the language and tone" of the letter.

"This looks a lot like a witch hunt, and I'm reluctant, to say the least, to be complicit in having my name dragged through the mud at a public hearing that I won't be able to attend," Van Arsdale wrote.

In the letter, Van Arsdale said he had been interviewed by the Sun about the institute but had not been contacted by UNLV officials or regents to get his perspective on the agency, which has been criticized for its secretive ways and failing to meet promised academic objectives.

"Imagine my chagrin when the first contact I have from UNLV is a letter from you," he told the general counsel's office. "I've been advised by counsel not to sign the letter, and I think that's sound advice."

Van Arsdale, a former Army Delta Force commander who now runs the fast-growing Triple Canopy Inc. security firm in Herndon, Va., said the institute did not maintain an aura of secrecy when he was at the helm. He said he never turned down an interview with reporters and regularly briefed UNLV officials and sometimes regents on the institute's activities.

"During this entire time, my character, conduct, competence or health was never questioned," he wrote. "Again, I must ask, have I been accused of something?

"Please forgive the tone here. I realize you're probably the messenger - but I sincerely believe that UNLV has lost a significant opportunity with the ISS and is continuing to badly misplay its hand by treating me, and probably others, in this fashion."

Van Arsdale told the Sun in an interview last week that he shares the view of those within and outside the university system that the institute has fallen short of its academic goals.

"It's gone in a different direction from its original mission approved by the Board of Regents," he said. "With the talent in Las Vegas, we were poised to become a hub for national security affairs."

Van Arsdale, a West Point graduate who served as a military consultant for the movie "Black Hawk Down," said the institute's focus was supposed to be on education.

"The plan was to have undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D programs," he said.

No undergraduate or doctorate programs were ever launched, however, and the executive master's program in crisis and emergency management collapsed after one pilot class that graduated 17 students. The institute also has not published research in any academic journals, instead focusing most of its efforts on technical research and homeland security training performed elsewhere in the country.

Van Arsdale said the institute was approved by the regents as a "stand-alone" organization under the control of UNLV's Graduate College. But it ended up being placed under the wing of the UNLV Research Foundation, a semi-independent fundraising arm of the university.

"Nowhere did anyone say the Research Foundation was going to absorb the ISS but that's what happened," he said.

Van Arsdale said he "fought that off" while he ran the institute, but the foundation took over after he left.