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Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010 | 2 a.m.
On the Strip, that length of Las Vegas that is part Blade Runner and all Disneyland, there is someone who is neither.
He is Jim Murren, chairman of MGM Resorts International, one of the biggest casino operators in the world. At 47,000 employees, all but 1,000 in Clark County, MGM is the state’s largest private employer.
Murren, 48, is worried about education and wants to counter something he has heard too often:
Why, the reasoning goes, stay in school when you can make a good living parking cars at the Bellagio?
As the boss of the Bellagio, Murren sees red:
“I’m enraged with that statement. It is devoid of logic and fact and any understanding of who we are as a company or the industry or reality.”
Because new jobs are scarce, Murren added, “with a company like ours that depends solely on the health of the community for our existence, we have to value education. A highly educated workforce is obviously better for us as the largest employer.”
Murren has lived in Las Vegas for 13 years and grew up in Fairfield, Conn., where his family was middle-class in a wealthy town. The son of a housewife and a former Roman Catholic seminarian turned attorney, Murren attended public schools.
He graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, where he concentrated on art history and urban studies. He thought he might become an architect.
But Murren became a financial analyst on Wall Street and was hired as a numbers man at MGM, where he became chairman in 2008.
MGM’s stock peaked at nearly $100 a share in 2007, spiraled downward to less than $2 in 2009, and has leveled off at more than $11 recently.
CityCenter, Murren’s brainchild of chrome and ambition, skirted bankruptcy last year. He once described CityCenter as a “corporate near-death experience.”
Last week, Murren received an “Education Hero” award from the Public Education Foundation for his philanthropy and advocacy. In an interview, he talked about education — his own and that in Nevada — as well as the need to cut state expenses and raise taxes.
Excerpts from the interview:
Why did you choose Trinity College?
“I wanted to go to a smaller school, not across the country ... I preferred to be able to drive to where I’m going to school. I didn’t know what I wanted to go into, but I wanted a liberal arts education. I felt very strongly that if I could develop my communications skills, become a better writer, communicate in public — that would be helpful to me. And Trinity gave me financial aid.”
You love art and math. How does that work?
“I’m left-handed (laughs). My mom is an amateur artist. I took oil painting classes very early. I had my own little shows in the library in Fairfield. I love to paint. I love the serenity of it; I love being by myself. But, yes, I’ve always been good at math. Math always came easy to me. I first took calculus in high school. Then in college I took economics.”
If I were a man from Mars, what would you tell me about education in Nevada?
“I would say ‘needs improvement.’ There are quality educators. But it is a far, far cry from where we should be, given the community that we are. It’s a product of underinvestment for decades. It’s a product of a lack of accountability and leadership in certain areas. It’s a very big disconnect between what I otherwise believe to be some high-quality life experiences that (smiles) you as a man from Mars would enjoy.”
What to do?
“Are we underfunded? Yes. Are we also not funding correctly? Yes. From a businessperson’s perspective, I have to look at this problem like I would look at the problems we have here” at MGM. “It has to be done from a bottom-up perspective.”
“No. 1, be part of the dialogue, and we are.” (Murren is a member of various education boards, including the UNLV Foundation board of trustees.) “No. 2, I would do an inventory of where we stand today. A very candid, clear inventory of our assets and where our gaps are, where higher education is, where K through 12 is.”
What about higher education?
“No. 1, I would determine that bigger is not better. It isn’t in my business. Better is better. When I look at the university system, I would identify programs where we’ve already developed competencies and invest in them. I would invest more in the hotel school, anything to do with medicine, nursing, primary care and health services in general.”
What about elementary, middle and high schools?
“I do believe class sizes are too large; I believe we need to keep children in school. I do believe that teachers should be held accountable for performance. What’s missing is we can’t find the right metric to hold teachers accountable.”
How would you evaluate teachers?
“The take-away I get from talking to teachers is they know who the good teachers are and who the bad teachers are. There are qualitative and quantitative measures, but you have to empower the schools. It has to be done at the local level because one size doesn’t fit all. We learned the mosaic principle on Wall Street: You take bits and pieces from different sources and put them together for an investment thesis. And we don’t just look at the numbers.”
What about the $3 billion budget deficit?
“We need to raise taxes in certain areas. We have to. I’m a Republican and I’m not supposed to say that. But there is no company that will be receptive to raising revenue if it doesn’t come with some very serious thought on reducing expenses. We are going to need some very brave men and women in Carson City. I am looking for some heroes.”