Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2019

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Q+A: Chancellor Reilly on UNLV’s future, alleged attacks on Jessup

Thom Reilly

Thom Reilly, outside the Clark County Government Center, in December 2009. The chancellor at the Nevada System of Higher Education previously served as the county manager for five years.

UNLV President Len Jessup’s announcement Tuesday that he had accepted an offer to lead Claremont Graduate University in California triggered a number of questions about what will come next for UNLV.

Hours after Jessup’s announcement, Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly answered some of those questions during a telephone interview with the Sun. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

Given the high turnover in the UNLV presidency and reports that donors have withdrawn gifts amid accusations of meddling by regents, how concerned are you that the NSHE will be able to attract high-quality applicants for this position?

I think the stability and the focus on the students is the most important. One statement I’ll make is, we (NSHE) have eight institutions and let’s look at the stability that we’ve had with all those institutions that work under the same governance.

For example, at (College of Southern Nevada) we’re recruiting a new president now. That was after a 10-year stint with President (Michael) Richards who retired. If you look at the past president at Desert Research Institute, (he was) a long-standing, long-term president that was just replaced after retiring.

The issue of turnover with any organization is a concern. But just by looking at the applicants that we’ve had with CSN, we’re interviewing for the Western Nevada College because I tapped their president to be the CFO. We had over 100 applicants.

So I think we’ll have great interest (at UNLV). Why? Because I think that Las Vegas is a dynamic area. We have a new medical school that is critically needed in this community and that is going to address a host of health care issues. We have a rising law school, we have a lot of different areas that will attract individuals that are interested in coming here.

I can tell you, one of the focuses I will have for the new president is that we go back to our core for a higher education institution. If individuals come to us, they need to graduate. That is our benchmark. That is what our focus is on: student success.

It’s important that we raise money — that is critical in the community, we need to address the concerns of donors — but we cannot lose sight that our focus is on student success.

All of our institutions need to improve in that area. Just in the last year the persistence rate going from one year to another dropped by 3 percentage points at UNLV. We’re holding all our institutions, including CSN, accountable. We need to graduate individuals. A little bit of college does not do anyone good. We are not faring well nationally when you look at our graduation rates.

What’s the plan for addressing questions that potential candidates might have about donations, turnover and complaints about regents?

What's important to keep in mind, too, is our medical school is fully funded. The Legislature is committed to that, with the governor (Brian Sandoval) in the upcoming budget, so all operational issues are funded.

We definitely need a new building. But keep in mind, we have a law school that is now nationally ranked that for eight to 10 years was in an elementary school. It’s about the program, it’s about the operation; those are fully funded. We will work with donors and listen to their concerns and we will address those issues with any new candidate that’s coming in.

Len Jessup’s supporters contend that the issues that have been raised about him fall far short of the scandals that have led to the ousters of other presidents. How do you respond?

It’s fair to say I had significant operational concerns at UNLV. These are my observations from the eight months that I’ve been there. I purposely, in my evaluation, did not address issues of regents, of their concerns. I addressed the operational concerns. President Jessup is well aware of what those are. I have met with him continuously, and I have expressed my concern through a lot of different means, including the annual evaluation. I meet with him twice a month. So he is well aware of those concerns.

I want to point out that it was President Jessup that came to me to tell me he was done with the presidency. That occurred on March 5. There was no conversation that I ever had with President Jessup about him leaving his president’s position.

He came in and said, "I’m done." Yes, we did have conversations about the timing for that because he said he was done being president.

With a new candidate, we will address the governance issue and if concerns about how we’re governed in Nevada continue to come up, we need to address them head-on as a community. I’m very open for that discussion.

How do you respond to Jessup’s contention that he was subjected to personal and professional attacks for disagreeing with you and members of the board?

If a professional evaluation is an attack, I mean, everybody gets those evaluations. I addressed them through those proper means. If he takes that as an attack, then I’m not sure how to respond to that. My evaluations addressed his strengths, it addressed concerns about outcomes — including student success. That is my role as chancellor, I do that. That’s what I am required to do.

If that is an attack by evaluating a president, I’m not sure what other mechanism we can have.

As far as the address of other regents, that must be addressed with the regents.

How do you respond to Jessup’s contention that he was subjected to unfounded and unjustified opinions?

Those opinions must be addressed with individual regents.

One place where I did have concerns, which did get out, but not by myself, I didn’t release the information, was the issue about the MOU and about the donation (contingent on Jessup's continued tenure). I want to be clear, the Engelstad Foundation are just wonderful members of this community. They have been very gracious, not only for higher education, but for a number of community issues.

A donor can require anything they want when they make the donation, that is up to the donor. The concern that I have and continue to have, is that when that donation is made, when Len received that MOU, that he signed it on behalf of the board, without any legal review and without telling us about it. It specifically related to his continued contract. It’s up to the ethics commission, but it’s pretty clear that a public official cannot sign an agreement that they benefit financially from.

What he should have done if the donor was insistent that his name be put into it, is say he cannot sign it. He cannot sign something that benefits him personally. What he should have done is said, "Chancellor you should look at it or let the board look at it," or at the very least is to have legal look at it. The fact that none of the legal counsel, or any of her staff reviewed that document is unprecedented.

How do you respond to Jessup’s contention that NSHE and the board leaked material that was designed to damage him and UNLV?

First, his personnel evaluation was never leaked because I’ve read every single summary of what it supposedly said and no one has gotten it right. So, I’m confident that nothing in his personnel evaluation was leaked.

As far as the issue with the opinion, it’s unfortunate that it got out, but it doesn’t dismiss the issue. I still have concerns about that. I do have concerns about him signing an agreement that benefitted him personally on behalf of the Board of Regents without sharing that to us and without having legal counsel review it.

So, the fact that someone leaked it, doesn’t dismiss that there is still a concern about that.

How do you respond to this contention by Jessup: Instead of undertaking the contractually required periodic reviews of my performance and the offering of constructive suggestions in the contractually mandated forum and manner, the denunciations of the chancellor and certain regents have improperly been released as unbalanced fodder for the press.

Here’s my denunciation: What statement have I made publicly about Jessup? I’m not sure what that is. I mean his agreement, we definitely have an agreement, he’s the one that came to me and told me he’s done with the presidency. Once he said that, we engaged in conversation about when that would take place.

He’s free to leave at any time. I’m not sure what he means. If that’s comments that the board has made at public meetings or through the press, he needs to address those with them (regents). As far as what statement that I have made, I have acknowledged that I did an evaluation. I acknowledged that I had talked about his strengths, I had acknowledged that I had significant concerns about his deficiencies. That’s factual information.

I’m not sure where the denunciation came in there.

Do you still plan to go forward with the hiring of a chief operating officer?

Yes. The issues have clearly not disappeared. I still have concerns about operational issues. President Jessup and I met on the 28th (of March) to discuss this. I told him I’m very open to how that is structured and that I wanted to talk with his leadership team about if that is someone internally, externally, whether that is a contract or if it’s temporary. I wanted the person to address the operational issues that I had addressed to him. Len Jessup is well aware of what those concerns are. They have not disappeared; they need to be addressed.

Was Jessup fully on board with the COO plan?

We had our first conversation on the 28th. Again, as I told him and his leadership team, I am open to discussion about how we do that and how they could use that to their benefit. The whole reason that issue was put out there and have the evaluation in the fall, is it would give him time to address those issues. The COO was one person that could help address those issues. So, when the evaluation came, they could make progress in addressing those concerns I outlined.

It’s unclear from your statement and Len Jessup’s what might happen between now and July 1 when he begins his duties at Claremont. Can you shed any light on what will happen? If that hasn’t been fully determined, why not?

President Jessup hasn’t communicated anything to me. I read his statement … and he said he’s staying until after commencement, so I take that is until mid-May. Then he is starting his job in July. He hasn’t communicated any official date of what his resignation is prior to July 1.

As far as the process moving forward, there’s a couple of stages. One is, there is something called the officer in charge that the president designates. So, in this case, if he is not there or is absent, there is somebody that is there in charge.

The next conversations we would have is meeting with students and faculty to get their input about how we move forward. That could include two different avenues.

One is it could include the appointment of an interim president. An interim is like a trial position, where faculty and staff might suggest that this person is given the chance to be in that position.

Or they can say they want an acting president. An acting president is one that does apply for the position but would be in that role while there is a search. The could, or could not be, the same person as the officer in charge.

The system is set up that there would always be a person in a leadership position. So, when Len leaves sometime after commencement, the office in charge would take over.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I want to be real clear that the discussion about Len leaving came from him. I never had a conversation with him up until the time he came into my office on March 5 saying that he was done and that he wanted to move on. Yes, we did have conversations after that about the timing, but I never brought up the issue of him ending his presidency.