Las Vegas Sun

July 18, 2019

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Meana ready to put her twist on presidency, and UNLV

Acting UNLV President Marta Meana

Steve Marcus

Marta Meana, UNLV acting president, listens to a question during an editorial board meeting at the Las Vegas Sun offices Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018.

Marta Meana interviewed at a number of universities in the mid-1990s, but none was quite like UNLV.

“There was something about the energy and drive that I felt here — this feeling that anything is possible in this town and at this university,” Meana said. “Compared to some of the East Coast universities where the turf is already defined, this place felt to me like it was so full of opportunity and so open to thinking differently.”

Talk about opportunity: 21 years after accepting an offer to join UNLV faculty as a psychology professor, Meana finds herself at the helm of the university.

Meana was named acting president in June, after having served six years as the dean of UNLV’s Honors College.

She takes over the university at a tense time after the departure of former President Len Jessup, who resigned amid criticism by Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly and several members of the state board of regents. The situation prompted an outcry from a number of high-profile UNLV donors, who believed that Jessup had done an exceptional job and been treated unfairly. Suggesting that Reilly and the regents disrupted UNLV to the advantage of UNR and Northern Nevada political forces, donors rescinded several multimillion-dollar contributions or announced they were reconsidering those gifts.

Enter Meana, whose job is to keep the university moving forward while Reilly and the regents search for a long-term president.

In an interview last week with the Sun, Meana said she would push ahead on such key initiatives as UNLV’s drives to become a top-level research institution and join a Power Five athletic conference.

“I’m trying to help a place that I love, that I’ve called home for 21 years,” she said, starting an hour-long conversation in which she covered a number of topics.

Edited excerpts follow:

You’re not seeing this as a caretaker role, as we understand it.

Not at all. I would not have accepted the position if I was solely going to be a seat-warmer. I want to be very active in continuing the momentum that we had, which I am very proud of. My intent is to be a very active acting president.

Have you been given free rein by the chancellor and regents?

I have been given free rein thus far to try to do whatever I can to continue promoting the university, to continue our progress for Top Tier (research status). I have my twists on the vision of Top Tier: Every leader has their own style, so I have my twists on it.

What are those twists?

I have a very big emphasis on two areas of it. One is student success, because to me the primary goal of this institution is to further the lives and careers and education of students in the state. But the other one is a vision of this university as really fully integrated into the community, so we don’t identify it as being on a particular street corner but that we really have our arms and our fingers into the entire valley.

My vision is that UNLV and Las Vegas are really kind of interchangeable, and we’re integrated through public-private partnerships, through internships, through cultural events, through capacity building of nonprofits. We need to be at all of these tables. We need to be on everyone’s minds, and the community has to be on our mind.

I think we’re doing it even physically already, with the North Las Vegas campus, the Harry Reid Research and Technology Park. We’re doing it physically, but I want us to be really at the core of this community in terms of people thinking about what Las Vegas is, that UNLV comes to mind.

In the area of student success, what should UNLV be doing differently or in addition to what it’s doing now? This has been an area of emphasis for the chancellor and some of the regents.

I wouldn’t say that student success is a mandate from the chancellor or the regents, because I consider it a personal mandate. Who wouldn’t be for student success and retention and graduation?

So I think what we’ve done sometimes is talk about the reasons why it’s difficult to achieve student success at a much higher level. What I want to do is change the conversation to: These are our conditions, and given the conditions — our high number of first-generation students and low-income students who have to work — how do we move the needle?

That’s a very different framing from saying, “Well, these are the conditions we’re dealing with, what can you do?”

Our framing will be, “Given those conditions, how do we get creative around that?”

Does that involve lowering standards?

Not even close. It’s heightening the expectations of students, and when you heighten their expectations, they meet them. I saw this at the Honors College.

It’s about giving students the support to succeed and to believe that they can.

Will that require more resources?

Yes, of course. Everything good does, right? But if we can put together a business plan for student success, I believe we’ll get those resources.

What’s your message to the university’s supporters after the turmoil over Jessup?

I’m reaching out and saying that what we’re betting on is the same group of students and the same community. It’s not about betting on any individual, it’s betting on a mission that’s bigger than any one of us.

I’ve started having that conversation with community members. The message is that our students still need you.

I continue to ask them to invest in a future that I think is very bright. Whatever has happened here in the past, we’re a university that in 20 years got a law school, a med school and a school of dental medicine. We continue to grow in every way that matters, and succeed in every way that matters. That’s my focus in my conversations with the community, and it’s my focus in my work every day.

Len Jessup was UNLV’s fifth president since 2006, including Don Snyder’s year as acting president in 2014-15. How important is it to establish continuity in leadership?

It’s important, but to put it in perspective, the continuity at universities across the country is not that great, either. These are positions that have come to have shorter tenures than in the past when people were presidents for 20 years.

And there is a continuity here. Certainly, I’m continuing a vision that was in place a year ago, two years ago, three years ago.

So the faces may have changed, the people may have changed, but the goal, the vision and the mission of this university has not. And that’s much more important than personalities, is what I’d argue.

Did you indicate that you weren’t interested in being considered for the permanent presidency?

I was approached about an acting presidency, and that’s what I agreed to take on, to help as long as I’m needed.

Would you consider it?

It would depend on too many things that I can’t judge right now.

What are some of the things you’re excited about?

We’re a Hispanic Serving Institution, which makes us eligible for some federal funds to conduct research but also engage in these kind of programs and support to increase retention and graduation rates. So we are going to be revving that up with Barbee Oakes, who’s our vice president for diversity. We have an incredible little multicultural center that is academically focused, to again help our diverse students stay connected and navigate.

We’re doing all sorts of cool things. The grad school started a program where we start mentoring undergrads and creating a pipeline into grad school. Of course, we have the big goal of everybody getting a college degree, but also we want to encourage students to go even further.

We have a program where we’re working with high schools to do a dual-credit program where students can take up to 30 credits at the university that back-transfer for their high school diploma.

Those are just a few things.

How about on capital projects?

We’re making good progress on the medical school building — and I’ll hopefully have something more specifically to say about that at the end of the month. So we’re very excited about that.

We’ve got an engineering building being planned. We’re talking about a fine arts building, also.

Then there’s the expansion of the Student Union, which we’ve outgrown.

What do you want the community to know about UNLV?

That we’re not stalling out. That despite what happened this spring, we are on course at the same speed.