Las Vegas Sun

May 26, 2019

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Loss of donations over Jessup ordeal looms over UNLV med school future

UNLV Medical School

Image courtesy of TSK Architects / Co Architects

The future home of the UNLV School of Medicine.

The governor likes it, the UNLV administration likes it, the UNLV medical school likes it, the Legislature likes it, the regents like it and the chancellor likes it.

It may have seemed like a kumbaya moment Friday morning when the Nevada Board of Regents heard a presentation on a plan to split up construction of the med school’s education building into two phases.

But make no mistake: For all of the plan’s support, it hasn’t fixed a major part of what’s broken about the medical school — the loss of millions of dollars in gifts from major university donors. And until the loss of those contributions is addressed, questions will remain about the future of the medical school, including whether it can even be developed beyond the first phase of the new plan.

Although a $25 million donation is safe, and would be used along with a state match to build a library for the medical school in the first phase of the project, UNLV lost at least $22 million in pledged funding this past spring from donors who were angered over the treatment of former President Len Jessup by Chancellor Thom Reilly and a subset of regents. When Jessup announced in April that he was leaving UNLV to become president of Claremont Graduate University, UNLV insiders said his unexpected departure disrupted at least two major corporate donations that would have helped push private funding for the build-out to more than $100 million.

Barbara Atkinson, the medical school’s dean, acknowledged after Friday’s meeting that discussions about the school had only taken place with “a couple of major donors” since Jessup’s departure. With the new plan in place, she said, discussions with donors are the “next stage” in the development strategy.

What that means, however, is there’s no guarantee that the donations can be recouped. And with no guarantee that the state will fund the estimated $180 million education building that would be built in the second phase of the project, UNLV could be left with a second-rate medical school consisting of its current repurposed facility and a new library.

Asked if there was a chance UNLV could be left with only one phase completed, Atkinson said she thought both phases could be accomplished.

“The hope is certainly that we’ll be able to do it,” she said.

Certainly, there’s a lot riding on the medical school, which is needed first and foremost to help resolve an age-old shortage of doctors in Nevada and especially in Clark County. Although there are an average of 251 physicians for every 100,000 people nationally, there are only 189 per 100,000 in Southern Nevada.

In addition, the medical school is expected to spur related development in the health industry, with an estimated economic impact of $3 billion.

For anyone who was unaware of the ugliness at UNLV this past spring, Friday morning’s meeting would have undoubtedly sounded like a step in the right direction. The plan was greeted with great enthusiasm.

“This will move the program forward and will move the university forward simultaneously,” Regent Sam Lieberman said.

“I’m very happy we’re moving this forward, because we desperately need this medical school for the state and we need doctors, doctors, doctors,” his colleague Carol Del Carlo said.

But for those who’ve been watching UNLV, it was notable that the major donors, who have been a regular presence at regents meetings and even flew to Reno this summer for one, weren’t around.