Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2018

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Jessup urges UNLV supporters to keep rallying for the university

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Christopher DeVargas

In this file photo, UNLV President Len Jessup sits down with editorial staff at Las Vegas Sun. In his first interview since resigning as president, Jessup called his time at the university “a complete honor and a privilege.”

Len Jessup says his lasting memories from UNLV will include a number of big-splash moments, such as celebrations of fundraising and enrollment milestones, the opening of the university’s medical school and the successful 2016 presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center.

But in his first interview since resigning as UNLV’s president, Jessup said he also would remember things that happened far more quietly but were just as meaningful to him.

“One was working with Conrad Wilson, who is one of the groundskeepers there, in getting the tuition discount extended to the classified staff so their dependents could go to school with significantly discounted rates,” he said. “That’s a benefit that faculty and other employees enjoy but the classified staff was never able to enjoy. So we were able to get that extended and approved, and I’m incredibly proud of that. It was something that flew under the radar, but it was important to me.”

Jessup spent 3 1/2 years overseeing UNLV, during which time the university made progress on a number of fronts big and small. It advanced toward becoming a top-tier research institution, with the university expected to surpass $70 million in new research funding this fiscal year. It topped 30,000 students in enrollment, and in Jessup’s last year set a fundraising record of $93 million. The medical school welcomed its inaugural class in 2017, and capital improvement projects included construction of the $56 million building for the elite William F. Harrah College of Hospitality. And in one of Jessup’s proudest achievements, the university ranked in a three-way tie as one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation.

Jessup said something that can’t be measured — community and campus support — also made an indelible impression on him.

“I was amazed at how people rallied together during the time I was there, both on campus and off, around the top-tier strategic plan and various other initiatives,” he said. “In a career in higher education that spans decades, I don't think I'd seen anything quite like that, with people coming together to support the university.”

But then came an abrupt and dramatic end to Jessup’s presidency. Facing criticism from a subset of the Nevada Board of Regents and Chancellor Thom Reilly over a number of issues, such as cost overruns from the presidential debate and a controversial multimillion-dollar donation that was contingent on Jessup being retained as president, Jessup announced in March that he was seeking another job.

The situation caused an uproar in the community, with several prominent UNLV boosters accusing the regents and Reilly of overblowing minor problems to push Jessup out of Las Vegas.

In a rebuke of Reilly and the regents, at least three megadonors either withdrew gifts or said they were reconsidering future contributions.

But the die was cast. In early April, citing what he called “unfounded and unjustified” attacks, Jessup announced he was leaving UNLV to become president of Claremont Graduate University in California.

Jessup, in his interview this week, spoke on the condition that he wouldn’t discuss his separation from UNLV.

But he did give his assessment on the state of the university and his outlook on its trajectory. He also offered words of encouragement to UNLV supporters, saying he was confident the university would remain on an upward swing despite the disruption in leadership. Marta Meana, the dean of the UNLV Honors College, has been named acting president pending the start of a national search for a new president in the fall.

Jessup urged supporters to work with Meana and encourage decision-makers to maintain progress on the research initiative, which will not only help UNLV attract talented faculty and students but could create new economic development opportunities for the Las Vegas Valley.

“The top-tier strategic plan was successful because it was a bottom-up process in developing it,” he said. “It was the campus’ and the community’s plan in how to make UNLV better, and I think that’s why people rallied so much around it. So I think that the university and really the community needs for the university to continue on that path.”

Asked what he hoped to see in terms of support from local, state and congressional leaders, Jessup said he also hoped state lawmakers would continue to support the medical school during the 2019 legislative session. The school has undergone turmoil related to Jessup’s departure, with plans for a new building that would allow it to increase its class size taking a blow when the donors pulled gifts. There was also anxiety among faculty and staff during the spring over rumors that officials were considering not giving Dean Barbara Atkinson a new contract. Atkinson eventually received a one-year, renewable contract.

“That (supporting the medical school) is probably the most important thing that our legislators can do in the spring, not only for the university but the community because of the need for doctors and the economic impact,” he said.

Once fully developed, with its new building and larger class sizes, the medical school’s economic impact has been estimated at $1.2 billion annually.

Lawmakers could also help UNLV by addressing a state funding formula that has led to an imbalance in funding among state institutions, Jessup said. UNLV receives $6,021 per full-time student while UNR gets $8,355, for example.

“I think there are tweaks that can be made to continue to improve it,” he said. “Because of the rapid growth at UNLV, the velocity of that is so intense, and I’m not sure that the funding formula is able to keep up with it or reward the growth quickly enough.”

Although Jessup was the fourth president to be pressured out of UNLV since 2006, he had an optimistic view when asked whether he thought the disruption in leadership would knock the university off track in its strategic goals — achieving top-tier research status, improving student achievement, etc.

“I think it was a smart move to go with someone internally like Marta in order to keep that momentum going,” he said. “It would have been more of an impediment, I think, if it had been someone coming in from the outside who wasn’t familiar with the university and the trajectory for the university. There would have been more of a pause. Now, I think there can be a seamless transition to someone who’s not only capable and very competent but is familiar with the university and where it’s headed.”

Jessup and his companion, Kristi Staab, are building a townhome in Las Vegas and plan to return on a regular basis. Among the occasions already on their calendar: graduation of the first class of medical school cohorts (Jessup and Staab funded a scholarship for the school), and the first game at the Raiders stadium.

“I don’t know that I would change anything,” he said. “I was very, very privileged to sit in the seat, metaphorically speaking. I remember beginning there, and we did a leadership retreat. We were sitting in a circle, and I said, ‘We’re all in these seats for a brief, fleeting moment, and it’s a privilege to be here. Let’s make the most of it.’

“And that’s kind of how I looked at it: a complete honor and a privilege. I don’t know that I would have changed any of it. I loved it.”