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March 21, 2019

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Analysis: Jessup’s uncertain future at UNLV alarms supporters

2017 State of the University Address

Steve Marcus

UNLV President Len Jessup delivers the State of the University address at Judy Bayley Theatre on UNLV campus Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017.

UNLV President Len Jessup and Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly have been in discussions over the past several weeks about Jessup leaving the university, perhaps as soon as the end of this semester, sources close to the situation said Tuesday.

Jessup, who is three years into a five-year contract, has faced criticism from some members of the Nevada Board of Regents over several management issues at UNLV. Those include cost overruns from the 2016 presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center, fundraising for the UNLV Medical School building and, most recently, the university’s response to the discovery that a dentist in its School of Dental Medicine had reused equipment intended for single-use in performing dozens of dental implants.

Neither Jessup nor Reilly would discuss news reports that emerged Tuesday saying Jessup’s resignation was imminent. But sources said the two have been involved in ongoing discussions over Jessup’s exit.

Tuesday’s development capped what have been several uneasy, infuriating weeks for Jessup’s supporters in Southern Nevada.

Uneasy because of rumors that a faction within the Nevada Board of Regents was seeking to oust him.

Infuriating because they believed Jessup was being criticized by the regents when he should have been receiving praise for leading the university to a string of successes and putting it on a pathway to become the state’s most prestigious institution of higher education.

“This is a man who could transform this community if only the regents would get out of his way,” said a significant UNLV donor.

During interviews over the past three weeks, the donor and others offered several theories about why the regents were targeting Jessup. Some suspect it’s a matter of Nevada’s north-south political rivalry and what they contend is a long history of UNLV being undercut to the benefit of UNR. Some say it happened because Jessup’s critics on the board have overblown a couple of missteps he has made in dealing with them.

But they say that pushing Jessup out after three years on the job threatens to knock the university off track in its goal to become a top-level research institution, create a chilling effect in attracting talented leaders to replace Jessup and his team, throw fundraising commitments into question and disrupt relationships that Jessup has been building with a large number of community organizations and civic leaders.

One regent, J.T. Moran III, said he was dismayed by the way some of his colleagues had treated Jessup.

“If you start with the idea that no one is perfect, the way I look at Len Jessup’s accomplishments over the three short years that he has been at UNLV is with a high degree of respect and admiration for this most talented leader,” he said. “What I don’t condone is the way some small-minded people on the Board of Regents have decided to do their best to chase Len away. That is insanity.”

Jessup’s defenders say his critics have treated him grossly unfairly. The criticisms that have been leveled against UNLV can all be picked apart, they say, and none of them rises to the level of scandals that have shaken other universities — think sexual assaults at Michigan State University or at the Penn State athletic program under the late coach Joe Paterno, for instance.

They also express frustration that the complaints are being aired publicly. The constructive, professional approach would be for the regents to raise their concerns privately with Reilly and Jessup, and work toward resolution out of the public eye, going public only as a last resort.

“Who are we kidding? It will be nearly impossible to find a replacement for Len once the candidates understand the way Len was chased from UNLV,” Moran said. “It would be better and far more productive if we get past this unpleasantness by talking through the issues and showing the same kind of support at the board level that Len obviously enjoys throughout the Southern Nevada community.”

Jessup’s supporters acknowledge that UNLV has its problems as a big, complicated institution that for decades has been mired in mediocrity. But they say Jessup has been addressing them.

With adequate time and support, they say, they’re confident he can keep up the pace of the extraordinary progress he’s made in his three years.

• • •

Although Jessup has been at UNLV a relatively short time, he has made an outsized impression on community leaders and his education counterparts outside of the state.

Jessup has served on several high-profile community boards — including the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee, which helped bring the Raiders stadium deal and the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion projects to fruition — and recently became UNLV’s first winner of the annual CEO Award from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, a fundraising industry association.

“Under his leadership, UNLV is distinguishing itself as an inclusive, diverse institution that’s improving access to education and developing the next generation of professionals in fields ranging from health care to hospitality,” said Scott Roberts, vice president for the Division of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement and president of the UNLV Foundation, in nominating Jessup for the award.

“I kind of wonder when he sleeps,” says Bill Noonan, senior vice president of industry and government affairs for Boyd Gaming Corp. “I'm pretty busy around the community, and he's at everything. He's really very visible, and he's very approachable. I talk to him on the phone frequently. To the business community, I'm not sure we could ask for a better partner.”

Noonan and a chorus of other local leaders say Jessup and his administrative team have UNLV moving on an impressive trajectory, which in turn is helping fuel Southern Nevada’s post-recession economic surge.

Among the highlights:

UNLV and Las Vegas received an estimated $113 million in publicity value for the presidential debate, which also generated educational opportunities not only for UNLV students but for local high school students. Applications from students have increased since the debate, and although it’s impossible to tell whether that’s a direct result of the publicity from the event, longtime UNLV administrator Don Snyder said “the feedback from many students is that the visibility during the debate is what got their attention about UNLV.” The event was the result of a successful and innovative partnership between with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which contributed $4 million in hotel tax revenue to cover a portion of the costs. Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the authority, said the debate helped his organization counter the perception that Las Vegas may be a great vacation spot but isn’t a serious place to do business or raise a family. “Being asked to make a bid for a presidential debate was a perfect way for us not only to showcase the business side of Las Vegas, but the community overall as well as UNLV, both on a national basis and an international basis,” he said.

The William F. Harrah College of Hospitality’s new building opened in January. The building was the product of a public-private partnership, with $29 million of the construction costs coming from Nevada and $27 million coming from private donors. It features styling cues taken from the Strip’s most modern resorts, such as sleek lobby furnishings, a coffee cafe and boutique bathroom fixtures.

The UNLV School of Medicine named its first class last year, and full-ride scholarships for all 60 members of the class were funded by the Engelstad Family Foundation and other donors. A fundraising campaign for a medical school building remains in progress, with the total now at $64 million, including a $25 million anonymous donation, a $25 million match by the state and $14 million from the Engelstad foundation.

UNLV and the Raiders came to terms on an agreement for the Rebel football team to use the NFL team’s $1.9 billion stadium. By moving from Sam Boyd Stadium on the far east edge of the valley to the Raiders stadium, university officials hope UNLV will be able to join a top-level collegiate conference, like the Pac-12 or the Big 12, where schools receive more media exposure and more shared revenue than institutions in the Mountain West Conference. “The stadium has a chance to transform sports for UNLV,” said Jonas Peterson, president of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance.” In addition, UNLV broke ground on the $28 million Fertitta Football Complex in January. More than $23 million has been raised for the two-story, 73,000-square-foot training facility, which is expected to open next year.

The significant donor to the university said that until recently, she had been unaware of how much the university had accomplished under Jessup. Then someone gave her a list of the university’s strides and Jessup’s service on community boards. It was 12 pages long.

“I realized we were looking at an extraordinary leader,” she said.

• • •

Snyder, a former commercial banking and gaming executive who served as College of Hotel Administration dean and as a UNLV Foundation board member, said UNLV was in excellent hands.

“I can tell you that absolutely and definitively that the quality of the leadership team at the dean and administrative level is stronger, broader in their experience and more effective in their disciplines than at any time in my 30-year history at UNLV,” he said.

Noonan and Bill Hornbuckle, president of MGM Resorts International, said UNLV had found an exceptional community liaison in Jessup. Both men saw Jessup in action as members of the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee, which hammered out the Raiders stadium deal and the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion. Jessup was vice chairman of the committee.

“Len’s work played a role in delivering more than $3 billion in infrastructure and facilities that will benefit not only UNLV specifically, but the broader business community for years to come,” Hornbuckle said in a statement, who also praised Jessup for bringing “a calm and straightforward demeanor” to the committee.

Noonan said the committee role put Jessup in a delicate position. Given that the panel’s members included competing businesses that stood to either gain or lose from the projects, Jessup faced the risk of alienating a UNLV partner by showing favoritism.

Noonan said Jessup brought a positive, forward-looking demeanor to the role, which has also helped him establish relationships with a number of local businesses.

“I think he’s done a phenomenal job in keeping the business community plugged into what’s happening at UNLV — more so than other university presidents I’ve seen, and I’ve been in town for almost 30 years,” Noonan said.

• • •

But while Jessup’s supporters in Southern Nevada cheer him, he’s received a different reaction from some regents.

Take the debate. When the university encountered cost overruns that raised the price tag from the original $4 million estimate to about $8 million, Regent Trevor Hayes criticized the administration.

“Initially when the debate came up, it seemed like a great way to highlight UNLV and Nevada,” Hayes said during a board meeting. “I think the cost was just way too high for what we got out of it.”

Hayes and other regents said they were unhappy that the university didn’t notify them about the overruns, which were first reported in the media.

But Snyder, Ralenkotter and several others say there’s no question that the event, even with the overruns, was a priceless investment for the community.

Ralenkotter said the telecast was viewed by 71.5 million people, and that doesn’t count those who watched online or from overseas. In addition, staff members from TV stations, newspapers and magazines spent days before the event reporting from Las Vegas, which gave the community more exposure.

“When we were finished, a couple of days later I saw Don Snyder and Len, and we all looked at each other and said, 'Let's do this again,’” Ralenkotter said. “We felt it was such an important thing for Las Vegas to be involved with that if we had the opportunity, we'd do it again.”

Others counter the regents’ complaints by noting that every debate generated cost overruns, mostly related to the need for increased security measures. And thanks to the partnership with the LVCVA, the share of the costs borne by the university were lower than those paid by other schools, such as Washington University in St. Louis ($6 million) and Hofstra ($6.5 million).

“I'm really frustrated that we're still talking about this,” Snyder said. “Geez, we should be celebrating it, and we should be planning for how we get the next one as opposed to continually groveling over things that don't deserve to be groveled over.”

Michael Brown, president of Barrick Gold Corp., which helped sponsor the debate, said he also was disappointed to hear the criticism. He had no complaints about the event.

“Coming out of the recession, for Las Vegas to host the last presidential debate — the most important one? I thought it was amazing,” he said. “I kept meeting businesspeople from the East Coast and around the world who had never seen Las Vegas in this way. I think it was a seminal moment for Las Vegas to do this. It put the city in a wonderful light.”

• • •

Hayes and others also have complained about the fundraising effort for the medical school, including that the university didn’t notify the regents before obtaining the matching state funds for the $25 million anonymous donation.

Regent Jason Geddes said that while he didn’t blame Jessup specifically, he was not happy with UNLV’s progress on the school. He said UNLV administrators and donors had been telling the regents since 2012 that if the university were allowed to operate its own medical school — as opposed to a branch of UNR’s medical school — and if the state would approve funding for it, there would be no problem raising private donations for the facility.

But with $64 million raised for a building that would cost $135 million to $250 million depending on the design, he said, he considers progress “relatively slow.”

More recently, Hayes accused UNLV of being secretive about cost estimates for the building, suggesting that the university had not revealed to elected leaders that an original estimate of $100 million had grown to $200 million or more.

But that’s not the case. In a June 2017 hearing on the matter before the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, a legislative staff member said NSHE indicated that “the total construction costs for the new medical building would be potentially anywhere from $100 million to $200 million.”

Jessup’s supporters say complaints like those are off-base and are poisonous to the school’s progress.

They point out that the university set an aggressive timeline to obtain the funding, and they express confidence that the money will come — assuming there’s continuity in leadership.

Instead of carping, the supporters say, the regents should be working with Jessup to help bring the project to fruition.

“Clear the runway for us. Get out of the way!” the anonymous donor said in a comment aimed at the regents. “We not only have to clear the runway ourselves, but you’re standing in the middle of it.”

Snyder said that to the contrary of the criticism, the school’s progress had been “phenomenal.” He’s been involved in several fundraising campaigns, including being chairman of the university’s $537 million Invent the Future drive that ended in 2009, and he said it was remarkable that the university had been able to raise the scholarship funding, obtain the $25 million gift and recruit a strong leadership team so quickly.

“We should be celebrating that and using it as the basis for getting other people to step up as opposed to throwing wet blankets on it,” he said. “And having been involved in virtually every significant conversation involving the school of medicine and its fundraising, I have a really good feel for that campaign. I know it's going to be successful. My instincts are really good, because they've been honed over a significant period of time.

“I know how people talk when they're going to do something, and I know how people talk when they're not going to do something. And I know how to help manage people to get from 'maybe' to doing things. It doesn't happen overnight.”

Snyder attributed the complaints to a glass-half-empty mentality among some regents “that makes it more difficult to raise money.”

“When you start to ask those pointed types of questions in public meetings, as an experienced businessman and fundraiser, I can tell you it begins to put doubts in people's minds as to whether everybody's in the boat pulling on the oars in the same direction. And you don't want to do that.

"I'm a big believer that success creates success, and momentum in these types of things is really important. So be skeptical, be concerned, be tough, but let's have a glass-is-half-full mentality when you're asking those types of questions."

Jessup took an optimistic view, saying there would be “continued implementation” of the medical school.

“As we graduate this first cohort of students, they work into residencies and then go out into the community as doctors, and as we build the research enterprise around the medical school, that’s going to continue to have a tremendous impact on this community, both economically and socially,” he said.

Gard Jameson, a faculty member in the UNLV philosophy department and also a member of the UNLV School of Medicine Community Engagement Board, said he had no complaints about Jessup’s handling of the fundraising.

“He’s doing exactly what a university president should be doing,” he said. ”He’s looking for opportunities, and when some opportunities go away he looks for new ones. For those who would criticize, their time might be better spent opening doors for him.”

If the medical school were to be knocked off track, there would be profound ramifications. It’s been estimated that the Las Vegas Medical District and the UNLV School of Medicine will have a $3.6 billion economic impact by 2030. It also promises to improve the quality and availability of health care in Southern Nevada, areas that have long been a source of concern.

• • •

Then there’s the stadium.

To generate support for tax funding for the project, the Raiders from the outset proposed sharing the stadium with UNLV.

But a shared-use contract that was negotiated by the team and UNLV drew criticism when it went before the regents for approval.

The contract calls for UNLV to pay up to $250,000 per game, which is significantly higher than the $50,000 to $60,000 the university currently pays to play at Sam Boyd Stadium. But Jessup’s supporters point out that the contract is designed so that UNLV would rarely, and possibly never, be on the hook for $250,000 a game.

Steve Hill, the Las Vegas Stadium Authority board chairman, told the regents during the meeting that $250,000 was a preliminary figure and didn’t include several factors, including revenue UNLV would collect from sales and advertising at the stadium. In addition, he said, labor costs would be reduced by blocking off seating sections during games that were expected to draw a low turnout.

Hayes said during the meeting that he felt the stadium would hurt UNLV more than help it.

“I hear from UNLV that this (stadium) is going to propel us into a Power 5 conference, but I notice there are 10 teams that play in NFL stadiums and two of them are in Power 5,” he said. “I think this is more likely to sink our athletic program rather than catapult us.”

But the regents approved the contract on an 11-1 vote, with Rick Trachok opposed, leaving UNLV boosters questioning why Hayes voted for the agreement if he thought it was so problematic.

Hayes said that “under the circumstances, (the deal) is as good as we could hope for.”

But others, including Geddes, say they have no problem with the contract.

• • •

The latest criticism against UNLV’s leadership came this month when it was revealed that a dentist in the UNLV School of Dental Medicine had not followed best practices in performing dozens of dental implants. The dentist, Dr. Phillip Devore, reused devices called healing abutments, which were intended for single use. Devore sterilized the devices between uses, but when UNLV was made aware of the situation in September it launched an investigation and sent a memo to staff, faculty and students calling attention to a policy calling for the use of best practices, including using single-use items only once.

Hayes has publicly raised concerns about the timeliness of UNLV’s response and suggested that NSHE had to get to the bottom of the issue.

But UNLV said it had notified NSHE. And when the investigation was completed this month, university officials said, the school notified the 184 patients who had been affected and provided information about how to schedule follow-up examinations.

“The school is offering these examinations, and any necessary dental implant replacement or alternative treatment free of charge during the next three years if failure is due to the reused abutment,” UNLV said in a statement. “Because the healing abutments were sterilized, the school is not aware of any increased risk of the spread of infectious disease. Patients who have received the notification and are concerned about infectious disease may contact the school to arrange a testing plan."

• • •

During a recent interview, Jessup didn’t address the criticisms, instead keeping his focus on the university’s achievements and progress.

Playing in the Raiders’ stadium will raise the athletic department’s profile, he said, creating the potential for UNLV to move out of the Mountain West Conference and into a top-level league that would offer a larger pot of shared revenue. The university continues to develop the 128-acre Harry Reid Research Park at Sunset Road near Durango Drive, and is making longer-range plans for a 2,085-acre site in North Las Vegas.

“If you look in the five- or 10-year range, you start to see that expansive research park grow, so the footprint of the university throughout the entire valley will become much larger,” he said.

Keeping UNLV moving toward its goals will involve obtaining more space for classroom buildings, more public-private partnerships to fund construction of those facilities, and further enriching the student experience by providing post-graduation career planning, professional development and job placement services.

“We do some of that now, but I think there’s a lot more we can do,” he said.

Asked if his three years on the job had yielded any insights about how UNLV could or should operate differently in order to reach its goals, Jessup said it had become clear that the university would need to continue expanding and broadening its relationships with lawmakers, the Board of Regents, the community and other organizations.

“It’s been a good, positive story so far in external relationships,” he said. “But I think we need to double down and do even more. We’ve got big aspirations, and we’re going to need help doing it from our major partners throughout the state, including the local community, the Legislature and the governor.”