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March 23, 2019

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Analysis: Concerns over regents’ leadership put UNLV medical school funding in doubt

UNLV School of Medicine

Mikayla Whitmore

UNLV President Len Jessup speaks to media after a stethoscope ceremony by UNLV School of Medicine for its inaugural class of medical students at the Student Union in Las Vegas on July 17, 2017.

Funding for UNLV’s medical school building may be collapsing as two megadonors, citing concerns over the Nevada Board of Regents’ leadership, have rescinded or begun reconsidering gifts totaling $39 million. Future gifts also are in question.

On Wednesday, the contributor of a $14 million donation for construction of UNLV’s medical school building said the gift was being withdrawn amid uncertainty about university President Len Jessup’s future. That announcement prompted a donor who had given $25 million and was considering offering a second major donation to give more thought to both.

Kris Engelstad McGarry said the Engelstad Family Foundation had offered its $14 million gift on the contingency that Jessup and the medical school’s dean, Barbara Atkinson, would remain in place. Amid reports this week that Jessup was exploring opportunities elsewhere after facing pressure from some members of the Nevada Board of Regents, Engelstad McGarry said she was upset to learn that one of the regents’ complaints was about the contingency clause. She said the regents interpreted the provision as an attempt by Jessup to protect his job or somehow otherwise benefit from donor funding.

But that was never the intent of the agreement, Englestad McGarry said. The point was to keep the money in the hands of people she trusted — and not to allow it to fall into limbo, where the regents and the Nevada System of Higher Education administration would be able to choose who would control it.

“I was comfortable with their vision of the medical school and in their stewardship of the money,” she said. “My discomfort was — and continues to be — with the regents.”

The withdrawal of the foundation’s gifts could have dire ramifications for development of the medical school, which was established in 2014.

The anonymous donor of a $25 million gift for the medical school building said Engelstad McGarry’s announcement had given her pause for concern about her own donation. That donation was matched by $25 million in state funding in 2016.

“We’re exploring our options,” she said.

Engelstad McGarry said she hoped the regents’ issues with Jessup could be resolved and that the current UNLV administration could remain in place. In the meantime, she said, the foundation was maintaining a $10 million pledge covering 100 four-year scholarships for med school students.

“I hope we can salvage the school; of course I do,” she said. “I’m open to discussions if Len and his leadership team are still here, and if the regents can get out of the way a little.”

This week’s developments surrounding Jessup have alarmed the third-year president’s supporters in Las Vegas, who say he’s been treated unfairly by the regents who have criticized him. Engelstad McGarry said the regents’ complaints about the contingency clause were an example of that unfairness.

“The fact you’d use that as a reason to make his life more difficult made me a little angry,” she said.

Other issues raised by certain regents include cost overruns from the 2016 presidential debate, the pace of the fundraising drive for the medical school and UNLV’s investigation into a dentist in the university School of Dental Medicine who reused equipment intended for single use in performing dental implants on 184 patients.

In many cases, Jessup’s defenders say, the president should be praised instead of questioned. The presidential debate yielded $113 million in publicity for the school and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which put up $4 million of the production costs for the debate. That left UNLV paying about $4 million with the overruns, which was less than the amount other universities paid to host debates.

As for the medical school, Jessup’s supporters say the university’s progress may have looked inadequate only because the school was on an aggressive timeline.

Jessup’s possible departure has prompted concerns not only about the medical school but on UNLV as a whole. He would be UNLV’s fourth president to be fired or pushed out since 2006.

“If there are reasons the regents don’t like Len — if he’s done something terrible and unredeemable — I don’t see any plan,” Engelstad McGarry said. “Where do we go from here? And who would want to come here?”