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July 21, 2019

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Analysis: Jessup shouldn’t be targeted for contract, supporters say

UNLV School of Medicine

Mikayla Whitmore

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

An agreement signed by UNLV President Len Jessup for the university to receive a $14 million gift for its medical school has become ammunition in a behind-the-scenes attempt by members of the Nevada Board of Regents to pressure Jessup into giving up his position.

But supporters of Jessup say there was nothing inappropriate about the agreement, which they contend is nearly identical to a similar situation six years ago at UNR that was deemed acceptable by the Nevada System of Higher Education.

At issue is a clause in the since-rescinded $14 million gift for the UNLV medical school building that makes the contribution contingent on Jessup and medical school Dean Barbara Atkinson remaining in their positions until 2020. Jessup signed the agreement, prompting complaints from his detractors on the Board of Regents that he was attempting to protect his job or somehow otherwise benefit from the gift.

But Kris Engelstad McGarry, a trustee for the organization that provided the gift, the Engelstad Family Foundation, said the contingency was the foundation’s idea and was not intended to aid Jessup in any way. Rather, she said, the purpose was to ensure that the funding would be stewarded by people she trusted.

Engelstad McGarry and others also questioned why Jessup was under fire for signing the nonbinding agreement considering that in 2012 at UNR, a major donor threatened to pull funding unless Marc Johnson, then the interim president, was named to the presidency.

Johnson got the job, and the chancellor at the time, Dan Klaich, defended the donor.

Klaich at the time said the donor’s contributions “have been based in the large part on their trust in the leadership at UNR, including Dr. Johnson.”

“Should that leadership, and/or vision change, they indicate they would reconsider future gifts,” Klaich said. “What could be more natural from a major donor who is committed to impact gifts?”

Johnson remains president of UNR. Klaich resigned two years ago amid an unrelated controversy.

Engelstad McGarry said that in light of the fact that the UNR situation was condoned by NSHE, criticizing Jessup was a double-standard.

And while there have been rumors that Jessup has been threatened with an ethics violation over the medical school agreement, a search of the Nevada Commission on Ethics’ site turns up no actions related to the UNR situation.

Regarding the UNLV donation, Engelstad McGarry said that without the clause about retaining Jessup and Atkinson, the foundation risked the uncertainty of having the money controlled by those two leaders’ successors. And Engelstad McGarry said she didn’t trust the Board of Regents to select leaders in which the foundation would have confidence.

“My discomfort was — and continues to be — with the regents,” she said during an interview Wednesday.

Atkinson, during an interview Thursday, corroborated Engelstad McCarry’s account of how the agreement was arranged. Englestad McCarry didn’t offer the clause to personally recognize the two university leaders, Atkinson said, but instead did so to acknowledge that she was confident in the leadership team. Atkinson said the agreement was later revised to remove the administrators’ names in favor of “current leadership.”

Jessup’s revelation Wednesday that he might leave the university prompted the Engelstad Family Foundation to rescind its donation to the medical school. Another megadonor, who gave a $25 million gift that was matched by the state, subsequently announced she was reconsidering that donation and future contributions as well.

Both Engelstad McGarry and the other donor, who gave her gift on the condition of anonymity, cited mismanagement by the regents as the basis for their decisions on their contributions.