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December 12, 2018

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Analysis: Funds, talent could bleed away from med school if Jessup departs UNLV

UNLV Medical School

Image courtesy of TSK Architects / Co Architects

The future home of the UNLV School of Medicine.

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Barbara Atkinson

UNLV’s medical school could suffer major losses in funding and talent if UNLV President Len Jessup leaves Las Vegas, the dean of the medical school said.

Barbara Atkinson, who took charge of the medical school about eight months before Jessup became president in 2015, said the disruption in leadership threatened to halt progress in the development of the school, which in turn could prompt administrators to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Atkinson would face an uncertain future herself. Although she said she had no plans to abandon the school, she — like Jessup — has faced public criticism from some members of the Nevada Board of Regents.

“I hope the school is on track now to be able to get what it needs to have done, but there are people who'd like to have me fired or ousted one way or another, and if that should happen perhaps some of the people I've recruited will want to leave too,” she said. “People get choices, and if they're very good people they can go anywhere they want to go — just as Len could go to a school with more prestige than this one if he really wanted to go.”

Atkinson said she was shocked when Jessup, amid pressure from a faction of members of the Nevada Board of Regents, announced Wednesday he was looking for opportunities at other universities.

“I was really stunned that the regents would think that they could find somebody better than him — somebody with a bigger vision and more to offer,” she said.

Jessup’s announcement has already affected the medical school. It prompted the Engelstad Foundation to rescind a $14 million gift it had provided for construction of an instructional building for the school. In turn, a megadonor who provided a $25 million gift that was matched by the state said she was reconsidering that gift and future contributions.

Atkinson said losing the gifts could significantly delay plans to increase the size of the school, which currently is limited to class sizes of 60 students. The average class size of a medical school in a university the size of UNLV is about 180, she said, and classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center, which she directed before coming to UNLV, were at 225 students when she left.

“It probably could delay the process a year or two or potentially more if other donors decide to not support the school,” she said.

Atkinson said she believed Jessup, who is in the third year of a five-year contract, wanted to stay in Nevada. Should he leave, she said, there would almost certainly be a chilling effect among potential candidates to succeed him.

“You have to say that it's not going to be easy to attract a first-class president after the issues with Len, who's been a really good president,” she said. “There have been multiple good presidents who have left — I guess four of them just in the last four or five years. I've been here four years and I've worked with three presidents from the time I first interviewed for this job. So that's not going to be easy.”

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Students pose for a group photo after a stethoscope ceremony by UNLV School of Medicine for the inaugural class of medical students at the Student Union in Las Vegas, Nev. on July 17, 2017. 60 students were honored and presented with stethoscopes donated by Constantine George, MD.

Jessup has excelled in hiring deans and other administrators, strengthening the university’s fundraising efforts and forming a plan to elevate UNLV to a top-level research institution, Atkinson said.

“He just has a lot of qualities that make him a really fine president and would make him a very good candidate wherever he wanted to go,” she said. “I just hope he doesn't want to go.”

But both Jessup and Atkinson have been targeted by detractors who feel otherwise. During an interview Thursday, she addressed some of the issues on which Jessup has been targeted. Among them:

• Atkinson described as “totally unfair” criticism raised in a recent Board of Regents meeting that UNLV had been secretive and deceptive about cost estimates for the medical school building. The complaint: UNLV had boosted the estimate from $100 million to $200 million or more without notifying decision-makers. But Atkinson said that after originally stating the estimate at $100 million during the 2015 session — a figure that she said was a demand from the university’s CFO at the time — she later told lawmakers that it would take more than $200 million to build a facility to house class sizes of 180. (In addition, records from a June 2017 hearing on the medical school 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.”)

• The $25 million gift prompted criticism that the UNLV administration went to Gov. Brian Sandoval with a request for matching funding without notifying the regents. Atkinson said the donor, not Jessup or anyone at UNLV, went to Sandoval with the proposal for matching funds. Atkinson added that during the 2015 legislative session, when UNLV sought $27 million in start-up funding for the school, a group of regents went to Sandoval without notifying UNLV and told him “we weren’t ready for the money.” Sandoval requested $8 million, but lawmakers later approved the full $27 million after uproar from the medical school’s supporters.

Should progress at the medical school be delayed, the effects on Southern Nevada could be significant. The economic impact of the school has been estimated at $3.6 billion by 2030 once it is fully up and running.

Amid the uncertainty over Jessup, Atkinson said the medical school would continue working on enrolling students, building its faculty and raising funds for its facility. The Engelstad Foundation announced that a $10 million gift it provided for scholarships would stand, and the foundation recently contributed additional funding to provide scholarships for the school’s incoming second class.

If funding for the building collapses, Atkinson said, the school would continue operating in its current facilities while working on fundraising.

Atkinson, who suffered a major health problem that sidelined her for several months, has returned to work and said she was “having a good time being back.”

“Things are going well,” she said. “I have a very good team.”

She said she hoped the current turmoil would die down and Jessup would stay put.

“I would say that many of the regents are very supportive and have been all along. I don't want to have any kind of bad backlash against the regents who are supportive of what we've tried to do. There are a few who haven't been supportive of Len, and there are a few who've had particular issues with me. On the whole, I like to listen to their issues in particular, but really anybody's issues, and try to work through them and determine what needs to be done.

“So I'm hopeful that we can have a good relationship going ahead in the future, but mostly I'm hopeful that Len stays and is able to implement his vision.”