Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2019

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Regent who wants Jessup gone says raising money is not board’s concern

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Trevor Hayes

One of two regents pushing most vigorously for UNLV President Len Jessup’s ouster brushed off the notion that the board should be concerned about fundraising at the university despite a mounting revolt by some of the school’s largest backers.

If regents’ actions force Jessup to leave, several mega-donors have said they would rescind pledges that amount to about $39 million in donations to the UNLV School of Medicine and another $8 million for a general scholarship endowment fund. These moves cast doubt on another $25 million in state-matching funds for the medical school. The pledges would go toward new construction, academic programs and scholarships.

Trevor Hayes, a regent who has been aggressive in pursuing Jessup’s removal and arousing the ire of donors, said fundraising isn’t part of the board’s duties.

“The board governs higher ed; we’re not fundraisers. It isn’t our responsibility,” said Hayes, who chairs the regents’ Business, Finance and Facilities Committee and is also on the board of directors of the UNLV Campus Improvement Authority.

Meanwhile, Regent Sam Lieberman expressed certainty the money would eventually come back to the university.

Lieberman said he was confident that Scott Roberts, UNLV’s president for philanthropy and alumni engagement, could “weather the storm and move forward.” Roberts could not be immediately reached for comment.

“(Roberts) is incredible,” Lieberman said. “And he will have the support he needs to get the donors.”

One of those donors sharply disagreed with Hayes and Lieberman.

The anonymous donor of a multimillion-dollar gift said Friday that the regents, as stewards of the state’s university system, should be vitally concerned about the fallout that Jessup’s ouster could have on UNLV’s fundraising.

“Len generated an immense amount of support among the donor community,” the benefactor said. “I can’t speak for others, but for myself, we’d be at zero contributions without Len there.”

The donor, who had contributed $8 million to a scholarship endowment fund, notified the UNLV Foundation fundraising organization Friday morning that he would rescind the gift if Jessup were to resign or be fired.

Referring to a faction of regents who have been publicly critical of Jessup and have mounted an effort to force him out, the donor said UNLV supporters would remember them in their next election cycle. He suggested that funding some donors might have steered toward UNLV could go instead to the regents’ election opponents.

“I think these regents need to go,” he said. “I’m really concerned about people putting petty individual concerns above the well-being of the university and of Southern Nevada, and I think that’s exactly what’s going on here.”

On Wednesday, officials from the Engelstad Family Foundation, which pledged $14 million for the construction of a medical school building, said the gift was being withdrawn amid uncertainty about Jessup’s future. That prompted a second donor, who had given $25 million and was considering offering a second major donation, to also reconsider.

An anonymous megadonor who provided a $25 million gift toward construction of the UNLV medical school building in 2016 reacted angrily to Hayes saying that a university’s fundraising wasn’t a regent’s responsibility. Given that regents are responsible for the overall well-being of Nevada’s institutions of higher education, she said, Hayes and other regents should consider the ramifications of their actions on fundraising.

“What do you think your responsibilities entail?” she said, aiming her question at Hayes. “If fundraising isn’t your responsibility, is it your responsibility to meddle and undermine what we’re doing?”

The donor, whose contribution for the medical school was matched by $25 million in state funding, has announced that she was reconsidering that gift and future donations. If Jessup is forced out, she said, she believed it would take a decade to restore trust among donors in the university.

“People don’t just show back up on your doorstep,” she said. “They need to have confidence in what they’re investing in.

“I think these regents are delusional. They think things are just going to plod along, and that’s not what will happen.”

Beyond the substantial financial damage to UNLV, if Jessup were to be forced out or fired, some UNLV supporters and even regents believe the way this has unfolded could make it difficult for the university to find a suitable replacement.

Lieberman said a qualified candidate would have to think twice before signing on to lead the university. Jessup, in the third year of a five-year contract, would be the fourth UNLV president since 2006 to be ushered out before finishing his term.

Jessup’s accomplishments include overseeing the enrollment of UNLV’s first class of medical school students, helping cut a deal for the football team to share a stadium with the NFL’s Raiders, setting school fundraising records and going over the 30,000 mark in student enrollment.

But Jessup has faced criticism from some regents and Chancellor Thom Reilly over financial and management disputes, including cost overruns from the 2016 presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center and low fundraising for the medical school building.

While a formal evaluation from Reilly took place in January, interviewed regents said they hoped Jessup would stay in the position while a full evaluation — conducted by an appointed committee that interviews members of the community as well as school staff — was completed and presented to the public. That would come between June and September.

“I’m a big fan of transparency,” Regent J.T. Moran said. “I would want to go through a review process and give the board an opportunity to review all relevant information so we can make a meaningful and informed decision.”

Meanwhile, a statement by Gov. Brian Sandoval made it sound as if decisions had already been made without any public meetings.

Sandoval, through spokeswoman Mari St. Martin, said Thursday he had “great respect” for Jessup and wished him well in “future endeavors.” St. Martin did not respond when pressed about the potential future of the medical school, which Sandoval and the Nevada Legislature helped orchestrate more $50 million in state funds to develop and open.

Ric Anderson contributed to this report.