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October 16, 2018

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UNLV’s Jessup said to be leaving for prestigious California college

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Steve Marcus

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

Updated Thursday, March 29, 2018 | 3:58 p.m.

UNLV President Len Jessup is rumored to have accepted a job at Claremont Graduate University in California, and sources told the Sun an announcement may be coming in the next 24 hours that he’s leaving Las Vegas.

It’s unclear what position Jessup has taken, but the rumors came less than two weeks after he announced to the campus community that he had begun looking for opportunities elsewhere. Jessup made that announcement amid news reports that a faction of members of the Board of Regents had begun pressuring him out.

Contacted today, two major donors said they'd heard that Jessup had accepted an offer from Claremont and believed it to be true. Claremont Graduate University, located in Claremont, Calif., is part of a consortium that includes highly regarded Claremont McKenna College.

"My immediate response was I was happy for him," said Kris Engelstad McGarry, whose family foundation's gifts to the university include $12.62 million to establish an endowed scholarship fund. "I'm sad for us that we're so short-sighted."

The Engelstad Foundation also had committed a $14 million contribution toward construction of the UNLV medical school's building, but it rescinded that gift this month when it was revealed that Jessup's job was at risk. In withdrawing the donation, Engelstad McGarry cited dissatisfaction with the Board of Regents, saying Jessup's detractors on the 13-member board had treated him unfairly and that she didn't trust them to choose a successor who could steward the donation.

Today, she said the foundation would withhold contributions to the university, other than those supporting student scholarships, until the Board of Regents was restructured. She believes Nevada's regents should be appointed instead of elected, saying states with appointed regents tend to draw more qualified, experience board members whose focus is on improving higher education. In Nevada, she said, regents often are politicians who treat the board as a stepping stone to other, more high-visibility positions.

The Engelstad Foundation's gift for the medical school was among several issues for which Jessup drew criticism. Jessup signed an agreement making the gift contingent on him and the medical school’s dean, Barbara Atkinson, staying until 2020, which critics saw as an effort by Jessup to protect his job and leverage the regents into either extending his five-year contract or giving him a new one. But Engelstad McGarry said the agreement came at her insistence, and that it was later revised to remove the names of Jessup and Atkinson and instead make a more generic reference to current leadership.

Engelstad McGarry said she was "unbelievably disappointed" to put the foundation's contributions on indefinite hold.

"But if you're not welcome, you're not welcome," she said.

Engelstad McGarry was among several UNLV donors and Southern Nevada community leaders who came to Jessup's defense after it was revealed that he was under fire. They said the university had made enormous strides under Jessup, with highlights including record-setting fundraising, enrollment increases, construction of a state-of-the-art Hospitality Hall, negotiation of a shared-use contract for the Raiders stadium and the staging of the successful 2016 presidential debate.

An anonymous donor who contributed $25 million to the medical school building said today that she also would work to break up the regents and restructure the board. Jessup's early departure would severely set back progress on such university initiatives as building out the medical school and reaching top-tier research status, she said. The donor and others have said other members of Jessup's leadership team were likely to leave UNLV, and the university would face difficulty in attracting a high-quality successor. Jessup is UNLV’s fourth president since 2006, not including one-year interim President Don Snyder.

"We've had three years of extraordinary accomplishments," she said. "But I think what this says is that the system is so broken, it's destroying talent."

But some regents felt otherwise, criticizing Jessup over such issues as increases in the estimated cost of the medical school, progress in the fundraising effort for the medical school building, cost overruns from the presidential debate and the pace of the university's response to a discovery that a dentist in its School of Dental Medicine had re-used equipment intended for single usages when performing dental implants on dozens of patients.

Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly acknowledged this month that he gave Jessup a negative performance evaluation in January.

However, last week Reilly appeared to give Jessup some breathing room by announcing that a chief operating officer would be hired at UNLV to address management issues that had arisen during Jessup’s three years as president. Reilly also said that the next step in Jessup’s evaluation process, a committee hearing on his performance, would not be held until the fall.

In addition, Regents Chairman Kevin Page announced that he didn’t plan to call for a meeting before then to address Jessup’s job performance.

But Jessup hasn’t spoken to the media or made a public statement since the announcements by Reilly and Page, prompting speculation that he was on his way out.

"It's devastating," the anonymous donor said today. "But the only glimmer of good news in this is that we now have no one to protect as we try to change the system. The gloves are off."

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information. The original version said Jessup was rumored to be leaving for Claremont McKenna College.