Las Vegas Sun

August 25, 2019

Currently: 98° — Complete forecast

Analysis: Why UNLV faculty and staff are frustrated with state leaders

UNLV's New Spirit Mark

UNLV President Len Jessup addresses the crowd before the unveiling of a refreshed spirit mark at the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday, June 28, 2017.

During a meeting Monday with UNLV students and faculty members, Nevada Chancellor Thom Reilly and two members of the state Board of Regents faced questions about why President Len Jessup was pressured out of the university and how they would go about replacing him.

The tone was civil and the exchanges were polite, but the crowd’s questions and comments carried an underlying message of concern about the state officials’ leadership.

Here are some key takeaways from the 90-minute meeting.

1. The campus community isn’t happy with how Reilly and the regents handled the situation with Jessup. Christopher Roys, UNLV’s student body president, told Reilly and the board members he was frustrated about having to get information through the media versus the Nevada System of Higher Education or the regents. He further said he was disturbed about leaks of sensitive information and the “level of professionalism” with which the situation was handled. Reilly acknowledged a need for better communication, and he expanded when asked by a faculty member what officials had learned from the turmoil surrounding Jessup. “There needs to be continued conversations with donors, with the community and others,” Reilly said.

2. There’s concern — or skepticism, depending on who’s evaluating — over the competence of NSHE and the regents to attract suitable candidates to replace Jessup. Several questions focused on this issue, including whether the regents had any doubts about their ability and how that might affect how they would move forward. The questions certainly have merit, given three factors: The acrimony surrounding Jessup’s departure; the high turnover in UNLV’s presidency in recent years; and the regents’ botch job in the search for chancellor, which led the finalists to withdraw and the acting chancellor to reject an offer to step into the vacancy. Reilly said he was confident that good candidates would come forward, saying the state had drawn strong talent for recent openings at other universities. Countering the concerns about turnover, he contended that some candidates are attracted by challenges.

3. Faculty and staff would rather see a national search get underway soon than for Reilly and the regents to name an interim president who would be given an opportunity to audition for the job without competition. The crowd indicated as much with a show of hands in which they overwhelmingly expressed preference for the regents to select an acting president who would not be considered as a candidate in a search. If an interim were selected, on the other hand, a search would likely not be held unless that person proved incapable. Reilly said he would expect an acting or interim president to “make tough decisions and move forward,” but faculty members said they were doubtful the university would make meaningful progress until the selection of a new president.

4. Reilly shed light on the “operational issues” for which he criticized Jessup, which helped prompt Jessup to leave UNLV. He named several that have already been identified in media reports, but said, “The common bond is they’ve kind of all elevated themselves to the chancellor’s office, and what I’d like to occur is for UNLV to take those back and own them.” Reilly said he was also concerned because the problems were brought to the chancellor’s office by whistleblowers, which to him indicated that the university’s leadership wasn’t willing to tackle shortcomings.

5. A decision is expected soon on the interim or acting president. Officials hope to move forward during the Board of Regents meeting in early June. However, it could be a long time before Jessup’s successor is named. Reilly said that if the regents choose to name an acting president and conduct a search, that process would take a year.

Paul Werth, a UNLV history professor and former chair of the faculty senate, said afterward that he still wasn’t clear about the circumstances behind Jessup’s departure. Compounding the uncertainty, he said, the shakeup will throw UNLV into a holding pattern for two or three years while a new president is named and gets established.

Meanwhile, the cost of Jessup’s departure — in terms of time that will be spent finding his replacement and lost progress on campus initiatives — will be high, Werth said. Amid the high turnover — Jessup is UNLV’s fifth leader since 2006 — he said he felt his colleagues were frustrated.

“This has got to be the starting point in understanding” the consequences of the instability in leadership, he said.

Jessup announced in mid-March that he was leaving UNLV to become president of Claremont Graduate University in California.

The announcement came after media reports revealed that Reilly had expressed his concerns about operational deficiencies at UNLV during an evaluation of Jessup, who had been harshly criticized by some members of the Nevada Board of Regents during recent months.

Jessup, who is three years into a five-year contract, is scheduled to begin his duties at Claremont on July 1.

His early departure angered some UNLV donors, who contended that Jessup had done an exceptional job and deserved to be supported at least through the end of his contract.

UNLV’s accomplishments under Jessup included starting its School of Medicine, expanding its enrollment to more than 30,000 students, setting records in fundraising, expanding its efforts to recruit and support minority and first-generation college students, negotiating a shared-use contract for the Raiders stadium and staging a successful presidential debate.

But his detractors among the regents had expressed dissatisfaction over such issues as cost overruns from the debate, progress of fundraising for a new building for the medical school, and the university’s response to a discovery that a dentist in its School of Dental Medicine had reused equipment intended for single usages when performing implants on dozens of patients.

But to Jessup’s ardent supporters, those issues were overblown by his critics. Citing frustration with the regents and NSHE, at least three donors pulled multimillion-dollar gifts or announced they were reconsidering major contributions.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to eliminate a reference to a specific donation to the university. Some details about the donation were incorrectly.