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April 23, 2019

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Investigation into UNLV gift uncovers no self-dealing by Jessup

2017 State of the University Address

Steve Marcus

UNLV President Len Jessup delivers the State of the University address at Judy Bayley Theatre on UNLV campus Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. UNLV turns 60 this academic year.

UNLV President Len Jessup was not acting in his own interests when he signed an agreement making a major gift to the university contingent on him being retained as president, a UNLV Foundation executive said today.

Scott Roberts, vice president for philanthropy and alumni engagement, said an ethics investigation conducted by the foundation concluded that “the one entity that benefited from that agreement was UNLV.”

The investigation was conducted by Las Vegas attorney Peter Bernhard, a former member and chair of the Nevada Ethics Commission, into a memorandum of understanding between Jessup and the Engelstad Family Foundation over a $14 million gift toward construction of a new building for the UNLV School of Medicine.

The agreement tied the gift to retention of Jessup and the medical school’s dean, Barbara Atkinson, through at least 2022.

Jessup was three years into his five-year contract when he signed the agreement and had recently been given a negative job performance, which prompted the Nevada System of Higher Education to seek a legal opinion on the situation.

In his opinion, attorney Scott Abbott said the situation was “extremely troubling” and raised questions about whether Jessup was fit to continue as president. At issue was whether Jessup signed the agreement to give himself bargaining power for a contract extension or a new work agreement.

Roberts said news reports about the Abbott opinion prompted the UNLV Foundation to launch its own investigation to determine whether Jessup or the donor had engaged in unethical behavior. He said Bernhard’s findings, which came after an investigation that was much more extensive than the one conducted by NSHE, were “very contrary” to those of Abbott.

Jessup, who attended the meeting, said he was pleased by Bernhard’s findings.

There has been no ethics complaint filed against Jessup, who announced last month he was leaving UNLV under pressure stemming from the agreement and other issues. Jessup has been named president of Claremont Graduate University in California, and is scheduled to begin his duties there on July 1.

In today’s meeting, UNLV Foundation members praised Jessup for leading the university to several major accomplishments during his three years as president, including fundraising records, enrollment increases, founding of the School of Medicine and development of such building projects as the new Hospitality Hall.

Jessup’s supporters expressed disappointment in the disruption in leadership.

Gregory Lee, the foundation’s outgoing board chairman, said he found it “incongruous” that the university has made extraordinary progress “just to find ourselves in a position where our president has been pushed out and will be replaced by the same people.”

Jessup’s pending departure came after he faced criticism from Reilly and a faction of members of the Board of Regents on several issues, including cost overruns from the 2016 presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center, progress of fundraising for the medical school building, the Engelstad gift and the university’s response to the discovery that a dentist in its School of Dental Medicine had reused equipment intended for single usages in providing implants for dozens of patients.

After those criticisms were reported in the media, NSHE Chancellor Thom Reilly announced that he and Jessup had agreed to hire a chief operating officer to address what he described as “significant deficiencies” in UNLV operations. But Jessup never confirmed that he made such an agreement and a short time later, he announced he was leaving UNLV.

Jessup’s supporters have contended that UNLV’s issues were correctable and didn’t warrant Jessup being pushed out.