Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2018

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Q+A: UNLV med school dean grateful for outpouring of support

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Ric Anderson

Chris Endo, president of the UNLV School of Medicine’s first class of students, is shown with Dean Barbara Atkinson at a recent a Nevada Board of Regents meeting. Endo was among students at the meeting wearing T-shirts bearing Atkinson’s likeness, stylized to resemble the Barack Obama “Hope” image.

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UNLV School of Medicine Dean Barbara Atkinson, center, is shown with supporters March 21, 2018, at the medical school.

The turmoil surrounding UNLV President Len Jessup in recent weeks spilled directly into the university’s School of Medicine, where Dean Barbara Atkinson found herself facing uncertainty over whether she would be allowed to remain at the head of the school.

That uncertainty went away last week, when it was announced that Atkinson had received a one-year contract.

But fallout remains. Progress toward construction of a new building for the medical school has been delayed after the Engelstad Family Foundation withdrew a $14 million contribution toward the facility, citing dissatisfaction with oversight of the university by Chancellor Thom Reilly and the Board of Regents.

In addition, it remains to be seen how Reilly and the regents will go about replacing Jessup, who will leave UNLV sometime after commencement next week and begin serving as president of Claremont Graduate University in California on July 1.

But Atkinson, the founding dean of UNLV’s medical school, says the contract keeps her on track with her original commitment to remain at the school until the first class of students graduates. Her one-year agreement is renewable, with a salary of $547,760. That’s a 3 percent increase over her current compensation, the result of a cost-of-living adjustment that Nevada lawmakers approved in the 2017 legislative session for all state employees in the higher-education system effective July 1.

On Tuesday, Atkinson sat down with the Sun to discuss what’s in store for the medical school in the next year and also answer questions about the events of the last several weeks, including criticism over an agreement that Jessup signed with the Engelstad foundation that made its gift to the medical school contingent on him and Atkinson remaining in their positions until after their current contracts expired.

Edited excerpts of the interview follow.

Now that your contract situation has been resolved, what does that mean for development of the school?

We're going ahead with planning that we're already starting. We're doing some things that are really important for this next year.

One of them is getting the next accreditation. We have the rest of this year to plan the documents that we submit for accreditation to the organization that's called the Liaison Committee for Medical Education. It's a combination of the American Medical Association and the Association of the American Medical Colleges, and the document is due Dec. 1.

So we have from now until then to finish the document. We submitted the last one two years ago and then we got permission to accept our first class. This time, we're hoping to receive permission to be able to have our students go into the third year.

So it's the next big step of the accreditation process. And then when the students are in their fourth year, we'll hope we'll get the final step, which is full accreditation.

What would have been the effect of a disruption in leadership at this point?

It would have been complex, and the LCME would not have been happy. They've had a few cases where the dean has been let go or has decided to leave, and especially in a new school that's just now getting to the next step of accreditation, it would have been very difficult. The LCME really wants to see continuity in leadership.

With the emphasis on continuity in leadership, were you hoping for more than a one-year contract?

No. I've never had more than a one-year contract. At UNLV, there are people who are tenured who have multiyear expectations, and there are a few people who may have a longer contract. But since the very beginning, I've just had one-year contracts, so it's never been an issue to me.

And that doesn't have any bearing on the accreditation process?

No.

Let's talk about the fundraising effort for the new building. What's the strategy?

We can't really move forward with additional donations until we know what's going to happen regarding the acting or interim president. I think that's the next step that everybody's waiting for — to see who that is, how it will be structured and what it's going to mean. We'll be working with people at UNLV and in the UNLV Foundation to talk about what we'll do for fundraising. There obviously needs to be a rethink of how we'll raise the money. There are several different ways to go about it, but the donors to the building are still very anxious to have the building happen. The question is whether it's going to happen under NSHE leadership or some other way. And I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens with that.

It's certainly going to cause a delay. The question is how much of one. I'm hoping it's not a great delay, because we'd really like to get this building started.

What was the original timetable?

I had originally thought that by the time the first-year class graduated, we would have the building ready to open and ready to welcome in the next dose of students. That's at least two years off.

Does the delay in the building project have any bearing on the accreditation, or does the accreditation body care?

They don't care. We can live in the space we're in, we just can't expand at all. So that's what really matters is the expansion, but we're fine in the space we have.

Why is it important to expand?

Because the state desperately needs more medical students. What we planned for was to expand first to 120 students when we moved into the building, but build the building with office space for faculty and, in another five years or so, be able to move faculty into an office building and make the building a 180-student facility.

That would be really important for the state. A class size of 180 is just about an average-sized medical school class. Sixty is a very low number of students. It's fine, because we need every student in Nevada. But we really need 180 per class in the long run.

Have the events of the last eight weeks shaken your commitment at all?

No, they haven't shaken the commitment. I was ready to say that if they were going to let me leave on July 1, I was fine. I could go back to being retired and be perfectly happy with that.

But I planned to come here, start a school and see it through to the first class's graduation, so that's what I'm really committed to.

But before I got the contract, because I really didn't know what was going to happen, I told the students it was going to be one of three things: One, I was going to be gone on July 1; or, I was ready to have a search start now and I'd be gone whenever they picked the next dean; but what I really want to do is what I promised them in the beginning, which is that I'd see them graduate.

In hindsight, do you have any regrets on the agreement for the donation toward the medical school?

I thought it was all perfectly normal. It was the donor who wanted to have the agreement. At the time, I had no idea that somebody was even thinking about not keeping me on as dean, so it didn't even strike me as anything that unusual. It was just the way it was. And I think that was exactly the way Len Jessup took it too.

This was all an issue that NSHE brought up, and I was surprised by it. It's now been reviewed by the lawyer of the UNLV Foundation, and my understanding is that it was determined to be a perfectly acceptable thing for the foundation to have agreed to, and for us to have agreed to.

So there's a difference of opinion between NSHE's outside lawyers and the outside lawyers for the foundation, but I'd certainly agree with what the foundation said about it.

Did any concerns or criticisms about the agreement or the cost estimates of the medical school building come up during your contract negotiations?

The contract negotiations had happened over a fairly long time, since around the first of January or so. But I was never offered a contract that I was going to accept. But there weren't any specifics like that involved in the contract negotiations.

So was there a second round of negotiations after the series of events that led to Len Jessup's departure?

It wasn't even a second round. I was just offered a contract. I had been offered contracts before that I found unacceptable. And I was willing to go on July 1 if that was the only contract that I could be offered. In the end, they offered me one that was exactly what I wanted to have.

What's the atmosphere like here? Do people feel like they're in a good place?

I think that in the medical school, we feel like it really is a good place. I think the students feel that. I think there was huge relief from the faculty. We had the first all-faculty yearly meeting just recently, and that's where I first announced the contract was signed. The students heard about it the next morning. And there was a huge sense of relief from everybody.

Just the uncertainty of having no president and not knowing what was going to happen to the dean was driving everybody crazy, especially because of the things that needed to happen during the rest of this year. I've talked about the accreditation and the building and the building philanthropy. We're also doing a master affiliation agreement negotiation with UMC, and that's a really important thing for the year.

We're adding a second class in July, and we've actually now started taking applications for our third class. So there's just so much happening so fast that people had no idea what was going to happen and how things were going to work, and suddenly they feel very relieved.

I think obviously they wish Len Jessup were staying on. But I think for the people in the school, this was the piece that they cared the most about.

What would be the ideal situation as for whether to name an acting president as opposed to an interim president, and who that person would be?

The deans wrote a letter and met with the chancellor, and suggested he put in an interim president. I think when we talked to him that many of the people agreed with him that perhaps an acting president would be the best choice, because of the way they structured the acting role versus the interim. Under that structure, an interim would sort of be seen as the successor, whereas an acting president might be or might not be.

So I think it is going to be called an acting president. I think how that gets structured and who it is, is going to be very important to people. Everybody is waiting to see that. I'm assuming that will be announced sometime after graduation, which is May 12 and is Len's last day.

There's been a list of names proposed, but I think it could be anybody at this point. Everybody is anxious to hear who it is and anxious to have it move forward. And I guess what people are most anxious to have is somebody who will take charge and be able to move the whole institution forward even though there's this gap time when there's an acting or interim person.

I think the deans as a group felt strongly that the gap should be one to two years at a minimum, to give time for people to get past hearing about what happened to Len and be able to come up with a good candidate pool.

So I think the deans would be happy to have a few years of solid, positive growth even during this time period.

When the turmoil was happening around Len Jessup, what were you hearing from the medical school supporters?

I was hearing a lot of positive support. If I'd heard that they all wanted me to be gone on July 1 and have somebody else appointed for the medical school, I would certainly have listened to that. But I heard exactly the opposite from the faculty, from the students and especially from the community and the donors.

We've had very good relationships with the donors. The Engelstad Family Foundation, and Kris Engelstad McGarry, especially, have been totally supportive. And while she took away the $14 million she was going to give for the medical education building, she wanted to be very clear that it was not because of us, it was because she didn't want the money controlled by the regents.

She maintained contributions for the students. She had a commitment to give us 25 scholarships for the second, third and fourth classes. She also made a commitment to match as many more spots as we could. We got seven more scholarships, and she matched those seven. We've also got one extra above that, so we've now got 40 scholarships for the second class.

Is there anything else you'd like the community to know?

I'd like them to know how grateful I am for what they've done to support us through all this, and what they're doing to support the entire community.

The foundation board has been especially good about trying to support things that the university needs.

The Legislature and the governor have been very supportive from the very beginning too, and their support has continued through all of this.