Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2018

Currently: 65° — Complete forecast

Sun editorial:

Expert’s warning about UNLV med school deserves close examination

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Image courtesy of TSK Architects / Co Architects

The future home of the UNLV School of Medicine.

There’s simply no one more knowledgeable about how to get a medical school off and running than Paul Umbach, who has provided consultancy for 20 of the 30 med schools that have been launched in the U.S. since 2005. 

So when Umbach raised concerns about the UNLV School of Medicine during a presentation this week at the university, it should have set off alarm bells throughout Southern Nevada.

In a community conversation organized by the Lincy Institute, Umbach said the current two-phase approach to building out UNLV’s school could leave the university struggling to complete both phases and could even jeopardize the school’s accreditation.

The plan, announced in August, calls for construction of a $57 million library services building that would be funded mostly by a $25 million donation and $25 million in state funding, then a $180 million education building that would be funded privately.

A key problem: Major donors aren’t behind the approach.

“Building 2s sometimes don’t happen,” Umbach said. “If donors don’t believe we’re moving in the right direction — if they’re not happy about Building 1 — why would they be excited about getting behind Building 2?”

That’s a critical question, and it would definitely seem to apply to the current situation. When the plan was announced in August, it was characterized as a way to get the school moving again after donors either withdrew commitments or said they were reconsidering gifts to the medical school in disgust over Len Jessup being forced out as UNLV president.

Umbach recommended that the university re-engage donors and seek their ideas about how to move forward.

That should happen. Right now.

As Umbach pointed out, creating a library building without adding new capacity for education is fraught with problems. As other schools invest in facilities and new technology for education, for instance, UNLV could easily fall behind the curve and become second-rate in terms of its quality of instruction. Umbach also noted that with students able to access information anytime and practically anywhere on the internet, other schools are downsizing their libraries and reconverting parts of them to education facilities. 

But perhaps most worrisome, Umbach said the library — which is designed as a shared facility — could put the med school’s accreditation at risk if it turned out to be used by a relatively small number of medical students.

To address that concern, Umbach recommended revising the library building to include instruction space. Ideally, he said, the university and donors would forge a plan that would speed up the start of construction of the second-phase building and allow both facilities to open at the same time.

This is good advice from an impeccable source.

The donors’ support is critical to the development of the school, as it’s all but assured that the state wouldn’t provide full funding for the facilities after committing the $25 million match and providing ongoing funding for operations.

Meanwhile, university and higher education officials should re-examine their plans for the library facility. Although there are concerns that the state could take the $25 million off the table and put development of the school even farther behind, it seems highly unlikely that the next governor would allow that to happen given the need for the medical school in Southern Nevada.

Rest assured, the new governor will understand the importance of the school. Not only will it help address a long-standing shortage of physicians in Southern Nevada, but it will generate an estimated $3.1 billion in economic impact once it’s built out.

It’s critical to note that UNLV’s medical school is already up and running, with facilities for classes of 60 students. But to reach its potential, it needs to expand to classes of at least 120.

The sooner it does that, the better for Las Vegas and Southern Nevada.

To his credit, regent John T. Moran III reacted to the Umbach report by immediately requesting that the board receive a briefing on the situation from UNLV officials and hold an “open, transparent discussion” on the plan. An NSHE spokesman said the staff was unable to add the item to the agenda of the regents’ special board meeting today due to notice requirements in the open meetings law, so it appears the next opportunity would be in mid-November.

Here’s hoping the matter can come up before then. We simply can’t delay in responding to this alarm.