Las Vegas Sun

June 20, 2019

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Q+A: Chancellor discusses UNLV president search, med school’s future and more

UNLV Medical School

Image courtesy of TSK Architects / Co Architects

The future home of the UNLV School of Medicine.

Thom Reilly’s freshman year as chancellor of Nevada’s higher education system was anything but peaceful and quiet.

In what amounted to his second semester as the head of the state’s universities and colleges, Reilly became a central figure in the dramatic and unexpected departure of UNLV President Len Jessup, who claimed that Reilly and a faction of the Nevada Board of Regents had forced him out. Reilly denied that he or the regents pressured Jessup to resign, but the president’s three years into a five-year contract incensed some members of the UNLV community, including a number of prominent donors who either pulled contributions or announced they were reconsidering gifts.

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Thom Reilly

The situation created uncertainty about the future of UNLV’s medical school, as the contributions at issue had been made for a new building for the fledgling school. In pulling the gifts, donors cited a lack of trust with the chancellor and regents.

Now, Jessup is the first-year president of Claremont Graduate University, and Marta Meana is in her first fall semester as acting president of UNLV. Meanwhile, Meana and the medical school’s dean, Barbara Atkinson, presented a new approach to construction of the medical school building, starting with a $50 million library that would be funded by a mix of state money and private donations. The second phase would be a $180 million, 182,000-square-foot teaching and education building that would be privately funded.

Last week, as he headed into his second year as chancellor, Reilly sat down for an interview with the Sun to discuss the search for Jessup’s replacement, the new medical school plan and more. He asked not to rehash the circumstances surrounding Jessup's departure but agreed to discuss other topics. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.

What's the status of the UNLV search?

When we went out there in late spring, we said we'd come back in the fall. So we're still looking at October or November to go back out there and get the pulse of the campus on how they want to proceed.

So the search isn't underway?

No, it's not. What came out of the discussions is that overwhelmingly they wanted an acting versus an interim, and two, there wasn't consensus on when to start it. Some felt we needed a couple of years in order to let things calm down because of a host of issues, while others wanted to do it quicker. So I think we're going to go back and get a pulse, and then determine when to start the search.

How will you gauge the feel of the campus?

We'll have a discussion with student leaders, faculty leaders. I rely on them a lot because they're the elected spokespeople, and they should have a better pulse. We'll still have open forums, but we do give a lot of weight to the head of faculty senate and the faculty senate members, and the student leaders, the Alumni Association and the UNLV Foundation.

Are you still planning to hire a chief operations officer for UNLV?

It's up to the president. So I think that's a good question for Dr. Meana, as far as how she's dealing with those operational issues. She has a pretty detailed plan, but I don't want to take the thunder away from her.

I know you’ve been asked several times about Brian Sandoval (Nevada’s governor, who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Jessup and whose second and last term as governor expires in January). Is there any news to announce there?

There isn't. I've been consistently on the record in saying he'd be a good candidate. But we would be committed to an open search. So when we open a search, then we believe in a shared governance process, where faculty and students and their community have input on who the next president will be.

So while I think he's a wonderful candidate — or would be, if he chose to go that way — he would need to be vetted along with other candidates, where we have input from the really important constituents, and primarily students and faculty.

Let's move on to the UNLV medical school, and the new approach that was announced last week. Where did that originate, and how did it evolve?

That is the plan that the UNLV president and the medical school dean have come up with. This was their approach as far as how to move forward. There were two pressing issues. One is our land transfer agreement with the county had a time frame on it, where if we didn't build by a certain date, the land would transfer back to the county. The second issue was that the condition of the $25 million, which was long before I came, required that that money be used last, and that it be a state public works project.

So in the bill that was signed, the condition of the $25 million from the governor was that it be a public works project and that it be used as a last resort. Private dollars had to be used first.

The governor's office indicated that if we didn't use the $25 million, then in all likelihood it would be repurposed. So we potentially faced losing the land and losing the $25 million.

So this may be a better question for the president and the dean and David Frommer (UNLV planning and construction director), but they looked structurally at the original plans and then made decisions on what made most sense in terms of building in phases.

They had conversations about other components, but it would structurally be hard to build one of those and then build something else on top of it.

Is it unusual to build a medical school's library first, then build the rest?

Well, I think building phases of buildings is pretty common, depending on how much funding you have. So in their conversations, I think it was more a matter of, "This is the funding we have, so how can we move forward given that we have land and have $25 million that could be repurposed?" And the dean and her staff came up with, "This is one way to move forward, and can we build consensus on it?"

The $50 million price tag for the library has raised some eyebrows.

This would be a good question for UNLV, but I think libraries have changed. They have more technology. They're learning centers, and they're places for meetings. Universities are still building libraries, but the library is looking different from perhaps when you and I went to school. And again, this is all part of the original plan.

Several key donors weren't present at the meeting where this plan was unveiled, and I was later told that their absence was intentional. Any concerns about relations with the donors?

Yeah, I think that's always a concern. Obviously, donors are a key partnership in moving forward. But my understanding is the dean has been in contact, so I'm sure UNLV is having those conversations.

You're not having those conversations?

I'm not. It's much more appropriate for UNLV (to be having them). I spend very little time with any foundations at any of the institutions. But what's been reported to me is that the UNLV Foundation is moving forward with raising the dollars.

I've been told that as much as 90 percent of the funding for the UNR medical school’s facilities came from the state. Do you think that's accurate?

I don't know. That's a fair question, but we'd have to look at that and see where that funding came in. I will say that the original plan (for the UNLV med school) as far as what it took operational-wise and to build it out has been met (by the state). The governor has committed to that, as have the regents.

But it's a double-edged sword (to build out the facility with state funding). If the state is putting in money, it becomes a state public works project.

But if the state did fund the vast majority of UNR’s facilities, would you be willing to go to the Legislature and say, "The state helped UNR, so shouldn't UNLV get the same treatment?"

Well, I'd be willing to look at it. Is that the best strategy for donors and where UNLV wants to go? Do we want a totally state-funded building? I know that in conversations with the governor — and this precedes me — his understanding was that the state would commit to funding for full operations and UNLV was committed to raising private funds for the building.

In April, you gave an interview in which you basically said you didn't believe Barbara Atkinson would get a new contract ...

I don't think that's exactly what I said. The question was that her contract was up.

But you didn't think she would remain at the UNLV med school?

That is up to the president. It's totally the president's decision. And the presidents made the decision — I think it was President Jessup and Marta Meana — that the dean was valuable and was needed to run the med school.

My conversations with deans are very limited. As a policy, I go directly to the presidents. They run their institutions, and for me to start calling down to talk to different people, I just don't think it's appropriate. But the decision on any dean is a president's decision. And they made the determination, which I'm totally supportive of.

OK, different topic. The higher education system has adopted five goals, including increasing graduation rates. What are your targets and what's your strategy for hitting them?

I've really pushed the institutions to identify peer and aspirational institutions as their benchmarks, and develop close relationships with them, because these institutions mirror the demographics and the the challenges of education, including K-12, financial challenges, etc.

I believe that through these partnerships, we can start looking at best practices. With these like communities, what have they done to have a richer research profile or have more success around students?

I'm also asking that we have a deeper conversation directly between presidents and regents.

In the past, when presidents have made presentations it's been more of a dog and pony show — “These are the great things our institutions do.” I believe our institutions do great things. But we're missing key time between regents, the policymakers and our presidents, who know their institutions, to talk more frankly about how we move the needle.

If we're serious about improving graduation rates and meet our other objectives, like closing the achievement gap and making Nevada a culture where individuals get access to higher education, then we need to put our money and our effort into goal.

That can only occur if our presidents are forthright and talk about the obstacles, and come prepared with best practices and evidence.

So I'm trying to create a platform for doing that, where we take a goal, we focus on the metrics and we have a deeper conversations.

We'll start with our access (which will be the discussed during the Board of Regents’ September meeting this week).

Around goals two and three — student success, and closing the achievement gap — I'm looking to have a one-day workshop where we'll be targeting graduation goals and really getting into the details. Each of the presidents will be prepared to talk about what they believe can work in their institutions.

The most recent data I could find show that in 2014-15, UNR received $8,355 in state funding per FTE student, while UNLV received only $6,021. Meanwhile, for a variety of reasons, UNLV faces steeper challenges than UNR in getting students from their freshman year to graduation. Is the funding discrepancy something you’d be willing to address with the Legislature?

First, there have been changes to the funding formula. By all accounts, the new formula has made great strides in dealing with the equity issue.

The funding formula is based on two factors: enrollment and completion. And that's a similar formula that is applied to every one of our institutions.

To your point, we do need to build that case, but we need to build it with evidence. I feel we haven't come with details. We hadn't had those conversations and made the case.

So I'll keep harping on why those aspirational and peer institutions are so important: because these are like communities. And they've figured out how to move the needle, given the same opportunities and challenges as us for the most part.

And that helps us build our story. At the Legislature, there's been some talk of having a committee focused on the issue of higher education funding formula. This would be powerful documentation data that we can bring to the table.

What's your opinion of AJR5 (which would remove the board of regents from the state constitution, giving the Legislature more control of higher education)?

I've been on the record of saying I'm very open to the idea of a hybrid — appointed and elected — as well as reducing the size of the board. I think they're good conversations to have. The worst thing to do is for the regents to be defensive about it.

We've got to tie it back to the issue of student success. What is it that's going to help us improve the student experience and help individuals graduate? That's what we need to be focused on.

But it doesn't sound like something you'd be willing to take to the Legislature and support.

Well, I'd be happy to opine as issues come up. The only caveat I have is that the elected versus appointed is a challenging issue for Nevada. For good, bad or indifferent, Nevada prides itself in having this sort of direct democracy.

As county manager, I made a big pitch — and I made it in your paper, actually — about appointing the county recorder. At the time, there was a lot of corruption going on in that office that affected the recorder's ability to work with the treasurer, the assessor and the rest.

My argument was that it wasn't a policymaking position; it was an administrative position. We didn't elect the county administrator, or animal control, because these are administrative, so why are we electing the recorder?

I'll tell you what: I don't think the commission has ever gotten more hate mail. It was like, "Who does the county manager think he is, taking away my vote?"

Have you developed priorities for the 2019 legislative session?

We had meetings with the governor and his staff about what our enhancement package could be. We were basically told it was about $120 million.

As a system, we were successful back before I got here in getting capacity building enhancements at each of our institutions. The governor is committed to continuing that. Those are projects, for instance, at UNLV and UNR around research, about helping push their Carnegie R1 status.

And then with the medical school, which is really the only non-formula-funded project we were able to get in, the total build-out is important.

Then there are two pilot programs that are important to us, including one around the issue of summer school.

The reality is that right now, we're only funded for nursing (for summer school), and I think the reason the Legislature funded nursing is that we've had a shortage. That has proved successful — we have produced more nurses.

But right now they don't fund anything else, so there's a disincentive for schools to offer summer school, because it would impact fall and spring enrollment, and that's what the funding formula is partly based on.

So the governor has agreed to pilot summer school to extend it to work force and STEM.

The reality is that students go to school year-round. Many of our students struggle to do a traditional 15-15 (15 credit hours in the fall, 15 in the spring), but they can do a 12-12-6.

Even the feds are funding Pell Grants in the summer. This old model of students just going in the fall and spring is outdated. We need to change in Nevada to be year-round. We can do certificate offerings quicker in the summer, we can accelerate graduation.

The other initiative is around faculty compression. We did a study to look at how our faculty salaries compare nationally. It basically concluded that we fare well in salaries with other like institutions, but where we have a large problem is around the issue of compression, so for 10 years there haven't been increases. We're not the only one facing that, but the problems that creates at the institutional level is that new faculty are being brought on at higher rates than existing faculty. UNLV and UNR have to be really strategic about where they need to bring most research dollars in to achieve their R1 status. They have to go after professors and offer them at higher rates (than current faculty) because they're competitive. So what that does is create this compression issue where you're bringing assistant professors in at higher rates sometimes than associates and full professors.

Not only does it create morale issues, it's a fairness and equity issue. So we've developed a plan over a three-biennium period to address it.