Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2019

Currently: 98° — Complete forecast

UNLV to launch search for new med school dean

Barbara Atkinson

Barbara Atkinson

The founding dean of the UNLV School of Medicine will transition into a new role and the university will begin searching for her successor this summer, the university announced today.

Barbara Atkinson, who joined UNLV as the medical school's planning dean in 2014 and has led the school since then, said in a statement that she planned to transition into a role as founding dean emerita and remain engaged in community affairs and outreach.

“Serving as planning dean and staying on to formally launch the school’s academic and clinical operations has been an incredible experience,” Atkinson said in the release. "Our students are performing remarkably well and we have achieved so much together.”

Atkinson, whose one-year contract runs through June, will continue to lead the school until the new dean is in place.

UNLV Acting President Marta Meana said the change was initiated by Atkinson, who recently approached her with a succession plan. In a message to the UNLV community, Meana said Atkinson's "vision and experience have been tremendous assets to UNLV."

"She has created a school that continues to attract outstanding students, faculty, residents, and fellows," Meana said. "Her passion for academic medicine and the highest level of patient care have set the UNLV School of Medicine on the path for great success. The impact of her work to build an innovative, respected medical program here in Las Vegas will continue to be felt for decades as our physicians help to transform the region's health care landscape. I want to thank Barbara for her passion and vision, and her tireless work in behalf of UNLV and Southern Nevada."

Atkinson came out of retirement to join the administration at UNLV, having served as dean of the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

Under her leadership, the UNLV med school underwent a successful accreditation effort and a fundraising campaign that yielded enough donations to provide full scholarships to each member of the inaugural class.

But another major initiative -- a new educational building that would allow the school to expand to 120 students -- collapsed last year amid when several megadonors became upset at the Nevada System of Higher Education over the pressured ouster of President Len Jessup.

Atkinson became caught up in dispute when it was revealed that one donor made a gift contingent on her and Jessup remaining in their positions until at least 2022. Atkinson and Jessup faced accusations of ethics violations over the donation, but nothing came of those accusations. The donor, Kris Engelstad McGarry, said the contingency was not meant to benefit Jessup or Atkinson but rather was to ensure that the donation would be stewarded by administrators she trusted.

After Jessup’s ouster, McGarry withdrew the donation. Other Jessup supporters also announced that they were rescinding or were reconsidering other multimillion-dollar gifts for the building.

Although the school’s operations are funded by the state and are not in jeopardy, prospects for the building remain uncertain amid ongoing donor distrust of NSHE and the regents.

Last fall, Reilly announced what appeared to be a breakthough -- a two-phase plan that would start with a $57 million library building followed by a $180 million educational facility. The first phase of the plan hinged on $25 million in state funds that had been committed to the education building and were designed to be matched by a $25 million private donation. The plan called for the educational building to be funded by private donations.

Meana indicated that donors had been consulted about the plan and were on board with it, but it appeared to crumble when donors, contradicting Meana, said they had not expressed support for it.

Months later, the building’s status remains uncertain.

Atkinson received her current contract in May amid speculation that she might not be retained as dean. She was closely aligned with Jessup, leading to concerns from her supporters that she would be targeted for ouster by Reilly and several regents who had become critical of Jessup.

Jessup resigned after being facing criticism on such issues as cost overruns from the 2016 presidential debate on the UNLV campus and a controversy involving the reuse of equipment designed for single usage at the university’s dental school.

Supporters of Jessup and Atkinson believed Reilly and the regents contended that the criticisms were overblown and unfair. They argued that the university had made significant progress under Jessup in a variety of areas -- fundraising, community relations, academic achievement and diversity among them -- and that Reilly and the regents were targeting him as part of a longstanding north-vs.-south political push to disrupt UNLV to the benefit of UNR.

Jessup is now president of Claremont Graduate College, while Meana is UNLV’s fifth leader in the last 13 years.

Atkinson, who is in her mid-70s, has said her goals include remaining at the school at least until the first class graduates. 

She suffered a major health problem in 2017, reportedly when a ruptured intestine resulted in an infection. She was sidelined for several months as she underwent treatment and during her recovery.

Under her current contract, her annual compensation is $547,740.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.