Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2019

Currently: 70° — Complete forecast

Analysis: Was threat against UNLV part of a power play by regents?

UNLV Campus View

UNLV Photo Services

This file photo shows a view of the UNLV campus.

In the three weeks since Nevada Regent Kevin Page was exposed for a dubious use of his power in 2015, Page and other state-level higher education leaders have put up a wall of silence about the matter.

But within the UNLV community, people familiar with the situation are talking. And they say the 2015 incident was merely one example of bullying and vindictive behavior by Page and a cabal of other leaders who seem bent on sabotaging progress at UNLV.

“They rule by intimidation. They’re a nasty group of people,” said Kris Engelstad McGarry, whose family philanthropy foundation is one of the community’s largest donors to UNLV and Southern Nevada social service organizations. “They use (their authority) mostly for their own gain at this point.”

In Page’s case, that meant pressuring UNLV to give preferential treatment to a family member who was enrolled at UNLV. As shown by emails obtained by the Sun, Page asked UNLV administrators to allow the student to skip a prerequisite course in the Lee Business School. When administrators told Page that making an exception would be unfair to students who had taken prerequisites and could put the business school’s accreditation in jeopardy, Page made a threat to retaliate. “Next semester the LBS better not play games with (the student) and her getting her classes,” Page wrote in a message dated Aug. 30, 2015. “For some reason, people take kindness for weakness. I am usually very nice but, can change gears when I need to.”

Since the Sun brought the emails to light on June 25, Page has failed to respond to numerous requests for comment. So have current Regents Chairman Jason Geddes and regent Rick Trachok, who was the board chair at the time of the Page threat and was notified about it. There’s also been no comment from Nevada System of Higher Education, which is akin to a public school system’s superintendent’s office while regents would be the school board. But sources at UNLV are filling the vacuum of information with conjecture and questions.

Perhaps the biggest one: Given Page’s threat to “change gears,” did the matter play a role in the disruptive ouster of former UNLV President Len Jessup three years later?

TIMELINE

When Page made the threat, Jessup had been president for eight-plus months. According to sources, his primary marching orders were to elevate UNLV as a research institution and get the UNLV School of Medicine fully up and running. (To protect these sources from possible retaliation, their names and titles are not being published here.)

Jessup launched strategic initiatives on both of those fronts, which would lead to record-setting fundraising totals and put UNLV on a path to earn Carnegie R1 research status — the highest classification — in 2018.

But behind the scenes, sources say he and his staff were also dealing with behavior by Page that at best was pushy and at worst was inappropriate given his position of authority.

One example: Page took particular interest in a proposal to transfer UNLV’s student radio station to Southern Nevada’s public radio station, KNPR. He pressured the administration to the point that people on campus found it odd: The regents as a group didn’t seem particularly interested in the proposal, and besides, regents are generally expected to focus on broad policy issues and leave it to NSHE and the universities to handle specific matters like operations of a student radio station.

Then, UNLV officials made a discovery — Page had a connection to KNPR’s board of directors. The board’s members included one of Page’s superiors at the large corporation where he works as a financial adviser, raising questions on campus as to whether Page was attempting to curry favor by making the transfer happen.

Page also raised flags at UNLV by making frequent demands for free tickets to Rebels games and other campus events, as well as free athletic gear. Sources said that although regents routinely are offered passes — admission is considered one of the few perks of being a regent, which is an unpaid position — Page abused the privilege by demanding tickets for not only himself but a large entourage. And unlike other regents who made their requests politely, sources said, Page made it clear he wasn’t asking for free tickets and gifts — he expected them to be delivered.

Finally, with Page’s request for the prerequisite waiver, UNLV put its foot down. Administrators stuck to the policy, and Jessup supported them. Page would not get what he wanted.

And for Jessup, things would soon change.

Both in private and at public regents meetings, he would begin facing harsh criticism over what his supporters believed were overblown concerns — such as the handling of a basketball coaching search, cost overruns from the successful 2016 presidential debate at UNLV and provisions of the university’s contract to share the Raiders stadium.

“It was shocking to me how disrespectful they were of Len in public meetings,” one source said. “They weren’t just asking questions. They were insulting.”

Based on sources of the public criticism and behind-the-scenes dealings with UNLV, Jessup’s supporters in the donor and campus communities identified three main antagonists on the board — Trachok, Geddes and Page — with a couple of other regents occasionally jumping in.

“Lots of phone calls from that group to UNLV start with them screaming into the telephone,” Engelstad McGarry said.

In August 2017 came another change that may have affected Jessup — Thom Reilly was hired as NSHE chancellor.

Reilly hadn’t been the first choice. In fact, the regents turned to him only after a botched search in which the finalists withdrew and an internal candidate also backed out, citing infighting among the regents.

When it later emerged that Page and Trachok personally recruited Reilly for the chancellor position, Jessup’s supporters wondered whether the two regents had gone looking for a willing partner to oust the president.

Whether that was the regents’ goal, it was the result.

In December 2017, just four months after Reilly started his duties, the chancellor gave Jessup a negative performance evaluation — the first he’d received. Among Reilly’s main knocks on Jessup was that he hadn’t done enough to bring UNLV’s graduation rate up to the standards that Reilly had put in place after coming aboard.

For Jessup’s supporters, that was patently unfair. Not only had Jessup been given inadequate time to meet the new expectations, they said, but he and his team had put a number of strategic initiatives in place to improve student performance. Those measures just needed time to bear fruit.

Also, while the new standards were important, they weren’t in line with the top priorities Jessup had been given when he was hired. “Reilly moved the goal posts on Len,” one faculty member said.

Meanwhile, the criticism toward Jessup continued, this time over such issues as a faculty member in the UNLV School of Dental Medicine being caught reusing dental appliances that were meant for single usage. Jessup's supporters acknowledged that the situation was a black eye but questioned why he was raked over the coals for it when a scandal involving widespread billing errors at the UNR School of Medicine drew no such criticism from the regents and Reilly.

Another line of attack came when it was revealed that Jessup and Barbara Atkinson, the founding dean of the UNLV School of Medicine, had signed off on an agreement from Engelstad McGarry making a major donation to the med school contingent on the two of them remaining in their positions for at least five years.

Jessup was accused of self-dealing. Engelstad McGarry insisted that the only reason the provision was in place was that she was afraid Jessup and Atkinson would be ousted and she didn’t trust Reilly and the regents with the money. Engelstad McGarry said she insisted on the provision, and Jessup reluctantly agreed to it.

By the spring of 2018, Jessup had had enough. He resigned to become president of Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions of its type.

“For Len, it was death by a thousand cuts,” one source said.

For his supporters, Jessup’s new position was a vindication of his record and behavior at UNLV.

Claremont officials were well aware of the public criticisms against him and would have rejected him if they had any concerns. Not only that, one source said, “You get hired at a place like Claremont because you don’t do things like waive prerequisite requirements.”

Another point of criticism about Jessup’s handling: The regents didn’t hesitate to accuse him of self-dealing — allegations that were disputed — but have said nothing after seeing evidence of Page doing it.

The emails show only one official response to the situation, in which Trachok asks for someone to call him after being forwarded Page’s threatening email.

What happened after that is anybody’s guess. It appears Page dropped the matter related to the student, but sources said he continued to issue demands on other fronts. One difference: He quit using email in leaning on UNLV and instead switched to phone calls, which led to speculation that Trachok, an attorney, slapped Page on the wrist and told him to stop putting his demands in writing.

A NEW REGIME?

For Jessup’s supporters, the takeaway was clear: The regents ousted Jessup because they couldn’t control him.

What has happened since Jessup’s departure helps build that case, campus sources say, starting with the selection of Marta Meana as acting president.

Meana, the longtime dean of UNLV’s Honors College, was a nontraditional choice. Sources say universities often turn to the deans of large and complex schools — business schools, engineering schools, medical schools, etc. — to serve as temporary leaders because of their experience in managing big staffs, budgets and student bodies. The Honors College is among UNLV’s smaller schools.

Beyond that, the Honors College draws faculty members from partnerships with other colleges and works exclusively with undergraduate students, meaning that Meana brought less experience than some other administrators in dealing with issues like faculty promotion and tenure, as well as graduate student affairs. That’s notable, sources said, because those areas are important for research universities.

Another issue that raised eyebrows: Meana flip-flopped on a commitment she’d made to donors and the community at large not to be considered as a candidate in the search for Jessup’s long-term successor. Meana made the shift after the regents voted in February to exempt her from a rule that acting presidents -- unlike interim presidents -- can’t be considered.

The move set off an alarm among some UNLV supporters, who felt that it would have a chilling effect on the search.

“I’m afraid that it’s going to deter candidates from applying when they see us waiving rules like this; and if they think we already have a Manchurian candidate,” said Regent John Moran, the lone board member to vote against the rules exemption.

To understand that concern, first know that candidates face career liability in applying. There’s a strong chance they’ll be identified publicly, which their current employer is likely to see as a sign of disloyalty or job dissatisfaction. Against an internal candidate who has been given preferential treatment, their chances become more of a long shot and the risks are too high.

“You’d have to be an idiot or a lunatic (to apply), and I don’t think we want either of those,” the source said.

For critics of the regents, the situation surrounding Meana appeared to be a power play by the board to replace Jessup with a leader who’d be more compliant.

Some question whether there was a plan all along to install Meana in the president’s office long-term. They note that she has made changes in high-level administrative positions, and question why a mere caretaker would do so. They also note that in official emails, Meana’s title has often appeared as “president” instead of “acting president.”

Approached for comment, Meana issued a written statement.

"I want what's best for UNLV,” she said. “If another individual is better suited to be president of this university, then he/she will have my full support."

Finally, some sources are suspicious about last week’s announcement that Reilly would step down as chancellor after his contract expires in 2020. That’s fueled conjecture that Reilly and the regents swung a deal in which Reilly, whose total compensation is listed at $453,000 annually, would make a leadership change at UNLV and then be allowed to ride into the sunset with a sizable pension.

A MATTER OF DISTRUST

Sources from other university systems say that while regent interference can and does happen everywhere, regents generally advocate for universities and focus on overarching policies, not daily operations and especially not the academic issues of individual students. And while regents hold universities accountable in public meetings, the kind of hostile questioning to which Jessup and other administrators were subjected was highly unusual.

“The level of micromanaging and the lack of trust were striking to me,” one source said.

In pushing Jessup out of UNLV, the regents created a rift with university supporters that has yet to heal.

They theorize that Trachok, Geddes and Page have become the power center of the board and, along with Reilly, are working to undercut UNLV to the benefit of UNR, the alma mater of both Trachok and Geddes. Among their key points of evidence: Counting acting leaders, UNLV has had six presidents in the last 13 years.

The instability in leadership, sources say, has been crippling for UNLV. It makes donors reluctant to contribute funds, as they’re unsure of the university’s direction. It makes top-level faculty and staff wary about being recruited to UNLV, not knowing whether they’ll be in a stable professional environment. It causes fits and starts in academic programs, leaving students having to adjust.

For Engelstad McGarry and other key donors, enough is enough. They’re supporting a ballot question in 2020 that would increase lawmakers’ authority over the regents and would pave the way for the board and NSHE to be restructured.

The donors say nothing short of that will rein in the regents’ bullying, vindictive behavior toward UNLV.

Lindy Schumacher, a prominent UNLV supporter, has declined to discuss the Page incident but summed up donors’ attitudes toward NSHE and the regents during a presentation late last year at the Lincy Institute at UNLV.

“There is no trust in the regents. There is no trust in the chancellor,” she said. “There is no trust in the way they handle our leaders and the talent that brought the donors to the table in the first place.”

Today, trust is still broken. And there’s little indication it might heal soon.

Sun staff reporter John Sadler contributed to this analysis.