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Major donor says she'll reconsider UNLV medical school gift - if Jessup stays

UNLV President Len Jessup speaks Tuesday, April 18, 2017, at the introductory news conference for Athletics Director Desiree Reed-Francois at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Donald Lane/KSNV)

The target date to open the gleaming campus on Shadow Lane was 2021. But now?

"I'm afraid it may actually mean a year or two delay," UNLV School of Medicine Dean Barbara Atkinson told me Thursday, responding to the news that her school just lost a major donation.

On Wednesday, the Engelstad Foundation notified UNLV is was rescinding its $14 million gift to help build the school’s $230 million medical school facility.

“And like with any agreement, they didn't fulfill their end of it,” Kris Engelstad McGarry told me Thursday.

She’s upset because a growing rift between some regents -- the people who run the university system -- and UNVL President Len Jessup could send Jessup packing.

"Len is the reason that we committed the $14 million," Engelstad McGarry said. "It wasn't for any other reason. It was because we had faith in his leadership."

Some regents are reportedly upset with how Jessup has managed the university. Jessup told UNLV on Wednesday that he's upset with how regents have managed him.

“Over the last several weeks, I had conveyed to [university system] Chancellor Thom Reilly that the governance structure makes long-term sustainability for any president challenging,” Jessup said in a statement sent to campus. “I continue to be passionate about UNLV and all our initiatives, but expressed to him my intent to begin looking at other opportunities.”

Which, for Engelstad McGarry, is a big problem because the donation was contingent on the dean and the president staying in place.

“And the reason that we entered the clause in the agreement was we did not have faith in the Board of Regents,” she said.

Part of the reason, Engelstad McGarry said, is that UNLV has now had five presidents in 12 years. The regents hired Jessup in 2015.

“They finally hit it out of the park with Len,” she told me.

I contacted the Chancellor’s office at the Nevada System of Higher Education, but as of this writing have not received a response.

University Regent Trevor Hayes tells me he thinks the Board of Regents is getting a bum rap.

“This is between the Chancellor and the President,” Hayes told me, adding, he hopes Jessup says at UNLV. Hayes says if Jessup remains, part of his annual review would be a meeting in front of the board.

“Much of what is now confidential would become public, in a public hearing, and the community would have more facts to base their opinion on,” says Hayes.

As for Jessup's view the university system's "governance structure" makes a long-term presidential tenure tough, Hayes texted me this evening, "if President Jessup is so confident that he is being treated unfairly, then I encourage him to authorize the chancellor to release his evaluation."

Regarding the medical school’s new building, some regents have reportedly been upset by what they see as a climbing price tag and Jessup’s overall management of the situation.

But the school’s dean, Barbara Atkinson, says regents have been kept in the loop and should not be surprised with a cost topping $200 million.

“I’ve certainly been very clear with the legislature and the regents that this was always going to be a building that – we have a display for it – it was always a $230 million building,” Atkinson said.

She’s also worried the news about Jessup and the rescinded donation could give other medical school donors cold feet.

“And so I'm very concerned about what it's going to mean for the long run,” Atkinson says.

Without the $14 million, $50 million in funding remains: $25 million from an anonymous donor and $25 million from the State of Nevada.

The Las Vegas Sun reports that anonymous donor is now nervous on the news Jessup may be departing.

“We’re exploring our options,” the donor is quoted in the paper.

Atkinson told me today she’s not heard any word that the $25 million is also in jeopardy, although she was aware of the Sun’s report.

“Well, I heard about it because the same clause is in the donation letter for the other donor,” Atkinson said.

The Engelstad Foundation says the $33 million it has committed for med school scholarships remains intact, which is great news for Atkinson, who’s watching the school’s first year of students approach the conclusion of classes in a few months.

The scholarships pay for full tuition for all of the school’s students. In the meantime, for the med school – money, regents, and Jessup notwithstanding – it’s full steam ahead.

“We’ve taken the second class and they’ve all been selected and they’ve all been told,” Atkinson says.

I asked Kris Engelstad McGarry what happens to the $14 million if Jessup stays.

“If Len stays, we will be open to rediscussing that $14 million,” she said, adding, “we might add some additional restrictions now.”

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