UNLV president Len Jessup announces departure for California university

UNLV President Len Jessup applauds during their NCAA basketball game against the Illinois Fighting Illini Saturday, December 9, 2017, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. UNLV won the game 89-82. [Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau]

In the end, things didn’t end well.

Len Jessup, UNLV’s 5th president since 2006, confirmed he’s resigning from his position to become the next president at California’s Claremont Graduate University, one of the seven schools that make up the Claremont Consortium of colleges.

In a blistering letter sent to campus on Tuesday, Jessup took aim at his bosses – Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly and the elected Board of Regents.

RELATED | With report of Jessup departure, UNLV donor stops giving

"Events over the last several months have clearly signaled that the Regents and the Chancellor have decided upon a vision and implemented a management structure for UNLV that is inconsistent with what I believe is in the best interests of UNLV,” Jessup wrote. “I have expressed my disagreement consistently, and have, unfortunately, been met by personal and professional attacks by the Chancellor and some Regents, unfounded and unjustified opinions, and media ‘leaks’ that appear to be calculated to damage not only me, but UNLV and the UNLV Foundation….," he added.

At its heart was a disagreement over management: some Regents were concerned about costs at the new UNLV Medical School, cost of the 2016 Presidential Debate, and other issues that simmered under the surface until news broke that a $14 million dollar medical school donation had been made contingent upon Jessup, and the Medical School’s dean, remaining in place. The donor, the Engelstad Foundation, later withdrew the $14 million dollar gift on the news Jessup, fed up, was looking for employment elsewhere.

Kris Engelstad McGarry, a trustee at the foundation said the structuring of the donation – tying it to Jessup’s tenure, was common and appropriate, and not an effort by Jessup to safeguard his job. She said she trusted Jessup, not the Regents, to watch over her money.

“Donors nowadays see things as partnerships. They’re not just checkbooks going to hand over money and assume you’re going to do the right thing,” Engelstad McGarry told me Friday. Referring to Jessup, she said “we never had a conversation prior to our gift agreement about the wording,” adding, “he didn’t even know what the amount would be.”

Reached today, she repeated her call for an appointed board of Regents, chosen on qualifications, and not the elected board we have today, chosen on votes. She says the foundation’s checkbook is now closed until change happens.

“We will give absolutely nothing to this institution as long as this Board of Regents is in play,” she tells me.

If some Regents did not like how Jessup managed his school, he did not like how they managed him. In his letter, he all but accused them of micromanagement that bordered on malpractice.

“This is intolerable and unacceptable and has created a working environment that is not productive for me or my staff who, among other issues, have had to deal with ongoing direct interference by individual Regents and others on their behalf…,” Jessup wrote.

In his letter, Jessup claims he was given an ultimatum by Chancellor Thom Reilly and Regent Chair Kevin Page on March 16th: resign, or be fired.

Today, Page said “there are several significant factual inaccuracies in President Jessup’s statement that do not accurately reflect the events that occurred over the past few months.” Page said board policy and Nevada’s open meetings law prevented him from going into details, but he said details would come “at the appropriate time.”

“I wish President Jessup well in his new position,” Page concluded.

Reilly, in his statement, said, “it is fair to say that I have significant concerns about operational issues I have observed at UNLV. Those concerns are well-known to President Jessup. We have engaged in a forthright and professional dialogue about those concerns for several months.”

Reilly says it was Jessup who told him on March 5th he wanted to leave and confirmed that March 14th when he told the school he was looking for other opportunities. Reilly said he first spoke publicly about the issue March 20th, when he announced he would hire a Chief Operating Officer for UNLV.

“On March 28th I met with President Jessup to discuss how the COO position could be structured to address my concerns and provide him the most benefit,” Reilly says.

On campus today, the sampling of the UNLV community we met was sad to see Jessup leave.

“I think he’s raised the level of where we want to be,” says academic advisor Gene Kirschner, who worries this controversy could deter other qualified applicants for President.

“We want someone of his caliber, or better, and are they going to be willing to come here,” asks Kirschner.

Chancellor Thom Reilly says the search now begins.

“I believe UNLV offers a great opportunity for an academic visionary, with impeccable credentials, and the passion and commitment to develop a world-class institution,” says Reilly. “That will be our standard as we embark on a thorough and tireless presidential search.”

Jessup says the legal details are still being worked out on his separation agreement and he hopes to remain here through the end of the spring semester.

He starts his new job at Claremont Graduate University on July 1st.

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