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Higher Education: Welcome!

Well, maybe. Observations on the process that yielded a new UNLV president

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“Responsive.” Such a blandly straightforward word, usually taking on the flavor of the context in which it’s used. But there was so much chewy context in the air on Nov. 12, when Len Jessup, then a candidate for UNLV’s presidency, used the word in a public forum, that you wanted to geotag it to see where it ended up on the spectrum of possible meanings.

The topic was academic freedom. Here’s what Jessup said, according to the Review-Journal:

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“Academic freedom is very important and (is) something that needs to be preserved and protected fundamentally. You’ve got to find a balance between that and the new model for American public higher-ed, (which) is more partnerships externally and you’ve got to be responsive to those external partners.”

To many ears, that’s not at all controversial — a modern university should work hand-in-hand with community institutions, including business, if it’s going to thrive. “If you don’t weld the community to the school, you don’t have a shot,” the late Jim Rogers, business mogul and onetime higher-ed chancellor, told Desert Companion a year ago, after the resignation of previous UNLV boss Neal Smatresk. Looking ahead to the president search to come, Regent Kevin Page endorsed a businesslike mindset for whoever got the job: “This is running a big business.” (See “But you just got here,” January.) Jessup, by the way, runs the Eller School of Management at the University of Arizona.

However, his comment came shortly after the revelations that top gaming officials — pretty much the definition of “external partners” in this town — had emailed the school’s interim president, Don Snyder, about a study issued by UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research. They objected to its rosy projections regarding the Question 3 margins tax. At least one CEO appeared to threaten withdrawal of his company’s support for other UNLV projects. Snyder distanced his administration from the report — a hair-trigger responsiveness to external partners that many immediately saw as an erosion of academic freedoms.

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Jessup also said that universities like UNLV must (quoting the RJ’s paraphrase) “try and free themselves of government money and focus on creating revenue through large fundraising campaigns.” In other words, become even more dependent on external partners.

So when he was selected, over UNLV Provost John White and Georgia Regents University President Ricardo Azziz, it was no surprise that there was a throb of social-media angst from a faculty already bruised by frozen wages and recession-driven fears that UNLV would have to cut entire academic departments. “This is a disaster,” one professor posted, while others critiqued Jessup’s qualifications (he’s never run a university), salary (at $525,000, considerably more than Smatresk made) and business-attentive attitude. At least one regent wasn’t convinced either. “I just think it’s a huge risk,” Cedric Crear told the Sun, concerned about the lack of experience.

These competing perspectives, of course, are proxy arguments for the real subject under debate, also voiced in January by Molly Corbett Broad of the American Council on Higher Education: “What kind of university do they want UNLV to be?” Can it serve as a fruitful nexus for business partnerships and be a Tier 1 bastion of unfettered academia? With the 2015 Legislature coming up, can Jessup sweet-talk the millions needed for UNLV’s med school from lawmakers — and from a community that’s not in a giving mood? He’s a masterful fundraiser, but education’s a tough sell now. The citizenry frets over unions and waste and character foibles — it’s telling that the RJ’s coverage dwelled heavily on the candidates’ minor shortcomings (Azziz’s inappropriately paid-for carport!) — and doesn’t always bother with the big picture. So part of the equation becomes, how will we react? It seems that the meanings of “responsive” — to whom? in what ways? — sit very near the center of the question-swarm now buzzing toward UNLV’s new leader.

Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.