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Who's To Blame For UNLV Chaos?

Associated Press

The last three or so weeks have been some of the most controversial in recent times for UNLV and the higher education system in Nevada.

UNLV President Len Jessup is leaving, to the chagrin of many big-time donors to the university. And in his parting letter, he blamed the university systems' Board of Regents and the systems' chief, Thom Reilly.

Jessup essentially called the regents micromanagers who forgot they are elected to oversee the system, but the universities hire administrators to manage them.

And what was Chancellor Thom Reilly’s hand in it, according to Jessup? Jessup said Reilly and the regents undermined him and tried to cast doubt and negativity on UNLV as he tried to improve its status.

Jessup is leaving in May, on his way to a new job at a graduate college in California.  

During an interview Wednesday morning, Reilly talked to KNPR's State of Nevada about his side of what happened.

Reilly said as part of his job as chancellor his annual review of Jessup found some strengths and, as well, some weaknesses.

He said that while Jessup was doing an excellent job fundraising for the university, particularly for capital projects, he had "serious concerns" about how Jessup was managing the operation of the university.

Reilly said that while fundraising is an important part of the job the real focus of everyone should be on student success.

"As a higher education institution our primary goal is to graduate individuals," he said, "That is our core: student success."

Reilly's concern grew, he added, because UNLV is falling behind other universities when it comes to graduation rates. As the institution and the Board of Regents move forward, those rates have to become a major focus.

He added that earning Tier One research status for both UNLV and UNR is extremely important and will continue to be the target for the board of regents, the Legislature, and the governor.

"What I would like to see is that our Board of Regents meetings focus more on these core issues," he said.

Answering questions about regents who might call university administrators directly with complaints, Reilly added that he has stressed that regents go through him.

He pushed back on the idea that the conflict between Jessup, himself, and the regents is connected to the divide between northern and southern Nevada. He also said it had nothing to do with an effort by anyone to kill the new UNLV medical school, as some people have speculated.

That medical school is "critical" to southern Nevada, he added.

But funding for the school has become controversial. Donors are being asked for money to build the school. Reilly said Jessup signed an agreement with the Engelstad Family Foundation that guaranteed money for the school, but only if Jessup and another administrator were still with UNLV.

Reilly said it was inappropriate for Jessup to sign the memorandum of understanding without seeking approval from university regents or lawyers. 

The timing of the memo is also under scrutiny. The agreement was signed after Reilly had met with Jessup and gave him a somewhat critical evaluation.

As the university moves past its current issues, some people have suggested that the regents be appointed and not elected. Reilly said regents at most U.S. universities are appointed.

Nevada's constitution would need to be changed to allow regents to be appointed instead of elected. And though Reilly said he would not be opposed to appointed regents, he doubted Nevada residents would vote for that change.

Whoever is chosen to become the next UNLV president, Reilly wants them to focus on maintaining the school's policy of broad access to higher education and excellence.

"The stakes are incredibly high for systems like we have in Nevada that are committed to this issue of broad access and excellence," he said, "That is what is going to move our system and our workforce forward."

(Editor's Note: KNPR News asked Len Jessup to join the conversation but a spokesperson said he was not doing interviews at this time. We also asked several regents to be part of the discussion; some did not respond and others said it was a personnel matter that they did not want to comment on.)

Thom Reilly, chancellor, Nevada System of Higher Education

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.