Engelstad family's dislike of regent system is reason money was rescinded from UNLV medical school

LAS VEGAS - It's been a rough month for UNLV President Dr. Len Jessup.  Reports surfaced two weeks ago that Jessup was told in January to quit or be fired. 

Jessup says that report was misleading, but he also admitted that he plans to look for a new job.  But, Jessup's potential departure has already cost UNLV millions of dollars that would have gone to build a new medical school.

It's a story that the I-Team has been following closely. Turmoil and skullduggery are not strangers in Nevada's higher education system.  

The state is one of the few in the nation where the position of university regent is an elected position. Some regents use the job as springboards to higher office, so they immerse themselves in the minutia of running state universities.  

Dr. Jessup doesn't want to leave UNLV, so who is behind the move to get rid of him?

"I resent being used as the excuse to turn against him and to try and terminate him," said Kris Engelstad McGarry.

Engelstad McGarry, of the famed affluent family, is usually happy when she gives away money.  In fact, the Engelstad Family Foundation has dished out more than $200 million to worthy causes. 

Late last year, it decided to donate $14 million to help build the new UNLV medical school, but there was one condition: UNLV President Len Jessup and medical school Dean Dr. Barbara Atkinson had to remain on the job. 

Now, there's a one-word reason the foundation hasn't previously donated to UNLV, and it's regents.

"We didn't like the system in place," Engelstad McGarry said. "We didn't like the institution with the board of regents, and we didn't want to just hand them money."

Engelstad McGarry says Nevada's Board of Regents has a long history of meddling and micromanaging, and she wanted to make certain that money donated to the medical school would actually be spent on the medical school. So her attorney drafted an agreement which specified the money could be rescinded if Jessup and Atkinson were no longer in charge.

George Knapp, I-Team Reporter: "Is it out of the ordinary?"
Kris Engelstad McGarry: "Not at all. this is what we do every day.
George Knapp, I-Team Reporter: "You express a preference how the money is used?"
Kris Engelstad McGarry: "Not only a preference but you want sustainability and accountability. You want to hand your money to people who are going to be good stewards. We hadn't done this gift before Len because we didn't think they were good stewards."

Charitable gifts to universities often come with strings attached. Donors want their names on a building or to fund particular programs.  Dr. Barbara Atkinson has been the dean of three medical schools and says it is not unusual.

"To specify in a memo is very common in my experience, and having it expressed that leadership to continue while a building is being built is not an unusual criteria," Dr. Atkinson said.

But earlier this month, after the Nevada Independent reported that Jessup was being shown the door, the agreement morphed into a political football. 

No one was willing to say, on the record, why Jessup was being forced out or why, but there was plenty of scuttlebutt.  According to Engelstad, this has regent fingerprints all over it.

"The regents cost the university $14 million, specifically the regents did," said Engelstad McGarry:. "We were very clear we would rescind the gift if management changed. Management changed, and we found out through the newspaper, so we did what we said we would do and rescinded the gift."

After she rescinded the $14 million, the next media salvo accused Jessup of orchestrating the whole thing to save his job. But the parties involved say the agreement was reached two months before Jessup received the warning about his job performance.  The news about the gift was announced to the regents by Jessup in late November 2017.  The foundation attached the strings, not Jessup.

Kris Engelstad McGarry: "It was never discussed. It was sent over with our signatures on it, and it landed on his desk, and he preferred not to be named."
George Knapp, I-Team Reporter: "So, he did not lobby you to put that in there?"
Kris Engelstad McGarry: "Absolutely, not."

When Jessup saw his name in the agreement, he asked the foundation to take it out. The agreement was re-written without the names but was still conditional based on retaining current management.  Since then, Engelstad McGarry says, no one from the university has called to ask her to reconsider, and other major donors are following her lead. 

The donors think this is the handiwork of a few regents who, behind closed doors, decided to oust Jessup without going through a formal and public review.

"They don't want meetings face-to-face, but they clearly have been meeting amongst themselves which I think is a violation of the open meeting law.

"I'm sorry that it's President Jessup," said Engelstad McGarry.  "I'm sorry this is the platform they've decided to use as a springboard for higher office, but maybe it is necessary to expose a sick and broken system that needs to be repaired and doesn't work.

Dr. Jessup still has more than two years to go on a five-year contract, but because of what he says are problems in the current leadership structure, it looks like he will likely be looking at other options. 

Jessup was scheduled to have a formal job review in June, but last week, the university chancellor created a new position, the chief operating officer for UNLV. 

Nevada is one of two states in the country with elected regents.

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