Seven Questions For Len Jessup

UNLV’s president on why Tier One status isn’t enough, the medical school’s impact and how the Rebels are gaining respect

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

You’ve said that UNLV needs to be not just a “Tier One” school but a “top-tier” school. What’s the difference?

We definitely want to be thought of as a Tier One university by the Carnegie Foundation, but we want to do a lot more. The foundation uses about five or six specific measures of grant-funded research expenditures that mostly affect one part of campus. We could achieve that and [still] not be the university that this community and this state needs. We need to [improve] all of the creative activity on campus: teaching and learning and student success, the successful launch and growth of the medical school, community partnerships and infrastructure. Our buildings need to get better. Our business practices have to get better.

You mentioned the medical school, which is scheduled to open in fall 2017. What still needs to be done?

There was a lot of hard work in the legislative session to make sure we got the funding that we needed. We’ve already got our planning dean, Barbara Atkinson, and she’s got a small team working on the accreditation process. Then they’ll turn their attention to hiring faculty and staff. They’re going to be the ones to do the recruiting, admissions and on-boarding of students.

What impact will the medical school have on our community?

Before I got here, [market research firm] Tripp Umbach did an economic impact study on medical schools at public universities like ours. Their analysis shows the direct economic impact is $1.2 billion for the medical school that we’re about to launch. That doesn’t include things that might happen in similar industries that would grow because of a medical school being here.

[But] the big impact is not the economic one—although that’s important—it’s addressing the shortage of doctors in the community and building out the specialties: cancer, cardiology, mental health and other areas where there will be high-end graduates staying in those specialties. Research shows nationally that when you’ve got a medical school in town and students actually do four years of medical school and a residency, 80 percent of them tend to stay in the same place afterward.

The current hotel administration building is supposed to give way to a $56 million hospitality hall in 2017. How will that affect the program and the university at-large?

It’s a great program, but it would have been difficult for it to continue being a great program without a new facility. The new classrooms [will be] built around a collaborative model. They’ve built in some great facilities for hands-on learning, so there’ll be neat opportunities for experiential learning that don’t exist now. They also wanted to design a building so that when you got to the upper floors, you’d be able to see the Strip, which will be inspiring for everyone who’s going to be studying in the building and see where you’re quite likely to work or get your internship. [Governor Brian Sandoval] said he really wants [UNLV] to be the intellectual capital, if you will, for the Entertainment Capital globally. Our program is a key part of that innovation and excellence for the industry.

There’s recently been renewed talk about an on-campus stadium. Is that important to the health and growth of the university?

It is. We decided that we needed to focus in this legislative session on the funding for the medical school, the hotel building and now the fundraising around those two projects, but the stadium is something we’re still thinking about. The campus needs it. It would not only be better for the teams that need it, but it enriches the experience for the students, because you can walk to the athletic facilities and watch the events. It will be nicer for the community as well.

You were the first in your family to graduate college. How has that impacted your approach to higher education?

It is a privilege to be in this job or any job on the campus of a public university in this country. I take it very seriously. It causes me to think differently than most people would about the opportunity for the students here. It was a great opportunity for me and for my family. It was why my grandparents left Italy to come here, so that their grandchildren could take advantage of what America was promising. I got to benefit from that.

Have you seen any tangible evidence that shows that UNLV is gaining respect as an institution of higher learning?

Definitely. Downbeat magazine said that our Latin Jazz ensemble was the best program in the country. A relatively new program in robotics that we built around a scientist, Paul Oh, was chosen by the Defense Department to compete in a global robotics challenge and took eighth place among 24 teams. The accounting students won a national case competition.

On top of that, Switch put in a dedicated research network, a telecommunications pipe that enables us to have a lot more bandwidth. Rob Roy [Switch’s CEO] personally paid for the upgrades to [UNLV’s] supercomputer that took it from about the 25th top supercomputer to  the top five, enabling us to do research that we just couldn’t physically do before. Now we can apply for grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health that we couldn’t before because we just didn’t have the computing firepower. We’re getting requests from other universities that want to do work with us. It just puts us in a whole other league.

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