Community grateful for commitment to seeing medical school completed

They recognized a need, dedicated themselves to addressing it and refused to let anyone deter them from fulfilling their commitment.

And as a result, the supporters of a new plan to fully build out the UNLV School of Medicine have put Southern Nevada on a path to becoming an even better place.

After years of facing headwinds from the state’s higher education system, this passionate group of UNLV donors and community leaders has crafted a practical plan for construction of a new building that will allow the school to reach its transformational potential for our region.

As announced last week by Gov. Steve Sisolak, the group has formed a nonprofit development corporation that will construct the building and lease it to UNLV at $1 per year. Funding will come mostly from private sources, Sisolak said, with donors already having made $155 million in gifts and commitments.

In addition, the state of Nevada will contribute $25 million in public funding that former Gov. Brian Sandoval approved for the med school in 2017. The development corporation also will pursue federal tax credits, which could push the amount of available funds for the project past $200 million.

With that sum, Las Vegas will get the state-of-the-art medical school facility it deserves — something that couldn’t be said for the three plans the Nevada System of Higher Education brought to the table.

NSHE and the Nevada Board of Regents oversee Nevada’s colleges similarly to the way a superintendent’s office and school board oversee a public school district, with the college presidents comparing to principals in this analogy.

For years, UNLV supporters tried to work with the regents and NSHE on a traditional model for construction of the building, which would have resulted in the state owning the building and NSHE controlling it. But throughout, the regents and NSHE were a model of how to sabotage projects and alienate people who could have been partners.

They fought donors over how the facility would be designed, how the current medical school was being managed, the amount of funding the state would be asked to contribute and other issues.

In 2018, the situation turned particularly ugly when Chancellor Thom Reilly sought a legal opinion on whether then-UNLV President Len Jessup committed self-dealing by accepting a $14 million gift requiring that he and medical school Dean Barbara Atkinson remain in their positions until 2022. The donor, Kris Engelstad McGarry, came to the defense of Jessup and Atkinson, saying she included the contingency in order to ensure that her gift would be stewarded by leaders she trusted, not to help the two obtain contract extensions.

No public ethical sanctions or disciplinary actions came from the situation, which the medical school’s supporters contended was a smear campaign against McGarry, Jessup and Atkinson by higher ed officials. It deepened distrust in the regents and Reilly in the UNLV community.

The last straw for donors came when Reilly and the regents pushed out Jessup over trumped-up concerns about operational matters, the ethics situation and his failure to meet unfair expectations they had imposed on him.

Jessup’s ouster prompted donors to pull or reconsider more than $39 million in commitments to a building, citing distrust in higher education officials’ ability to manage their donations with good intent.

And things kept getting worse.

Donors said they weren’t consulted about plans for the building that emerged after Jessup’s departure, contradicting officials who indicated the donor community was on board. When NSHE announced a plan to construct a building in two phases, starting with a library, an anonymous donor who had contributed $25 million was furious to learn that officials planned to use that gift for the library when it had been designated for an instructional building.

Finally, seeing no workable option that involved NSHE and the regents, donors took matters into their own hands by creating the development corporation model.

Good for them, because it’s a brilliant approach. It’s been time-tested in a number of other metros where public-private partnerships have developed successful medical school facilities.

Credit for the plan goes to a lot of people, including Sisolak for bringing principle players together and fostering discussions between them. Others include:

• Former state legislator Warren Hardy, who worked with state officials on behalf of supporters

• The Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West, which provided technical consultancy

• Atkinson and former medical school chief of staff Maureen Schaffer, who worked closely with the donors

• Regent J.T. Moran, who saw the wisdom in the public-private partnership and encouraged the donors to coalesce around that goal, while other regents kept their heads down.

But the plan wouldn’t have happened if not for the perseverance of the medical school’s donors in Las Vegas.

It’s been a rough road for them, and they could hardly have been blamed if they’d thrown up their hands and walked away. But their belief in the medical school and their commitment to the community was too strong, which is commendable.

Now, they and their fellow UNLV supporters are in a position to do what higher ed officials couldn’t — bring the building to life. The development corporation will own the facility, which will be built on land donated by Clark County and located near University Medical Center.

As for the regents and Reilly, they should shift their attention to making sure the plan gets any approvals it needs from them to move forward.

Without question, that’s what state and community leaders expect them to do. The project has overwhelming support politically, as shown by the appearance of Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick during the announcement.

Here’s hoping the project’s path is smooth from this point forward. But one thing we’ll know for sure is that the people behind the building are all in.