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I-Team: Jessup's departure could have long term consequences for UNLV's medical school

LAS VEGAS - Embattled UNLV President Dr. Len Jessup has resigned from UNLV, but whether he left voluntarily or was given a nudge out the door, his departure will likely have long-term consequences for UNLV and its medical school. 

The 8 News Now I-Team learned that Jessup was ordered to resolve perceived issues at UNLV's fledgling medical school and that the dean of the medical school could be the next to go.  

Four years ago, UNLV's medical school was just an idea on paper. But, today, the first class is finishing up its first year, while the second class is being selected.  

The school has come a long way in a short time, but it hasn't been enough for a handful of regents, who never wanted the med school to go forward in the first place.  The departure of Jessup almost certainly means that the dean of the medical school, Barbara Atkinson, is next.

"This was an unusual political situation I didn't really expect," said Dr. Atkinson. "The north-south regional differences and the politics behind it were a lot more than I expected."

Atkinson didn't need a job when she agreed to move to Nevada and build a new school of medicine at UNLV from scratch. She had already served as dean at two medical schools, she had a national reputation, and was two years into retirement. 

So, would she have moved her family across the country had she known in advance that backroom deals and public floggings are common in Nevada' s higher education system?  The I-Team asked Atkinson that question; she declined to second guess, but she did confirm that a UNLV medical school had faced opposition at every step from persons within the system.

"There were regents in the beginning that didn't think it would happen," Atkinson said. "I can tell you there were people at UNR medicine who thought it wouldn't happen.  They thought the proposal to the legislature for money for the first year of starting that it wouldn't go through and that would be the end of it."

But UNLV's medical school was approved because of strong support from Governor Sandoval and southern Nevada lawmakers buoyed by economic projections, which show a medical school in Las Vegas will eventually generate $3.6 billion per year for the local economy, create 9,000 jobs, and vastly improve Nevada's abysmal rankings in numerous healthcare categories.

"I was convinced from the time I started that we would make this happen, but there were plenty of people who tried to make it difficult," Atkinson said.

Atkinson saw the regents in action when her first budget, already approved by the full board, the legislature, and the governor, was sabotaged.

"They approved $27 million over two years, but some regents went separately to the governor and told him we weren't ready to move," said Atkinson. "We couldn't start in time, and we shouldn't get as much money."

The governor slashed the budget by $19 million. The money was later restored when he found out he hadn't received the straight story.

George Knapp, I-Team Reporter: "Did it look like sabotage?" 
Atkinson: "It looked like sabotage at the time."

And in 2017, on the final day of the legislature, an anonymous donor offered $25 million for a UNLVv medical building if the state would match it. The governor and lawmakers were thrilled, but regents, amazingly, were ticked off about the donation.

"They were upset because they didn't get to decide where it would go," Atkinson said.

When news surfaced in March that UNLV's Jessup was being shown the door, a major donor withdrew support to the tune of $14 million from the med school.  Atkinson says the loss of the money is a major blow, and she's worried that other donations, including the $25 million matching fund, could be in jeopardy as well. 

When the I-Team spoke to Atkinson days ago, she was aware of the possible bullseye on her back but, surprisingly, she says she has never had a sit down with the man who will most likely ask her to leave.

George Knapp: "Do you communicate with the chancellor? Has he expressed reservations to you?
Atkinson: "No."
Knapp: "Ever?"
Atkinson: "No, I've never met with him."
Knapp: "Never met?"
Atkinson: "I've shaken hands but never met."
Knapp: "No face to face, how's it going at the med school?"
Atkinson: "No."

Students and staff at the medical school are understandably concerned about when the next shoe might drop.  In fact, it's already affected recruitment for top positions.  

Dr. Atkinson hoped to stay on the job long enough to see the first graduating class. If she gets moved aside, which the I-Team has been told is likely, the medical school will lose more staff and possibly more donors. 

One insider told the I-Team it could even set the school back ten years. So the question is, was that the intention all along?