Len Jessup, who honed his higher-education administrative leadership skills at Washington State University, was ready when the right opportunity for a university presidency came knocking a year ago for University of Nevada, Las Vegas. For new University of Washington President Ana Marie Cauce, the knock came after 29 years of preparation at the same university.
|Ana Mari Cauce
I returned from a personal visit with Jessup in Las Vegas, where he assumed the presidency of UNLV on January 5 of this year, to learn that Cauce, 59, who had since February been interim president of UW, where she arrived in 1986 as a faculty member and rose to become provost then executive vice president, had been named president.
Thus Jessup and Cauce wind up sharing the focus of this column to highlight the very different challenges faced by the West's two newest major-university presidents, one just settling in and the other just named.
Jessup's challenge is to grow the impact and image of a university whose major claim to fame when he arrived was that it was the nation's second most diverse university, although that it would soon add a medical school, no longer leaving Las Vegas as the largest population center in the country without one. Cauce's challenge is to ensure that the global high rankings coming UW's way in an array of academic areas continue to grow and expand.
Jessup, on whose national advisory board I served when he was dean of the WSU College of Business before he stepped up to be vice president of development and then president of the WSU Foundation prior to moving to the University of Arizona to be dean of the Eller College of Management, was chosen a year ago to guide UNLV.
We sat down last week on the UNLV campus to visit about the pace he's been maintaining since then, moving forward with the planned launch of UNLV's new medical school and overseeing planning for the last presidential debate a year from now at his university, enjoying the fact he was able to engineer that coup in his first months on the job.
Intriguingly, Jessup and Cauce share similar humble backgrounds. She is originally from Havana, which her family fled to come to the U.S. in 1959 after the revolution. Her parents had to start over from working in Cuba's government to sweeping floors and making shoes in this country.
Jessup was born and raised in San Francisco with both parents of Italian descent. His father was a fireman. He was the first member of his family to graduate from college. He says he has "devoted my life to service in higher ed because of the opportunities it has given me and also to pay back my ancestors for the sacrifices they made in coming to America to make a better life possible."
Jessup's selection was the result of a national search by the board of UNLV. So was Cauce's selection, except that the search committee decided, in part because of the support she had generated on the board of regents and the campus, that it didn't need to follow prior presidential searches that inevitably tapped someone afar.
Cauce takes the reins at a university that is one of the oldest in the West and academically at the top of its game, ranked this month by U.S. News & World Report as now number 11 (third among public universities) in the Global University Rankings, while Reuters last month named UW the most innovative public university in the world.
UNLV, only four years old when UW celebrated its Centennial in 1961, tapped Jessup, who is 54 but looks more like he's 34, to bring growth in quality and visibility to the campus located less than two miles from the Las Vegas Strip.
"The regents understood that UNLV needed to evolve and grow into being a top tier research university so that it could be a driver of the Valley's, and thus the State of Nevada's, growth and evolution," Jessup said.
He has fervently sought ways to bring the public spotlight onto UNLV and he has already achieved that in a couple of ways.
The first was a news conference, an hour prior to our coffee visit at the campus Starbucks, at which details of a partnership with Tesla Motors were unveiled. The pact will allow for UNLV to help Tesla develop and implement battery-manufacturing technologies for the Gigafactory near Reno where the car company hopes to produce a mass-market electric car.
"The neat thing about the Tesla partnership is that it opens the door for further work with them, but also with other innovative companies," said Jessup.
"Just in the past few months we've launched several other powerful partnerships, including an $11 million grant from the National Institutes of Health together with the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas to tackle Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases," Jessup added. The grant will fund a Center for Biomedical Research, the first ever such grant in Southern Nevada.
But perhaps most flashy, and pretty much Jessup's own coup, was landing the final presidential debate at the end of next October, days before the 2016 general election.
I asked Jessup to explain how that came about and he shared that he was approved some months ago by the Commission on Presidential Debates with an inquiry that had also gone to other universities, seeking interest.
Jessup was advised that the entry fee to land the debate was $2 million in cash directly to the debates commission upon selection of the university where the final debate would be held. So he quickly huddled with the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority and other business leaders to put together a partnership that involved the LVCVA board approving sending the $2 million and agreeing to help UNLV with the estimated additional $2 million in out-of-pocket costs to prepare Las Vegas to hold the event.
Thus next October, the nation will be looking in on UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center, and likely the rest of the campus and the lights of Vegas when the two candidates for president appear in the final debate.
The business community of The Entertainment Capital of the World is already giving Jessup high marks for his ability to market his university. To come will be the challenges of advancing it academically among research universities.