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Kathie Velez a first year student at UNLV School of Medicine, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)

As public floggings go, it was above average.

A frustrated Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick gave UNLV President Marta Meana a professional thrashing Tuesday over delays in the development of the anchor building for the university’s fledgling medical school. Let’s give credit where it’s due.

To her own credit, Meana took the berating -- but not the bait during the commission meeting. Kirkpatrick was clearly pitching for a fight on the subject. Meana maintained her composure as the chairwoman piled on concerns about elements of the medical school’s development, which started sputtering long before Meana was named as an interim replacement for ousted UNLV President Len Jessup. Kirkpatrick tipped her hand by admitting at the outset of the commission item that she’d already had a private conversation with Meana. Apparently she thought she’d missed something and needed to repeat herself.

Seeing what was coming, Commissioners James Gibson and Tick Segerblom alluded to the building’s challenges and bright future while also touting the quality of care at UMC, which has transitioned into a teaching hospital. Kirkpatrick was in no mood for sunshine. She quickly countered their attempt to maintain a balanced perspective.

“I need more than a commitment, right?” she asked. “I need a hard date, a hard time line, a hard communication and expectation because what I’ll tell you is, for me, I’m super frustrated with this whole thing. And I’ve never been shy about it. “

After expressing regret about her support as a legislator for transferring the medical school focus from Reno to highly populated Southern Nevada, Kirkpatrick became even more animated. “For me, it’s not okay to say you’ve got some conceptual plans. For hell sakes, after four years, that’s the best we’ve got? And, quite frankly, somebody picked that up and put it on a piece of paper.”

Meana mostly remained silent as Kirkpatrick went on, occasionally accompanied by Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, who noted the absence at the meeting of departing medical school Dean Barbara Atkinson.

There’s been no shortage of vitriol associated with the medical school’s lack of progress in the past year.

Under withering criticism from Nevada Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Page in part over the progress of the medical school building, Jessup resigned in April 2018 claiming he was the victim of “unfounded and unjustified attacks” from some of the regents and Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly. Jessup almost immediately announced his new position as president of California’s Claremont Graduate School.

The political battle had a bruising fiscal cost. Allied with Jessup and Atkinson, the Engelstad Family Foundation pulled a $14 million gift dedicated to the building fund due to the turmoil surrounding the president’s performance review and ouster. Atkinson remains dean of the school during a national search for her replacement. The Engelstad foundation continued its long-term investment in the medical students by maintaining its $10 million scholarship fund for those accepted to the program.

 

Kirkpatrick was over the top, but did she hit Meana below the belt?

Concern for the medical school’s progress is certainly justified. A lot is riding on it, and with Meana’s title comes the challenge of picking up the pieces and moving forward without a big-money donor. But this house was on fire long before she arrived.

Beyond the endless North-South political struggle over the school roiling beneath the surface of the issue, there’s the very real need for more physicians with real connections to the community -- especially the medical school’s affiliated University Medical Center. A lot of longtime observers of the hospital and the local state of medical care have been rooting for a breakthrough for Southern Nevada. The Las Vegas Medical District is considered by many to be an important part of that improved outlook for patients who have perennially left the community to seek better care.

A building originally slated for nine stories with an opening date set for 2021 has been cut to four stories and an optimistic fall of 2022. Kirkpatrick wasn’t buying the new time line and optimistic construction schedule.

Meana responded with understatement. After explaining the challenges of arranging a new financing package and reconfiguring the building’s footprint for feasibility and design, “so that we can get it off the ground very, very soon,” the president said, “... This is not a pipe dream. This is a doable project.”

It had better be. From the sound of things a lot of people will be watching its progress closely and looking for cracks in the construction timeline.

If Kirkpatrick was trying to make the case for her concern over the lack of forward-motion on the construction project, she certainly succeeded. But the pounding also looked like grandstanding given the simple fact Meana wasn’t around when this Spruce Goose of a medical school building failed to leave the runway.

It’s on her shoulders now, though. She was instructed by the chairwoman that the commission will be seeking monthly updates on the building’s progress.

So it appears the floggings will continue until morale improves.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

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