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Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents quarterly meeting at UNLV on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Nevada Board of Regents unanimously approved the appointment of Keith Whitfield as UNLV’s newest president at a special meeting Thursday, providing a replacement for interim President Marta Meana and ending the two-year vacancy triggered by the sudden departure of former President Len Jessup in 2018.

Whitfield, who will also be UNLV’s first Black president, comes by way of Wayne State University in Detroit, where he serves as provost, senior vice president of academic affairs and a professor of psychology. He previously served as a vice provost for academic affairs at Duke University, where he was also a professor of psychology and a research professor. 

UNLV President Keith Whitfield (Courtesy/NSHE)

In discussing his confirmation as president, Regent Trevor Hayes, who chaired the search committee, praised his academic work, saying in part that he couldn’t remember a candidate with as many published papers as Whitfield.

The terms of Whifield’s four-year contract stipulate a $500,000 base salary per fiscal year, as well as $8,000 per year for a car allowance, $18,000 in a housing allowance and a $5,000 host account — all effective Aug. 24.

Whitfield will be the 11th president at UNLV, but already the third to take the job since 2009, not including two acting presidents who also served over that time span. 

His predecessor, Jessup, left in an acrimonious divorce from the university in April 2018, blaming his exit on “personal and professional” attacks from regents and Chancellor Thom Reilly. Meana, at the time the dean of the university’s Honors College, took over as acting president in July of that year. 

She had expressed an interest in applying for the permanent position in the latter half of 2019, but announced in February that she was bowing out of the process. At the time, she said that her plans “did not align” with the need for a new permanent president to make a long-term commitment to UNLV.

The decision by regents to name a new president was an expedited one, spurred by the possibility that one of the three external candidates for the job could accept a new position elsewhere should the selection process drag on for too long. 

It also comes as one of three high-level replacements among top jobs at the Nevada System of Higher Education and its institutions. Regents last month selected Melody Rose to take over as system chancellor in the fall, while a decision on a new permanent president at UNR is expected later this year. 

Whitfield will take over the job at a time of ongoing uncertainty both for UNLV and for the state’s higher education system at large, as the still-rippling economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have gutted revenues and triggered widespread budget reductions that have only deepened as the pandemic continues to drag on. 

In a coda to last week’s special legislative session called to plug the state’s $1.2 billion budget hole, legislators piled on an additional $25 million cut to NSHE. It raised the total amount cut for fiscal year 2021 to roughly $135 million and, for the first time, raised the specter of layoffs at the state’s seven colleges and universities. 

Additional revenue losses at each institution caused by the pandemic have only deepened the financial crisis. At UNLV alone, administrators estimated more than $62 million in lost revenue and additional expenditures for the 2021 fiscal year.

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