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Engelstad Foundation, a key UNLV donor, pulling its funding from the university

The head of the philanthropic organization severed ties with the school, citing a deteriorating relationship with its president and medical school dean.
Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz
EconomyEducationHigher Education
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The Engelstad Foundation, one of Las Vegas’ largest philanthropic organizations, will no longer provide financial support to UNLV, blaming a “poor and unacceptable” relationship with the university’s leadership and the dean of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine.

The foundation has given more than $47.3 million in support of UNLV over the years. The organization was created in 2002 by the late casino operator Ralph Engelstad and his wife, Betty, to provide funding for medical research and to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities. It is also a major donor to The Nevada Independent.

In an interview Wednesday, foundation CEO Kris Engelstad, who is the daughter of Ralph and Betty, said the organization will continue to honor its financial commitments to 100 Engelstad Foundation scholars as well as 25 medical school students who are receiving significant scholarships from the group.

“We don’t want to penalize them, but as far as any projects or buildings or any other initiatives that we’re hit up for on a regular basis, they can forget it,” Engelstad said.

In a letter Tuesday to UNLV President Keith Whitfield, Engelstad said the actions of Whitfield and the medical school dean have “effectively stifled” several “much-needed projects” associated with the medical school, including the construction and operation of a mental and physical health building planned by the Nevada Health and Bioscience Asset Corp. (NHBAC) — the public-private partnership that facilitated the construction of UNLV’s $125 million medical school building.

In a statement late Wednesday, UNLV spokesman Francis McCabe said the university appreciated the foundation and Engelstad for their “generous donations” and scholarship support.

McCabe said the university had been negotiating with the NHBAC on developing the 9 acres UNLV owns in the medical district to expand health care capacity in Southern Nevada.

“The university has negotiated with [NHBAC] in good faith to reach an agreement that is acceptable to all sides,” he said. “We are disappointed by the announcement by the Engelstad Foundation but disagree with the characterization of facts from what has been a difficult negotiation. We remain ever grateful to the Engelstad Foundation for their contributions over the years to UNLV.”

Other medical school projects that could be lost include an opportunity for pediatric mental health services to double their space for additional programs currently provided by several UNLV colleges, the expansion of an autism program, an expansion for the children’s heart centers and pediatric cardiology program, the opportunity for the medical school to provide space for a private practice adult psychiatric service and general and subspecialty cardiac service.

Engelstad suggested other UNLV donors might follow the foundation’s lead.

“Everybody decides what they want to do with their dollars,” she said. “If it was up to me, I would lecture [UNLV leaders] and tell them there's a very small pool of us here, and we do talk. If you're going to run a university that relies on their donors, you can’t treat people poorly. I think the word will just spread on its own.”

Engelstad said several of the programs have long waitlists and families that desperately want and need care.

In addition to citing Whitfield for a general lack of communication, Engelstad placed much of the blame on Dr. Marc Kahn, who has been dean of the medical school since 2020. Kahn, she said, also disrespected the Kerkorian family, who funded the construction of the medical school, and the NHBAC.

“We have had very frustrating meetings with Mr. Kahn,” Engelstad said. “They are not a group that you can partner with and we would be out of our minds to do anything more with them.”

The family of Kirk Kerkorian, the late Las Vegas gaming mogul who built many of the Strip’s famous resorts, had an agreement with the medical school to let his name be attached to the building. It’s the only facility in Las Vegas that carries the Kerkorian name.

“All NHBAC expected in return [from UNLV] was a simple thank you,” Engelstad wrote. “Instead, it received [a] demand letter from the UNLV legal department (initiated by Kahn) forbidding representatives of NHBAC from entering the building and threatening that if those representatives did enter the building, they would be escorted out.”

Engelstad suggested UNLV’s “adversarial behavior has morphed over the years, and never dissipated.”

Updated at 6:16 a.m. on 5/16/2024 to include a statement from UNLV.

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