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UNLV donor pulls millions in funding, cites ‘adversarial behavior’

Updated May 20, 2024 - 7:14 pm

A significant UNLV donor is severing ties with the university because of what she called “adversarial behavior” behind closed doors from university leadership and the dean of the medical school.

Kris Engelstad, CEO of The Engelstad Foundation, sent a letter to UNLV President Keith Whitfield on Tuesday announcing her decision, citing a frayed relationship with past university presidents, with the exception of Len Jessup, who led the school from 2015 to 2018.

“The university’s history of adversarial behavior has morphed over the years, but never dissipated,” Engelstad wrote.

Over the course of the foundation’s long partnership with the school, it has contributed about $43.5 million, with a notable $15 million donation for the construction of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine main education building, which opened in 2022.

The university will not receive another cent from the foundation, Engelstad said, with the exception of the current students — 100 undergraduates and 25 medical students — who benefit from foundation-funded scholarships.

“There’s quite a few other institutions that if they had the ability to have donors our size, they’d be very grateful,” Engelstad, whose late parents Ralph and Betty created the foundation in 2002, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Gratitude is not something that is displayed at UNLV.”

UNLV programs may suffer

Programs that will lose financial backing include extensions of the medical school building that would focus on mental health, the school’s family therapy and child psychiatry program, the Ackerman Autism program, and the pediatric cardiology program, according to Engelstad’s letter.

The breaking point for this decision, Engelstad alleges, was when UNLV’s legal team threatened to remove representatives of the donors from the medical building that they funded. The Nevada Health and Bioscience Asset Corporation, of which she is a member, is a public-private partnership that provided $150 million for the medical school campus.

In a statement, UNLV spokesman Francis McCabe said negotiations with the corporation have been in “good faith,” and he thanked the foundation for its support over the years.

“We are disappointed by the announcement by the Engelstad Foundation but disagree with the characterization of facts from what has been a difficult negotiation,” he wrote.

Going forward, Engelstad said she’d like to see Whitfield take a more active role in fundraising and maintaining better relations with donors. When she has met with him, Engelstad said, he has not been receptive to her concerns or wishes.

“I never see him anywhere in this valley,” she said. “If you’re not going out there and meeting donors, how do you keep the university alive?”

This story has been updated to correct the description of Engelstad’s allegations regarding UNLV’s legal team.

Contact Alan Halaly at ahalaly@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlanHalaly on X.

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