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March 10 2015

UNLV President Len Jessup Selected as Distinguished Alumnus

Len Jessup ('83), the College of Business' 2015 Distinguished Alumnus
Len Jessup ('83), the College of Business' 2015 Distinguished Alumnus

A Conversation with College of Business Alumnus and University of Nevada, Las Vegas President Len Jessup

Every year the College of Business selects one alumnus to celebrate for their professional accomplishments. This year’s distinguished alumnus award winner is University of Nevada, Las Vegas President Len Jessup (’83). President Jessup embodies the signature traits of many of the College of Business’ most accomplished alumni with his spirit of innovation, his optimism in the face of new challenges, and a story that began in Northern California. He is proof that the 46 percent of first-generation students that make up our College of Business today can take their Chico State education to remarkable heights.   

How did your Chico experience influence who you are and where you are today?

I have wonderful memories of being a student at Cal State Chico. I began as a first-generation college student attending the College of the Siskiyous. I went initially to play baseball and to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I loved it. I did pretty well in the classroom and that gave me the confidence to think about going on to the next level. Several of my friends drew me to Chico and the experience was really wonderful.

I chose an interdisciplinary degree program with a focus on information and communication studies. That allowed me to discover the University in its entirety, because I hadn’t ever really spent much time on a university campus prior to that. I learned some fundamental communication skills, such as writing and public speaking. I didn’t quite want to leave when I graduated so I went to the business school and got my MBA. Adding business skills to my communications skills really helped me succeed.

In your new role as president of University of Nevada, Las Vegas what are the biggest opportunity areas you want to focus on and what are the challenges you want to start tackling immediately?

I’m two months into the job here, so still pretty new. The hiring mandate was pretty clear from the chancellor and the regents. The State of Nevada felt dramatic impacts of the economic downturn because of the state’s reliance on tourism and real estate. There was a recognition that we need to do everything that we can to diversify and broaden the state’s economy. Nevada needs good tier-one research universities as innovation engines. My job is to work with everyone here to bring UNLV to tier-one research status.

Part two is to launch a medical school as a fundamental part of that transformation. Las Vegas is one of the largest cities in the country (roughly two million people) without a public medical school. There’s a significant shortage of doctors, especially in specialty care. Our tier-one initiative touches all parts of campus—from research to teaching, the student experience, and community partnerships.

I am also working with my colleagues here to continue to build on the rich tradition we have in Rebel athletics, particularly in basketball.

What business thinkers and other thinkers shape your approach to leadership and management?

I think the people who have made the most fundamental impact on me have been my parents. There are lessons that you learn as a kid that are pretty influential. Simple things like treating people with respect, being humble, and being grateful. Lessons like that govern how I think about doing my job.

I also have been able to work with some tremendous leaders in higher education. While I was at Washington State University I worked closely with President Lane Rawlins, a three-time university president now retired. Robert Shelton was also a great president; he hired me back to the University of Arizona as Dean of the Eller College of Management, where I am also an alum. I learned from President Michael Crow at Arizona State University about what a great urban university can and should be, and that model is helpful for my new role at UNLV.

What advice would you offer to our College of Business students to make themselves most marketable professionally and to improve their career opportunities?

Business students—or really any student—at Chico should have a rough game plan of what they want to accomplish and where they want to go, but they should also remain very adaptable because you never know where your career path is going to lead. To the extent possible, students should never shy away from what looks like a daunting, yet great opportunity before them. They might be presented with something that they are not 100 percent confident they can accomplish, but they ought to go for it anyway and figure it out as they go.

I’ve found that students at Chico are pretty resourceful and entrepreneurial, and I would urge any of them to be open minded to the opportunities that are going to come along in their career.

You mean you didn’t predict when you were at Chico State that you would one day be president of UNLV?

No, honestly as a student there—even as a graduate student—I had no idea what a dean even did, let alone what a provost was!

What trends and innovations in business education make you most excited?

There are some interesting and significant forces going on in business education right now. The business model has fundamentally changed. As I was hired into the University of Arizona, the mandate was to keep that business school going on the trajectory it was on for rankings, impact, reach and growth, but to become a self-sustaining entity on campus as quickly as possible. State funding was subsiding during the downturn. We had to figure out very quickly how to become, in a sense, a privatized program on campus.

We were able to do that from a combination of growth and the associated tuition revenue, and through private giving from alumni and other partners. We also pushed very heavily into pure-revenue generating programs in the online space, including both degree programs and not-for-credit certificates. We also focused on technology transfer—leveraging the value of companies being started from the research in the business school and throughout campus. We were able to arrive at the point where we were generating more money than we were spending.

There are a number of other key trends business schools have been working on for several decades—focusing on globalization, working in teams and being a good teammate, and on experiential learning. I think about all the classes that I took as an undergrad that were classic lectures and tests; the applied course was in your senior year when you took a capstone where you actually got to learn from business cases.  That was fantastic, but that was about as applied as it got. Well, times have changed in business education. The curriculum at the Eller College of Management, for example, involves experiential learning from the moment you get there to the moment you graduate. This means real world clients involved in a class or ongoing live case studies with a real business outside of a class—it’s all experiential now. That is very different from when I was an undergrad.

When was the last time you were back in Chico?

I did sneak back into town for homecoming a few times but it’s been many, many years since I’ve been back.

When you return to Chico to receive your award what place on campus or in the community will make you most nostalgic for your college days?

It is such a beautiful campus. Walking around among the classic buildings in the old core of campus, the trees, the rose garden, bridges over Big Chico Creek, all will bring back a lot of memories. I remember specifically the little breezeway near the library doors. I was a part of a group of MBA students running the MBA student association, and we were the first ones to figure out and get permission to sell coffee and donuts out there. We had a lock on it. Other student clubs eventually wanted to get in on it, too, so they pushed us back to only one night a week. Then every night there were kids out there selling stuff you could eat and drink. So, I’ll revisit that breezeway and that will be fun.

And then probably Bidwell Park. We used to go out and run the three and six mile loop quite a bit.

Last question… if you could study and learn one brand new thing what would it be?

One of the things I like about the job I am doing right now is that I think I am doing that every single day. I really like that. With the launch of the medical school at UNLV, for example, I’m working in an area that is not my original domain of expertise. Not just for the medical school, but for our dental program, physical therapy program, community health, and our nursing program. I am learning how to wrap it all together in an allied health sciences approach.

I feel like I am learning a number of other new things like that every single day and I love it.