Thursday, July 23, 2020 | 2 a.m.
A search committee today voted to recommend Detroit university administrator Keith Whitfield as UNLV’s new president.
The Nevada System of Higher Education delayed the search for UNLV's president in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. An NSHE committee settled on its choice today after lengthy interviews with four candidates at the UNLV student union.
"This is an incredible honor. I have a dedication to what you have entrusted me with, which is the life and blood of the future of this university, and I so appreciate your confidence," said Whitfield, who is provost, senior vice president for academic affairs and a psychology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit.
He is a former professor in behavioral health at Penn State and Duke, spending five years as Duke’s vice president of academic affairs. Also at Duke, Whitfield directed the Center on Biobehavioral Health Disparities Research and the developmental psychology program.
The 13-member NSHE Board of Regents will vote on the recommendation Thursday.
UNLV interim executive vice president and provost Chris Heavey joined Kenneth Furton, the provost, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Florida International University in Miami, and Karla Leeper, executive vice president for operations at Augusta (Ga.) University, as the other finalists.
Heavey, the lone internal candidate on the list, seems to have been seriously considered.
“Whitfield as the president and Heavey as the provost would be one heck of a team,” said vice chair of the NSHE Board of Regents, Carol Del Carlo, who is also on the presidential search committee.
An advisory committee of more than 20 community members also chose Whitfield for the post. Ken Evans, a member of the advisory committee, said Whitfield has a “handle on the business end of things,” saying his qualifications are “more than stellar.”
Joshua Padilla, president of CSUN, the university’s governing student council, said many students reached out and voiced their support for Whitfield.
"He’s an extremely professional individual," Padilla said.
There were 167 responses to an online survey rating each candidate. Of those surveyed, 60% voted that Whitfield is exceptionally approachable, 44% said he had an exceptional overall grasp of the university's complexities, and 61% said he’d be exceptional at fostering a diverse environment.
Those who commented on Whitfield’s strengths said he has experience increasing graduation rates and providing leadership at a research university. Many said he’d be the best choice for UNLV. Some concerns were that Whitfield might face challenges from those at the university who are resistant to change. Whitfield would also have to learn to navigate the Legislature and Board of Regents as a newcomer.
Trevor Hayes, chairman of the presidential search committee and a member of the NSHE Board of Regents, said increasing retention and the graduation rates should be a high priority for the next UNLV president.
“We aren’t even graduating half of our students,” Hayes said. UNLV has about a 45% graduation rate.
Whitfield was asked how he would increase the Latino population and success at UNLV. He received a bachelor's degree from the College of Santa Fe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which he said gives him some familiarity with southwest U.S. Latino culture. He also said he had experience recruiting Hispanic students as assistant director of new student relations of minority affairs at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
Whitfield talked about strengthening relationships with the local school district and community colleges to ensure the success of students attending those institutions.
He also leans toward keeping the population down on campus amid the pandemic.
“The more people you have on campus, the more risk you have,” he said.
From the questions asked of candidates it was apparent officials are focusing on improving diversity on campus and looking for someone who can help maintain and improve the institution’s status as a leader in hospitality and tourism management as well as an R1 research institution.
Hayes said a future challenge for the UNLV president will be increasing class sizes of the medical school. The community is medically underserved and Nevada has lost medical dollars from people leaving the state to receive medical care, he said.
UNLV enrolls more than 31,000 students and employs more than 4,500 faculty and staff. With financial challenges impacting most universities around the world amid the pandemic, UNLV's president will have an important role leading the university during an unprecedented time.
“The person in this role will be the face of this community,” Hayes said.
Marta Meana has served as UNLV president for two years and announced she would not be reapplying for the position in February.
“My plans do not align with UNLV’s need for a president who can make a commitment for an extended period of time,” she wrote in an email to colleagues.