It's the second week of what promises to be the most deeply unusual fall semester in recent memory. Keith E. Whitfield looks out the window of the UNLV president's office — his new office — to the south past Greenspun Hall; past McCarran Airport and bustling Silverado Ranch; beyond Seven Hills and the outer edges of Las Vegas; toward Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area and the peak of Black Mountain.
"I keep opening up all of the blinds. The view, it's just incredible," Whitfield said. "I love mountains. I don't climb mountains, so why? I was born in Japan. My dad was in the military. He got the opportunity to go back to school, and he went to the University of Colorado Boulder. So as an infant, from about three months old, I was looking at the Flatirons and I think it imprinted on me or something."
Whitfield comes to UNLV after four years as provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit, an urban public university with a comparable enrollment to UNLV. He is the 11th permanent president of the university in its 63 years.
A Look at President Keith E. Whitfield
- Former residences: Japan, Colorado, Michigan, Virginia, Alabama, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina
- Favorite place to live (so far): Colorado
- Former posts: Provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, Wayne State University; vice provost for academic affairs at Duke University
- Education: Post-doc work in Quantitative Genetics, University of Colorado, Boulder; Ph.D. Life Span Development, Texas Tech University; M.A. Psychology, Texas Tech University; B.A. Psychology, College of Santa Fe
- Books authored or co-authored: five
- Classic cars in collection: three (Chevrolet El Camino, Chevrolet Suburban, Ford Bronco)
- Plan for games at Allegiant Stadium: "I'm actually looking to see if there's a place where I can tailgate, because I have a big RV. When [games] come back, I'm going to be ready."
Before swapping Michigan’s Great Lakes for Lake Mead, Whitfield was vice provost for academic affairs at Duke University. He started in academia as a professor of psychology and has authored more than 200 publications. He focused on aging in minority populations, bucking the direction that his counterparts were focused on at the time.
"I noticed in my studies in graduate school that there were few minorities in the research I read," Whitfield said. "I wondered if any of this makes a difference — if you're a minority — and if so, why? Nobody is doing this research and nobody can tell me why. I started asking why, and then I got pushback. The more people pushed back, I said, 'Oh, then I'm definitely going to research this.' So I'm a little bit of a rebel."
That rebellious spirit is one thing and the mountains are another, but one of the main factors that drew Whitfield to the desert was UNLV's growing reputation for producing great scholarship. He was drawn to UNLV’s new programs in areas that dovetail neatly with his own research interests, like the nascent department of brain health or the master’s program in design for health and wellbeing in the School of Architecture.
"I saw the brain health piece of it and thought, 'Oh, I bet there are great colleagues there,” he said. "And then I said to myself, 'Remember, you're not going there to be a faculty member. You’re there to be a president.'”
He was impressed when he learned how the university had achieved very high research status by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education at the end of 2018 — years ahead of schedule under its Top Tier strategic plan. The crux of such an accomplishment, he said, comes down to a faculty made up of "very smart people doing incredible things.
“What excited me (about UNLV) was No. 1, diversity. No. 2 was student success. No. 3 was a great faculty. It was the faculty that got us to be a research one institution. It wasn't an administrator. To me, that means you're catching the faculty on the upward trend," Whitfield said.
The word he uses to describe the university is "hungry" — the same adjective that drew him to Wayne State in 2016. It's a hunger he hopes to stoke by challenging faculty to engage in outrageous ambition and to court interdisciplinary scholarship.
But it won't be easy at the start. Whitfield's tenure sets sail on roiling waters at the university in a time of social unease, budgetary constraints not seen since the Great Recession, and a global pandemic.
It's the latter that poses an immediate concern, with several institutions facing outbreaks almost immediately upon resuming classes — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill going so far as to cancel in-person undergraduate education altogether after an outbreak.
UNLV's response to the challenge has to place student, faculty, and staff safety paramount not just for their own considerable sakes, but because UNLV is an integral part of the Las Vegas community at large.
Only 20 percent of UNLV courses are in person this fall, including labs and other courses that are best taught in person. "We need to have every service and every capability for the students who need to be there, but we need to try to keep the footprint as small as possible. That will be our part that we contribute to the community: trying to keep the numbers down."
It's the community piece that Whitfield sees as the “key to the kingdom” when it comes to dealing with a budget shortfall brought on by the pandemic. UNLV has a role to play in helping Nevada become a state that is better able to weather economic storms that buffet the tourism industry. Successfully making the case for that is the best way forward to combat budget woes.
"We could blame it on legislators and say it's political. But those legislators are tasked with difficult decision about making sure that they keep the state healthy, physically and economically.” The case UNLV needs to make, Whitfield said, “is that higher education is critical for the health of the state on both accounts.”
“UNLV is now a research one institution — we've got to show that that means we're going to graduate people who are going to produce better quality things that are going to improve the state, improve its competitiveness. That we give students and faculty these unique opportunities means we can be attractors for other industries,” he said.
Along with that, UNLV must make student success a priority and an area of continual improvement, he said. As provost at Wayne State, Whitfield helped double the graduation rate through a combination of high-touch programs and fostering a culture of student success on campus. To the former end, he led the creation of an app that allowed him to connect directly with students and offer encouragement. The latter requires a broad and persistent reach.
"In large part, it's the faculty," Whitfield said. "The faculty are the critical piece of it, and progress comes when they feel like student success is a part of their mission. [Student Affairs and faculty] have to be intertwined. It’s about giving people credit, getting them engaged, asking them what they want to do, and supporting what they want to do so that they have a dog in the fight."
Diversity is a core component of student success, and one where UNLV is already in a strong position. At Wayne State, Whitfield helped spearhead a program that balanced out the school's merit and need-based scholarship pools to create a general scholarship fund that paid tuition for any resident of the city of Detroit.
Wayne State had been losing Black students to other universities. After Whitfield's program started, the school's next incoming class saw a 57 percent increase in Black enrollment.
"If you have a place that embraces diversity, all of the other metrics do better,” he said. "You create a better learning environment for the students. You create a more exciting place for faculty. And, even when it comes to research, you build a culture that really thinks about interesting things in a different sort of way."
In four years' time, Whitfield hopes to have transformed UNLV into a university with a 60 percent graduation rate; to have increased philanthropy by 10 percent; to grow UNLV's research enterprise; and to more tightly knit the university and the city together on a social and economic basis.
To get there, he'll have to overcome significant short-term challenges. But as bleak as the year has seemed at times, those challenges, he said, are just that: short-term.
"Adversity can crush you if you have given up, and think it's too much," Whitfield said. "You've got to think about what you can do, and take control in a situation where you feel less control. If we lose hope, we’ll get bulldozed over. If we keep hope, we’ll survive this. We have to remain hopeful.”