UNLV’s commitment to first-generation college students and to serving its diverse population are two of the factors that drew Rickey N. McCurry to campus.
“People want to be here,” said McCurry, the university’s new vice president of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement and president of the UNLV Foundation, adding that that sentiment truly matters to him.
McCurry, who was recruited from Northern Arizona University (NAU), where he served as vice president for advancement and CEO of its foundation, began his job at UNLV on Oct. 1.
While UNLV’s commitment to students is one factor that enticed McCurry to move from Flagstaff to Las Vegas, it wasn’t the only one. He also sees how the university’s research mission — combined with opportunities for students to earn professional degrees in medicine, dental medicine, law, and business — gives it an exciting, competitive edge.
Now, McCurry is eager to pair the institution’s strengths with his expertise in fundraising and alumni relations to take UNLV to the next level, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are so fortunate to have brought Rickey here,” said Diana Bennett, chair of the UNLV Foundation Board of Trustees. “His experience, integrity, and dedication are what we need at this critical time. His leadership and understanding of complex, multifaceted organizations will truly benefit not only our philanthropic efforts, but also the institution as a whole.”
McCurry grew up in a large family — four older sisters, three older brothers, and one younger sister — in the small town of Humboldt, Tennessee. He spent much of his free time playing “every kind of ball that you can think of” with the neighborhood kids.
One afternoon, during a football game in the yard, his father pulled him aside and gave him a piece of advice: “Son,” he said, “I want you to always remember this: You are as good as any man but better than no man.”
The puzzled McCurry shrugged it off. He had no idea why his father would interrupt a football game to share this. “It didn’t mean much to me,” he said, “and I didn’t give it a lot of thought. It wasn’t until later that it began to resonate with me, as I grew older and wiser, and experienced more of life.”
Today, McCurry says that advice guides his character, career, and purpose: To ensure that anyone can get a college education regardless of whether they can afford it.
He comes from a modest background himself. His father worked as a laborer and his mother was a maid; neither attained more than an eighth-grade education. McCurry graduated from high school and went on to attend Lane College, a private, historically Black college associated with the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. He majored in history and was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the first intercollegiate fraternity established for Black men, which counts Thurgood Marshall, Duke Ellington, and Martin Luther King Jr., among its brothers. He also volunteered in Lane’s office of development and alumni affairs — a role that would end up influencing the arc of his entire career.
McCurry then earned a law degree from North Carolina Central University. Though he never intended to practice law, he is licensed in Tennessee. Instead, he saw the degree as a solid foundation that would also provide the flexibility to go into any number of fields, from business to medicine to politics.
In the end, he chose a career in philanthropy. Law degree in hand, he was invited by Lane College to be the first assistant director of development and alumni affairs.
McCurry progressively advanced in the world of university fundraising, taking leadership positions with increasing levels of responsibility at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, and Southern Illinois University, among other institutions. Throughout his career, McCurry said, a single principle guided his approach to fundraising, and it is a philosophy passed down by a mentor in his first professional role: “It’s not about the money. It’s about the relationships.”
Even-tempered, with the intention to only worry about what he can control, McCurry enjoys playing golf or fishing when he needs a break. He likes to cook, and he and his wife of 35 years, Sandra, enjoy watching college sports at home. The McCurrys have two sons and a daughter — all eagerly awaiting the coronavirus vaccine so they can safely visit their parents in their new home.
In the meantime, Las Vegas may be cooling off, but McCurry’s schedule is heating up. Now several weeks into his new position, he is beginning to meet with campus and community leadership, alumni, and donors.
“My goal in life is to ensure that we live in a world where anyone who wants a college degree can get one,” he said. “I want to raise the resources to make it happen. There’s so much more here that can be accomplished.”