That Len Jessup's bookshelves are filled with leadership tomes is to be expected. UNLV's new president started as a business professor. He draws on the wisdom in presidential histories and the memoirs of corporate greats, finding in them the pithy or poignant words that cement grand concepts. He often quotes them in his own campus talks, before turning the rooms over to a comfortable back-and-forth dialog with his audience. At the March memorial service for legendary Runnin' Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian, for example, Jessup invoked a favorite from Teddy Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" passage: It's not the critic who deserves our notice, it more or less goes, but the one who dares greatness no matter the outcome.
But Jessup's all-time favorite genre is science fiction. He first picked up Isaac Asimov's Foundation series as he off headed to the College of the Siskiyous to play baseball. In it, a mathematician foresees a barbaric future for society. To counter the coming dark forces, he forms his Foundation of both engineers and artists to preserve and expand human knowledge.
"I love science fiction because it's all about what's possible -- what could happen," Jessup said soon after moving onto the seventh floor of the Flora Dungan Humanities Building. Science fiction grounds what seems so distantly conceivable into ideas readily attainable, he noted.
Perhaps Asimov's world also offers Jessup a corollary for the world of higher education. His mathematician, after all, blended the physical and social sciences into a new science, and the artist was as pivotal to his galaxy's success as the engineer. Such interdisciplinary thinking, Jessup said, is exactly what it will take for UNLV to fully realize its potential as a force for economic and social development in the region.
That's a future he has no trouble seeing.
Like so many UNLV students today, Jessup was the first in his family to graduate from college. His grandparents emigrated separately from Italy and eventually landed in San Francisco. They'd left the poverty of their fishing towns and became working-class families filled with small entrepreneurs. His dad supplemented his fireman's salary with a little trucking company on the side at one time, and Jessup's many odd jobs growing up included baling hay and cleaning bowling alleys.
Jessup's three older siblings got jobs and started families after high school. Were it not for his athletic ability, he'd likely have done the same.
"There wasn't a lot of talk about college around my house" Jessup recalled. "I don't think my dad stepped foot on a college campus until my graduation. To him, I was going off to junior college to play baseball. I thought the same thing, actually."
At Siskiyous, he played in the highly competitive California junior college league but soon figured out that a career in the majors was not in the making. He figured he'd finish the college's business certificate program and then head back home. His coach encouraged him to get a bachelor's degree instead. "It was the first time anyone in a leadership role had counseled me to pursue my education," he said. "He saw something in me I didn't see."
Small encouragements from professors along the way led from a bachelor's and an MBA at California State University, Chico to a doctorate in organizational behavior and management information systems from the University of Arizona.
"So now I feel a responsibility, not only to my family but to everyone else who helped me along the way. It's a privilege to work in higher education and to help this generation of students see and achieve the opportunities," he said. "I know what it's like for higher education to lift you up from a place with limited options to one that's wide open."
While there was no grand vision behind Jessup's early academic career, there were pivotal moments at which he saw what was coming and shifted to make the most of the potential opportunity.
When he headed to Arizona for his doctorate in 1985, personal computing was just emerging. In a computer lab there, faculty and students were developing software to promote team collaboration. "It was the precursor to the social media on the Internet as we know it today," he said. "I was excited to see something being developed right before my eyes (and I could see how) that would impact the way we do business every day. I caught the research bug right then and there."
To ground his management degree in an applied field, he added the minor in information systems. He credits that choice for landing his first academic job -- at California State University, Long Beach -- when the market was tight for management professors. Then when a new campus in San Marcos opened, Jessup seized the chance to be a program builder, something seldom afforded young faculty members. Undaunted by challenges and despite his lack of experience, he began landing more and more administrative assignments.
To gain experience at a major research institution, he headed to Indiana University for five years before returning to the West for an endowed position at Washington State University, where he grew the management information systems department. When the business college dean left abruptly, Jessup threw his hat in the ring.
But he hadn't quite realized what he was stepping into. The university was going through budget cuts and the business school was in serious jeopardy of losing accreditation -- something that had been kept from faculty by the previous administration. "It was a real crisis for the college. It could have been a complete disaster."
Jessup chose transparency and collaboration over dictatorial wrangling to turn the college around. He literally pulled the accreditation report out of the drawer he found it in and laid out all the embarrassing details in a staff meeting. "I told them, 'You're on the inside now, which means you have to help fix it, too.'"
Corporate consultant Bill Maynard was an adjunct instructor and a member of the college's advisory board. "It was really something to see -- I felt like he literally turned into a great leader right before my eyes," he said. "One faculty meeting I remember started off so contentious, but Len turned the room. He showed he genuinely cared about the people, and he really believed that they could accomplish so much more than they realized. He showed them he could be trusted."
Simply fixing the accreditation issues wasn't enough for Jessup. He compelled the college to reposition itself and develop a much more forward-thinking and ambitious strategic plan. That success led to another turnaround assignment, this time leading Washington State's advancement division, which oversees fundraising and public relations activities.
It was a task well suited to Jessup's collaborative leadership style, he said, noting that donors, particularly alumni, often have connections to a university that long precede and outlast any one president or dean or development officer. "Raising money, getting faculty buy-in for initiatives, getting legislative support -- it's all about the same thing. It's all about helping people see their role in the university's future."
That's the "Jessup Juice," says his partner, Kristi Staab. He has a natural ability to build enthusiasm and trust in an institution, she said. He won her over at an alumni event for the Eller School of Management at the University of Arizona. He had returned to his doctoral alma mater to become dean in 2011; she was being honored for her accomplishments as a leadership development consultant.
When Jessup took over, Eller was already a top-ranked business school, particularly in his own field of management information systems and in entrepreneurial studies. He led its transition to a fully self-sustaining college and oversaw a huge expansion of its online education and executive education offerings. He was instrumental in creating the University of Arizona's technology transfer and commercialization program, Tech Launch Arizona.
"He's an academic, but he's also a businessperson," Staab said, "All that is a must-have for a university president, of course. But when it comes down to it, Len leaves things in a better place at the end of the day -- I mean, everything, every single day. He's got the kind of energy that makes people want to be on his team."
During his interview process, Jessup found a disconnect between his impressions of UNLV and comments that came from some corners of the community. Perhaps it was the natural weariness that settles in after a tough economic downturn, he said, "but I don't think people realize how good UNLV really is. There are very talented people here. They just seem to be waiting to hear, 'Go for it.'"
He's giving the green light in the form of UNLV's new plan to become a top tier public research university by 2025. The effort, started by former Presidents Carol Harter and Neal Smatresk and interim President Don Snyder, will roll out fully this fall. The plan lays out how UNLV will improve student achievement, expand its research and creative activities, and shore up the infrastructure that eroded during budget cutbacks. It also calls for UNLV to leverage its resources to support economic diversification efforts and to succeed in establishing a fully accredited School of Medicine, something sorely lacking in Southern Nevada.
All this will make UNLV bigger and rise in rankings, Jessup said, but the real value is in making Nevada a better place to live. UNLV's increased research activity will have a multiplier effect on the state. With some wise investments, he envisions UNLV robustly spinning out new businesses and even more resources dedicated to tackling community issues. UNLV will return even more revenue to the state through out-of-state tuition and grant dollars. It will help the state retain its best young students and increase the resources we offer to our diverse student body to ensure their success. And it will strengthen the global network of alumni and the value of their degrees.
"That sounds big but it's not only possible, it's going to happen," he said, and he invokes another famous quote, this time from hockey great Wayne Gretzky. "You have to skate to where the puck is going, not where it is or to where it's been. I can see where UNLV is going, where the city is going, where our state needs us to be going. We have a shared destiny, which means people will work hard to help our success. If I hadn't gotten a strong sense of that, I wouldn't have come here.
"Now it's just a matter of helping other people see that, too."
At A Glance: Len Jessup
Education: '83 BA Information and Communication Studies and '85 MBA, California State University, Chico; '89 Ph.D. Organizational Behavior and Management Information Systems, University of Arizona
Hometown: Grew up in San Francisco; the fourth of five children and the first to graduate from college. "Given where I come from, I've undertaken a lot of things I have zero experience in. You have to give yourself permission to try and have enough confidence to think it's possible."
Family: Partner Kristi Staab, owner of Kristi Staab's Rock Star Training; daughter, Jamie, 17; and son, David, 12. "My personal definition of success is about finding balance. I've always told students that success is when you get up in the morning, you can't wait to go to work because you love what you do. But also, at the end of the day, you can't wait to get home and be with the people you care about most."
A challenge: "It's not always a positive thing to always be planning for what's coming next. I have to force myself to be in the moment sometimes."
Organizational change: "I don't get too ruffled by resistance. You have to remember that those are valid and legitimate feelings. If you're in a situation where the majority of the people feel that way, then change really isn't possible. But if you have the majority, the group can bring the minority along. They will catch on or they'll move on to something else that suits them."
Student debt: "When I went to college, California was heavily subsidizing education for its students. When it comes down to it, I was lucky to be born at the right time in the right place. So the financial burden now on students really does trouble me, and I have a duty to address those issues."
The rankings game: "The traditional way to rise in rankings is to tighten standards ... to take pride in excluding people and then call that quality. Policymakers now are starting to look at the degree to which an institution helps students succeed, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged."
The business of higher education: "The business model underlying modern American universities has changed -- and it's not going back, not with pent-up infrastructure needs, increasing health care needs, and Baby Boomer pension plans coming due all across the country. Public universities clearly have to be more self-sufficient, more entrepreneurial, and more reliant on private philanthropy, grant funding, and business partnerships. To some people in higher education, that's scary. I look at it as an opportunity, particularly for research universities."