Geoscientists receive dispatches from the Red Planet in the form of martian rocks.
A political scientist researches what it will take to level the playing field for Black-owned businesses.
A student investigates medicinal drugs that will help stop the growth of cancer cells.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, these advances are happening at UNLV, a “rising university on the verge of doing great things,” UNLV President Keith E. Whitfield said Tuesday during his second State of the University address.
Whitfield, who took the helm as UNLV’s president in August 2020, addressed students, staff, and faculty virtually on Tuesday, reflecting on the accomplishments of the past year and outlining ambitious plans for 2022 and beyond.
At the center of those plans: UNLV students.
Even before the pandemic created chaos in Las Vegas and in communities around the world, UNLV students faced hardships in their pursuit of a higher education.
“It’s now more important than ever that we take time to listen — and hear — our students,” Whitfield said. “We must also find new ways to reach them.”
To do that, UNLV must focus on building community, both within the physical campus borders and beyond, Whitfield said. Building community means improving the lives of UNLV’s diverse students and engaging in meaningful research and outreach to transform Las Vegas and Southern Nevada.
And it’s how UNLV will “achieve national standing as a premier, public urban research university,” he said.
Helping students succeed and supporting their well-being requires meeting them where they are: in the digital space.
Tuesday, Whitfield formally launched a virtual version of himself — “Digital President Whitfield” — a one-of-a-kind service that uses artificial intelligence and allows students to ask him questions 24/7. The service provides real-time information about the university while also offering support and directing students to the appropriate area if they need additional help.
The concept of meeting students where they are is also the driving force behind another new initiative, YOU @ UNLV.
A collaboration between the School of Integrated Health Sciences and Student Wellness, Whitfield says YOU @ UNLV gives students access to personalized tips and tools, and links to UNLV resources with the goal to support holistic wellness across the spectrum including mental/emotional, social, physical, academic, and financial.
Students’ mental health is especially paramount, and UNLV is committed to nearly doubling the staff at Student Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and opening a new counseling center on the Shadow Lane campus in order to improve appointment wait times, according to Whitfield.
“Understanding and recognizing the hardships many of our students face is paramount to them succeeding,” Whitfield said. “That was true for many students before the pandemic, and even more so now with the chaos of the past two years.”
The university has also worked over the past year to restructure the financial aid office to improve communications and outreach to students and their parents. To date this academic year, the university has awarded a record $140 million of gift-in-aid to 25,000 students while also reducing the wait time.
The value of a degree from UNLV is going up, too.
That’s thanks in part to UNLV’s achievement — for the second time — of Carnegie R1 “very high research” status in December.
“This ranking enhances UNLV’s community of scholars to attract talent, invite new industry, strengthen existing businesses, and benefit from cutting-edge research that is locally tested and nationally relevant,” Whitfield said, adding that it will double the economic impact of the university to $4.5 billion in the coming years.
Campus master plan
Just as UNLV’s research infrastructure is growing, so too is its physical campus footprint.
Building community, Whitfield said, means “developing and funding new facilities to meet the needs of our faculty and students.” This includes the new Advanced Engineering Building, which will formally break ground on Feb. 24. The building will help the college meet the needs of one of UNLV’s most in-demand programs and help prepare future engineering students to address challenges in energy and water resources, big data, cybersecurity, and robotics.
Future plans include a new building for the Lee Business School, a new College of Fine Arts Building that will replace Grant Hall - the oldest operational building on campus - and a new interdisciplinary science and technology building that will promote collaboration between researchers from a wide range of disciplines and leverage expertise to address complex societal challenges. Additionally, Whitfield reported that the new Medical Education Building near UNLV’s Shadow Lane campus is more than 50% complete and will be fully operational by the end of 2022.
A major highlight of the university’s revamped campus master plan is to create a “University District” on the east side of campus along the Maryland Parkway corridor. The vision is similar to the “Midtown UNLV” concept that former President Carol Harter introduced almost two decades ago, Whitfield said, but it includes new strategic elements and real estate acquisitions.
“We have some ambitious plans for what UNLV will look like in the future,” Whitfield said.
The plan includes creating a prominent entrance to UNLV and a vibrant experience for campus visitors. The university plans to partner with private industry, Clark County, and the Regional Transportation Commission to carve out safe, public spaces with seating, shade, and lighting and also stimulate conversation and camaraderie.
At the heart of this future direction, Whitfield said, and the previous year’s tremendous accomplishments, is UNLV’s people, and the collective passion and care they exhibit on a daily basis.
Though navigating a pandemic for two years has been exhausting and tested the resolve of the campus community, Whitfield said the university is on the right path.
“We’re audacious in our goals and even unconventional at times,” he said. “But we will find a way to achieve our dreams and achieve remarkable results.”