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April 20, 2014

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In infancy, health sciences stumbling

Fundraising woes, budget cuts keep statewide system mostly in planning stage

This is the dream: To alleviate the state’s shortage of health professionals, Nevada’s public colleges and Desert Research Institute will pool their resources into a “health sciences system,” sharing laboratories and teachers and collaborating on research.

Working together, the theory goes, the 150 health science-related programs across the state will become more efficient and effective, producing more doctors and nurses. Professors will have more opportunities to talk to colleagues outside their fields, inspiring more interdisciplinary research projects.

But two years after the regents who govern higher education established the Health Sciences System, their infant project is suffering growing pains.

The system’s development director quit in June, taking a better-paying position on the East Coast to be closer to his family.

But the bigger problem is that the sour economy is making it difficult to raise money. In 2007, lawmakers set aside $88.7 million for construction and renovation of health sciences buildings, but the funding came with a condition. Higher education officials including Chancellor Jim Rogers would have to collect $38.7 million from donors or other nonstate sources.

And the Legislature has yet to provide money toward day-to-day Health Sciences System expenses, including pay for employees such as Maurizio Trevisan, executive vice chancellor for health sciences, whose salary this year is $431,600.

Private donations and earnings from investments of higher education money have supported the system since its founding in 2006.

Though the regents are asking lawmakers for more than $3.7 million to cover health sciences operating costs in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 fiscal years, there is no guarantee that money will come through at a time when the state is slashing existing budgets.

Dan Klaich, higher education’s executive vice chancellor, refused to speculate on how officials might fund health sciences if the Legislature does not.

Rogers and Trevisan say they won’t allow short-term challenges to wreck their ambitions.

“We have to look at this with a long-term perspective,” Trevisan said. “This is a long-term dream ... This is not going to be done overnight.”

He is coordinating efforts to launch a public health doctoral program that would let students at UNLV and University of Nevada, Reno specialize in fields that could include environmental health. Experts in that area study how air pollution, water quality and other environmental factors affect people’s health.

Professors at each university would teach students at both, broadcasting lectures from one campus to the other.

On Aug. 1, the Health Sciences System reached a milestone, receiving $5 million from MGM Mirage majority shareholder Kirk Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation. It is the first gift of more than $1 million to the Health Sciences System. Of the money, $3.2 million will go toward the $38.7 million match, paying for furniture and equipment for a new clinical skills lab in a building the system is renovating on Shadow Lane. Medical and nursing students from Nevada State College, UNLV and UNR will share the space.

The remaining $1.8 million will cover the salaries of the system’s six employees this fiscal year, along with other operating costs.

“This, in a sense, to me, is the first tangible proof that what we are working on has the support of the community,” Trevisan said.

“I think this is really the beginning, from my point of view, of a strong trajectory.”

The Lincy gift brings the amount of private money the health sciences staff has raised to just more than $7.9 million. In addition, officials have received pledges for $1.3 million. And Sen. Harry Reid secured $950,000 in federal funding toward matching the state’s contribution.

Still, the system will need to raise a lot more money to succeed.

Rogers has no plans to hire a replacement development director before stepping down as chancellor in June. He said the focus right now is on snagging major donors for the health sciences — a job better handled by him and Trevisan.

“At the moment, we’re not asking for $25,000 donations,” said Rogers, a media mogul whom the regents hired in large part for his fundraising skills. “We’re taking a look at who we can hit up for $25 million plus, and those things really cannot be done by fundraisers. They just can’t. When people talk to me about giving money, if they want to talk to me about important money, they better send the president or the CEO.”

The chancellor said it’s not a matter of “if” health sciences will land a gift worth tens of millions of dollars. The question, he said, is “when.”

But that “when” could be a long way off.

Rogers acknowledged he might not be able to raise the matching funds by the time his term as chancellor ends.

“It’s very difficult right now to talk to donors about what your plans are for the Health Sciences System specifically and get them involved in a specific program when you don’t know what those programs will be,” he said.

Plus, Rogers thinks the economy is unsettling donors for two reasons. One: “Lots of people who had lots of cash don’t have the cash anymore,” he said. And two, philanthropists are reluctant to pour money into public projects when they think the government is waffling on its commitments.

Of the $88.7 million set aside this biennium for health sciences, state officials have taken back $65.5 million in response to budget cuts. Though Rogers said he’s been told the funding was deferred, not canceled, the reduction is giving donors pause.

All the same, at least some of Rogers’ bosses are expecting him to deliver big on the fundraising front.

“That’s why he was hired,” said Regent Bret Whipple, chairman of the regents committee that selected Rogers as chancellor. “That was the way Jim Rogers distinguished himself from other excellent candidates, was his ability to raise private funds.

“The representations that he made when he was hired was he was the person who could raise the money, and obviously, those were representations that we relied upon.”

Whipple thinks Nevada’s budget crisis is hampering Rogers’ fundraising efforts for another reason, too.

The chancellor has been one of the state’s loudest critics of Gov. Jim Gibbons’ handling of the state’s financial problems. In weekly memos to politicians and the press, Rogers has railed against cuts. And he has repeatedly suggested creating new taxes, a stance Whipple thinks will alienate many of the state’s wealthiest people, and those are potential donors.

Whipple said “it seems that his ability to raise money has sometimes gone to the wayside” while Rogers has given other issues higher priority.

Rogers, however, thinks being a strong advocate for higher education helps him gain credibility with philanthropists.

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