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Panel’s pick for UNLV president is administrator from Detroit

Updated July 22, 2020 - 7:07 pm

A search committee voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend Keith Whitfield, a university administrator in Detroit, as UNLV’s next president.

After suspending the search process this spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Nevada System of Higher Education committee moved forward with interviewing four finalists during an all-day meeting at UNLV’s Student Union Ballroom.

NSHE’s Board of Regents is slated to consider the search committee’s recommendation and possibly hire a new president during a meeting at 1 p.m. Thursday, which will be held via videoconference only.

Whitfield, who has a doctoral degree in lifespan development, is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit. He’s also a research scientist. He was previously vice provost for academic affairs at Duke University in North Carolina.

After the search committee’s vote, Whitfield came back into the room and thanked the committee. “This is an incredible honor,” he said, adding that they’ll do great things together for UNLV.

A search consultant told the committee before Whitfield’s interview there were numerous comments from survey respondents saying Whitfield would be the best choice.

Other finalists for the UNLV president position were Kenneth Furton, Chris Heavey and Karla Leeper.

Heavey, the only internal finalist, is interim executive vice president and provost at UNLV and has worked at the university since the early ’90s.

Furton is provost, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Florida International University in the Miami area. Leeper is executive vice president for operations at Augusta University/Augusta University Health System in Georgia.

UNLV has seen frequent presidential turnover — six leaders in 13 years. Acting UNLV President Marta Meana — who has filled the role since June 2018 — announced in February she won’t seek the job permanently. Her contract continues through December after NSHE regents voted this spring to extend it due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of the meeting, committee members also took a moment of silence to remember former NSHE regent Sam Lieberman, who died in April. He was slated to chair the UNLV president search committee.

The search committee asked each candidate the same set of about a dozen interview questions. Each candidate had a total of one and a half hours.

Questions centered around topics such as how finalists would handle the COVID-19 situation and associated budget cuts; their experience working with a diverse population of students; efforts they’d take around student success; online education; grants and fundraising; and UNLV’s R1 research status by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for “very high research activity.”

During his interview, Whitfield said the UNLV president needs to be someone who can create a balance of being a presence on campus and connect with the community and donors.

Whitfield said his father served for 30 years in the U.S. Air Force and had the opportunity to go back to school and become an officer. He said he was inspired by his father’s passion for education and service.

Whitfield said he has been at three different R1 schools and has experience with managing large, complex organizations. He said he works to communicate effectively and connect with people.

He said he’s excited about the UNLV president opportunity and that it would be amazing to be president of the most diverse higher education institution in the U.S.

Addressing UNLV’s reopening plan that aims for a 50-50 mix of in person and distance learning this fall, Whitfield said: “The more people you have on campus, the more risk you have.”

Whitfield said he thinks remote learning will become more of a staple at colleges and universities in the future. He said it’s another way to add flexibility and opportunity to pursue a degree, but noted some people don’t want to rely on it completely.

A challenge is what kind of courses are best offered in-person, remotely or online, Whitfield said.

In response to a question about what he’d do at UNLV to address the achievement gap among students, Whitfield said: “This is a major issue around the country.”

He said if a university is going to address the achievement gap, it needs to look at some of the origins. And he added universities need to connect with the kindergarten through 12th grade school system.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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