In wake of threatening message left on campus, UNLV president touts free expression at annual ‘State of the University’ address

Just days after a threatening message was found scrawled on the stall of a UNLV bathroom, acting UNLV President Marta Meana defended the role of universities as a bastion of free speech, telling a crowd during her annual State of the University address Wednesday that “openness is a threat to those who would want to shrink our world.”

That profanity-laden threat, which authorities said was not credible, singled out African Americans using a racial slur, supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and the UNLV community at large. It had also named Wednesday — the same day as Meana’s address — as the date of a planned shooting. 

“It’s definitely disheartening and distressing to receive those threats, or to have symbols of hate occasionally etched in our walls,” Meana said in her address. “But you need to remember that UNLV comprises thousands of people who stand for the opposite of that vitriol. We cannot let the haters define us or control us.”

Still, the university moved to increase police presence across campus Wednesday, as a number of professors canceled classes and many more students elected simply to stay home. 

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">More from UNLV - empty, midday on a day of regular scheduled classes. Fear. <a href="https://t.co/qNxTgTRbJp">pic.twitter.com/qNxTgTRbJp</a></p>— Michael Kagan (@MichaelGKagan) <a href="https://twitter.com/MichaelGKagan/status/1184564529717338112?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">October 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

State of the university addresses are an annual ritual for a university, an opportunity to boast of successes in the year gone by and lay hope for the year to come. On a stage decked out in red, flanked by giant roses to the right and a cascade of rosebuds to the left, Meana delivered a tailored address that praised the students, faculty and ongoing programs and research borne from university staff. 

Her speech also noted the designation of the university as an “R-1” or “Very High Research Activity” institution by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. 

Nevada universities have long jockeyed for a spot among the select schools on the R-1 list, one of the most coveted designations for any research school. And though both UNLV and UNR finally made the grade in late 2018, some critics have downplayed the designation, pointing to the fact that the list was expanded from 120 schools to 130 just before they were added. 

From UNLV’s perspective, Meana said “it doesn’t matter.”

“The fact that in only 60 years UNLV is even in the ballpark of that list is an amazing accomplishment that is a testament to the amazing effort of past and current faculty, staff and students,” Meana said. “It has taken most universities over a century to get there.”

Meana added that among other schools with an R-1 designation, just nine were of UNLV’s age or younger. 

But Meana helms a university in transition, still without a number of dean-level positions in the wake of the resignation of former university president Len Jessup last spring. Jessup left UNLV amid a spat with Board of Regents and Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly, as well as lingering ethics questions over his connection to a donation meant to spur the building of a new facility for the UNLV’s nascent medical school. 

At the same time, the upcoming vote on AJR5 — a proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution, moving the body under the purview of the Legislature, instead.

All the while, Meana has served as an acting president, holding the top job only until a regents’ search committee selects a new, permanent president to take the reins — though Meana has applied for the permanent post, too. That search committee met for the first time last month, just days after faculty voted against initiating a referendum considering whether or not Meana’s term should be extended for the long term.