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At the 2014 winter commencement on Dec. 16, UNLV will recognize Carol Harter, UNLV President Emerita, with an honorary Doctorate of Human Letters. This story was originally written in May, just before Harter's retirement from the university.
On June 24 it will be 19 years since Carol Harter arrived at UNLV from the small liberal arts college she had headed in New York state. Then, UNLV was just 19,000 students strong and so many of our landmarks — Lied Library, Shadow Lane Campus, and the Student Union — had yet to be built.
In the intervening years, she served 11 years as the university’s president, followed by eight at the helm of the university’s Black Mountain Institute, a literary foundation that she helped create.
As she prepares for retirement, she took some time to look back at her time in Southern Nevada.
“I remember seeing the ad for the presidency of UNLV in the Chronicle (of Higher Education) and thinking, ‘Oh my goodness. That place has got to be a place that can grow and develop,’” considering it is in a state with a small, but rapidly growing population.
UNLV was exactly what she was looking for — a place poised for an upward trajectory, a place where she could make a difference. Although she said the State University of New York at Geneseo is a great school, after six years at its helm she had become frustrated at a state funding structure that she said failed to reward excellence, making it difficult to nurture promising programs.
At UNLV, on the other hand, people both on campus and in the community seemed eager to help improve the institution.
“People really had aspirations for the place,” she said recalling the yearlong planning exercise she began shortly after her arrival. What that process determined was that the UNLV community wanted increased funding for research while maintaining a strong undergraduate program.
Asked about her biggest achievements at UNLV, she said, “The founding of Black Mountain Institute is right up there along with the development of the Law School. It was the first of three major schools. The Architecture School, the Dental School, and the (William S. Boyd) School of Law really put us on the map as a major university. You have to have those kinds of professional schools to achieve that.”
Getting approval for the Law School, Harter said, was the single toughest job she has ever had. “It took two years of 50 percent of my time to get everything in place to create the Law School. There was a lot of opposition to it in the legal community, within the university itself, and among the regents. And the chancellor didn’t want to do it.”
Eventually, she said, the regents, including some from Northern Nevada, realized that with a Medical School at UNR, it would help level things to have a law school at UNLV.
Harter said she’s pleased to see UNLV progressing now on some of the goals she was not able to achieve in her years as president, including funding equity and establishing a medical school at UNLV.
She and then-Chancellor Jim Rogers once explored the possibility of UNLV partnering with a private medical school in California to establish a medical school at UNLV, but it didn’t work out. Now, she hopes, the time may be right to launch a UNLV Medical School.
Likewise, recent changes to the state Legislature’s formula for funding higher education institutions have finally brought equity to the system. “That was a major theme,” when she became president, she said. “And I spent my 11 years as president never forgetting that theme.”
“It’s finally happened but, let me tell you, any number of chancellors beat me up and politicians beat me up because of that constant cry that the very first thing we had to do was get some equity in relationship to (the University of Nevada) Reno.”
At the time, there was a more than a $2,000 difference per student in state support between UNLV and UNR. With 20,000 students, that came to $40 million a year. “And that’s real money,” she said with a deadpan delivery.
She also hopes to see progress in UNLV’s graduation rates as current efforts take hold.
Harter is grateful to have wrapped up her career as the executive director of a literary academy — now known as the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute, thanks to a $10 million pledge from Jim and Beverly Rogers. Jim, a prominent businessman, served as NSHE chancellor 2004-09.
“It took me back to my academic roots, which I hadn’t been back to full time since I started as an ombudsman (at Ohio University) in ’74.
“The opportunity here was just grand — to build something from nothing and to spend my life reading and thinking about writers and supporting them here at UNLV,” said Harter, who will stay involved in BMI this fall while her replacement is being selected. She and her husband Michael, both voracious readers, are culling books from the 2,000 volumes they have amassed at home so that they have room for the books and memorabilia from her campus digs.
“BMI brings high-quality intellectual discussions to Las Vegas and that is something that people care about,” she said. “There is pent-up demand for that as you can see from the Smith Center. We are in a smaller way the same thing, a cultural activity we have not had in Southern Nevada before.”
She also is proud of BMI’s sponsorship of the City of Asylum program, which provides refuge to writers who have been persecuted in their homelands. Dormant for three years because of a lack of funding, the program is being reinstituted through the generous pledge from the Rogers Family Foundation. Two writers should be arriving soon.
The Rogers gift also will allow BMI to increase support for existing Ph.D. and fellowship programs and enhance its public programming.
And, the gift is being used to establish a biennial literary prize that will carry with it $50,000 — one of the largest monetary awards attached to any U.S. literary prize for fiction.
The Black Mountain Institute Prize will be awarded to an author whose work is selected by a panel of highly regarded writers. The first award should be made in either 2015 or 2016.
“In the world of literature, a $50,000 prize is huge,” said Harter. “The National Book Award has a $10,000 prize. People will take notice of the BMI Prize.”
Over the years, no doubt in part because of her own experiences, Harter has become a major proponent of the need for more advancement of women in higher education.
Without the backing of then-Regents Jill Derby, Shelley Berkley, Carolyn Sparks, and Nancy Price (as well as key votes from two male regents, Joe Foley and current NSHE Chancellor Dan Klaich), Harter says she wouldn’t have been selected as UNLV’s seventh — and longest serving — president.
“I’m not sure that this institution was fully ready for a woman president — in fact, I’m quite sure it wasn’t — but I hope over those 11 years it became more naturally just a fact of life,” she said.
Today she wonders why there are so few women on Nevada’s Board of Regents and in the leadership of nation’s universities and colleges. “Women really need to be more represented in the leadership of our institutions at both the vice presidential and presidential levels,” she said.
“It matters to other women when there are women in those leadership roles,” she said. Time and again women on the faculty told her how it reinforced their decision to come to UNLV. “It is not determinate for most people but it is symbolic of what an institution’s values are,” Harter said.
She said that luckily UNLV’s presidency wasn’t the first job for which she had been the female groundbreaker.
“I was the first and only woman in every single role I had as an administrator,” she remarked. “From ombudsman, to vice president for student affairs, to vice president for administration (all at Ohio University), to the two presidencies I was in — I was the first woman. In some cases, they have yet to have another one.”
Harter and her husband of nearly 53 years, who recently retired as CEO of Touro University Nevada, will continue living in Southern Nevada except for summer escapes to San Diego.
And they will do something their careers too seldom allowed — extensive travel. First will be a cruise around the British Isles. Eventually they hope to venture to destinations in the South Pacific.
But a busy travel schedule doesn’t mean Harter is through working. After beginning her career as an English professor and ending it as the head of a literary institute, the insatiable reader is considering penning her first creative work to go along with her two academic books.
“I can’t decide between a novel, a book about women in leadership, or a memoir. More people than not suggest the memoir. For that, I’m going to have to wait until an awful lot of people are dead,” Harter said with a laugh, “and I’m not that young anymore."