The book was assigned as a favor. It reads as a favor. And right from the start its author, Dr. Eugene P. Moehring, a history professor at UNLV, acknowledges as much, attributing the celebratory tone of the prose to the fact that this book was written as a gift of sorts.
That is, a gift to former UNLV president Carol Harter, who, before she left office, conferred upon Moehring the assignment to write the book, a history of the first 50 years of the university. And the challenge, too: to have it ready for print in conjunction with the university’s yearlong birthday bash, celebrating 50, this year.
And it is a gift to the university’s other presidents as well: from James Dickinson to the first titular president, Donald Moyer, to Kenny Guinn, Harter’s predecessor. It’s written about them and in a fashion that seems for them—praising each one of their contributions, defending them at length and even extolling them at points where history would argue otherwise. But the largest portion of the book is dedicated to Harter, with whom Moehring appears to be most familiar.
Yet, by the end, this book also appears to be a gift to the community at large. Not just the countless students, faculty and administrators who have embodied the institution over the past 50 years, but also the very public for whom Southern Nevada’s first and foremost university was conceived, borne and reared over the past half century.
It’s a gift given in the form of a story.
UNLV: A History is a good story about the multiple forces that converged in Southern Nevada during the early 1950s—sprouting resorts, blooming residential neighborhoods, a school district thirsty for trained professional teachers—and, like the big bang, resulted in a formed, mobile, pulsating school on Maryland Parkway in 1957 that would become autonomous a mere 11 years later.
It’s a good story about a college that stood alone for many years in a dusty resort town that has never been wholly devoted to supporting higher education, even to this day, and about the ingenuity, dedication, perseverance, altruism and sometimes even chicanery mustered (because it was required, this history shows) to push the university through the moil and seethe of its beginnings, which, as it is just 50 years old right now, have not yet been surpassed.
Above all, it’s a good story about growth. About the university and its perpetual struggle—physically, administratively, politically—to keep up with the growth of the surrounding region it serves. A region that has expanded at astronomical rates, from 100,000 to 275,000 in 1970, from 450,000 in 1980 to the nearly 2 million it is now. And, in fact, Moehring spends much of his time and energy in this story simply trying to follow that chase—the college’s struggle to keep up with Las Vegas’ perpetual growth.
As good as it is, however, the story reads like it was a favor that has been rushed. As if its ardent and industrious process of formation had been a hasty endeavor. Which, in fact, the author writes, it was. What it lacks is what all classic histories present, and that is a sense of intimacy. Although the chronological chapters in this book correlate with the successive school presidents who have led the university, the story leans less on its people and more on its research—facts, numbers, legislative records, points of achievement, bureaucratic quotes.
For example, Moehring introduces the people whose names now adorn the litany of ever-increasing buildings on UNLV’s campus—Boyd, Beam, Fong, Barrick, Harrah, Lied, Thomas and Mack—and the amount of money each donated to the noble cause of higher education; but he never seems to get to know them, their stories, on an intimate level, which alone would make for highly pleasurable reading.
Regardless, the story is one that warrants pride, a sense of ownership even. And not just for the man who wrote it, Moehring, or the former president who asked him to write it, Harter, or the presidents before and after her. But for all the students and faculty, past and present and future, and even for the residents of Las Vegas, who have watched and supported (with their tax dollars, at least) the first 50 years of a school striving to emerge as a premier urban university, and who will watch and support it as it continues to mature over the next half century.
UNLV: A History
(for what it is)
Eugene P. Moehring
University of Nevada Press, $29.95