Inventing UNLV Again

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Pj Perez

With the hype machine cranked to 11, UNLV President Carol C. Harter officially announced the university's new comprehensive fundraising campaign during her annual State of the University address last week at Cox Pavilion.

"Invent the Future" is the name of the ambitious master university plan, and Harter drove home the point that in order to fund the invention of that future, loads of cash from the private sector would need to flow into the school's coffers.

"To the extent that state funds will never support the development of centers of excellence, merit scholarships, funds to hire and retain star faculty, and specialized library collections and equipment," Harter said, "universities on the march to excellence and international recognition must increase federal research dollars, contracts and grants with other agencies and business partners, and raise increasing levels of private and individual philanthropists."

Harter spent the better part of 90 minutes giving a history lesson of UNLV's struggle to keep up with the rapid growth of its surrounding community, combating lackluster support from the state since the university's inauspicious beginnings as a southern extension of the University of Nevada, Reno.

"Over and over the potential to create a truly first-class university in Las Vegas has been underestimated, misunderstood or simply left as a dream as yet unfulfilled," Harter said. "But the fight to achieve that status is hardly over; we are creating—and will continue to create—one of the nation's premier universities in this desert."

After thanking countless numbers of donors from the corporate and private sectors throughout the whole speech—seeded with examples of faculty and staff who have themselves contributed to the school's financial needs, including a grounds supervisor who has contributed $14,000 since 1996 —Harter finally capped off the proceedings with a marching-band fanfare, pyrotechnics and confetti canons to announce the campaign's June 2008 goal: $500 million.

Those are quite some coffers to fill.

The June 2008 date marks the 50th anniversary of the school formerly known as Nevada Southern (or as it was more popularly known, "Tumbleweed Tech"). If UNLV reaches its goal, Harter will likely have much to celebrate for that momentous occasion, including projects currently under construction (a new student union, the new Science, Engineering and Technology Building, and a Student Recreation Center), as well as those on the drawing board (Greenspun Hall and INNovation Village, to name a few).

In last year's State of the University address, Harter announced her concept for a thriving university district along Maryland Parkway called Midtown UNLV, where students and residents will finally have a real intellectual and cultural center, filled with cafes, bookstores, shopping, dining, and all the other things that make for great university communities.

In this year's address, "Midtown" only received a scant few mentions, mostly in relation to how other new projects would fill their parts of the proposed reimagining of Maryland Parkway. Not that her commitment to the redevelopment of the parkway has waned; rather, it seems the logical pieces of the UNLV puzzle are being dropped in front of the public one at a time.

That's par for the course, as the entire campaign has actually been in the works for the last few years, according to the university's new gospel. In a letter from Harter sent to faculty last July, the president explained that the "quiet phase" of the campaign started in 2002, which might explain how the university has already raised $263 million in pledges and cash donations toward the 2008 goal.

Has UNLV improved its status as an educational or research institution during Harter's nearly 11 years as president (the longest term for any in the 47-year history of the university)? Not necessarily—U.S. News and World Report recently ranked UNLV in the fourth tier of its 2006 Best Colleges ranking—but one thing can be said for the former New Yorker: She gets results. During Harter's tenure, UNLV has made great strides toward being taken more seriously. She has overseen the opening of the state's only law and dental schools, the deservedly ballyhooed Lied Library, the Beam Music Center, and of course, the three under-construction projects previously mentioned.

So why can't UNLV get any respect? Why does U.S. News rank its northern counterpart, the University of Nevada, Reno, a full tier higher? Let's look at the numbers: They have a lower student-to-faculty ratio, a higher graduation rate, and higher average ACT/SAT scores. Most telling, however, is that UNR, at less than half the student body of UNLV, has a larger endowment.

Maybe that's what it boils down to. Harter might just be onto something with her school's bid to pull down $500 million in the next few years. In a city where the dollar is almighty and ever-present, UNLV's president is doing what the CEO of any corporation would do: Crunch the numbers and raise the stakes. And in a town where anything can happen, her gamble just might pay off.

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