Rising like a mirage out of the Mojave Desert, this city of nearly 1.5 million residents and ten times the tourists is full of illusions. It is a place where a person can, if he or she has a mind to do so, stand in a rain forest to check into a motel; float down an ersatz canal of Venice listening to gondoliers sing Italian arias; spend an afternoon watching a stranger undress; or pass an evening gambling away a lifetime of savings.
About the only thing a person can't do in Las Vegas is get a first-rate university education. But that is changing.
After less than a decade of expansion and aggressive fundraising, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas has begun to shake its old reputation as an unruly basketball powerhouse and establish itself as a full-fledged research university. By most accounts, the transformation from athletic notoriety to academic respectability is more than just another "Sin City-Lost Wages" illusion.
Founded as a regional division of the University of Nevada in Reno on an unpaved road 45 years ago, UNLV now offers more than 20 doctoral and professional degrees, is home to some 40 research centers, and sits on a 335-acre campus in the middle of the country's fastest growing metropolitan area.
While Nevada continues to rank at the bottom in the percentage of high school students who go to college, UNLV's enrollment has grown dramatically, from 19,000 in 1992-93 to nearly 25,000 in 2002-03, with graduate school enrollments rising annually at ten times the national average.
Buildings on the campus have proliferated almost as fast. Recent additions include the $6 million Arnold Shaw Popular Music Center, the $7 million Stan Fulton International Gaming Institute and the $51 million Leid Library. In 1998, UNLV opened a law school, the only one in Nevada, which already has a $15 million facility and is on a fast track for full accreditation sometime this year.
|"The grass is always greener somewhere," says UNLV Provost Raymond W. Alden, III. "It happens to be here."
Last fall, a new school of dentistry admitted its first class of students and will eventually be located, along with a new biotech research center, on a newly acquired 17-acre satellite campus. UNLV has spent more than $20 million renovating and expanding its bookstore, residence hall, education building and engineering complex. And if all that is not enough, the university also boasts a new softball stadium, a new track, and its first parking garage.
The growth of UNLV is noteworthy because it has been rapid and has taken place while many colleges and universities are cutting back. Thanks to heavy losses on Wall Street and double-digit cuts in government spending in recent years, campuses all over the country have halted building projects, tightened department budgets and, in some cases, prepared for layoffs.
"The grass has to be greener somewhere. It happens to be here," said UNLV Provost Raymond W. Alden, III. Like many at UNLV, Alden is a transplant to Nevada. Six years ago, he moved from Old Dominion University, a public institution in Virginia with a history not unlike UNLV's, in that it began as a regional division of the College of William and Mary but is now a university in its own right.
For years the state provided the nation's largest percentage increase in support for higher education, which helped finance UNLV's expansion. Much of the support, however, has come from sources other than state government.
Over the past decade, gifts from private donors to UNLV more than doubled, from $10 million in 1992 to more than $20 million in 2002. Support for sponsored research, which comes largely from federal agencies, now stands at $56 million, triple what it was only four years ago.
As a result, state appropriations, excluding student fees, now make up less than one third of the university's operating budget, said Anthony B. Flores, UNLV's vice president for finance.
The state's share of UNLV's budget could slip even further as Nevada faces a somewhat unique budget crisis. While revenues have not dropped off the way they have in many states, the costs of running state programs have skyrocketed in Nevada. To cover the costs associated with a growing population and ever-increasing demands on public services, Governor Kenny Guinn has proposed an estimated $1 billion in "revenue enhancements"-otherwise known as new taxes-for 2004 and 2005.
With its eye on constituents' libertarian leanings and its members' own desires to be re-elected, the Nevada legislature has been as chary of increased taxes as the Bush White House. Officials at UNLV and in other state agencies believe they have a strong case to make and will continue arguing it until June, when lawmakers settle on a budget for the state's next biennium.
|Photos by Geri Kodey, UNLV, For CrossTalk
|The $51 million Leid Library is one of many new UNLV buildings made possible by state funding and private giving.
Raising private funds to make up for what the state does not provide is hardly a new concept for American higher education. As a result of being able to win large federal research grants and to attract big donors, many research universities receive only a tiny fraction of their budgets from their states.
Las Vegas may have been slow in getting into the higher education business, but private fundraising seems tailor-made for UNLV. For one thing, Nevada has no state income tax, which should put more discretionary funds in the hands of potential donors. Las Vegas' continued rapid growth-some 5,000 new residents every month-may be clogging freeways and straining public services but it has been a boon for builders, bankers and real estate developers, some of whom have been willing to share their good fortune.
Much of UNLV's support has also come either directly or indirectly from the city's gambling industry, which is no surprise. Gambling-or to use the new, more politically correct term gaming-has been the backbone of the city's economy since the Nevada legislature made the pastime permanently legal in the 1930s. In the 1940s organized crime muscled its way into some casinos, allowing bookmaking and narcotics trafficking also to become part of the economy. In recent years, business leaders and politicians have been trying to diversify the city's economy in other, less troublesome ways.
When she came to UNLV from New York state almost eight years ago, UNLV President Carol C. Harter picked up on the city's restlessness and began making the case that UNLV's drive to become a major research university and Southern Nevada's desire to diversify its economy are directly linked.
Las Vegas's colorful Mayor Oscar B. Goodman, a former mob lawyer, has publicly acknowledged that the city is starved for high-paying, high-tech industries. While Nevada leads the nation in new job growth, half of Las Vegas' employment opportunities are low-wage, dead-end service-economy jobs. The mayor would like to stop the region's suburban sprawl, rebuild the center of the city, and refocus the business community on something besides tourism and gambling.
Harter wants to help the city to do some of that refocusing. With its new resources, UNLV can tackle tough problems, generate new ideas, and produce whatever skilled labor force the city may need, she believes.
For several years, Harter has been pushing UNLV's faculty and administration to be more entrepreneurial in their thinking-to take advantage of research opportunities as they arise, and also to seek out local and regional problems they can help solve.
"We are not going to do research for research's sake. We're doing research that supports Nevada," explained John F. Gallagher, vice president for development and director of the UNLV Foundation, the private fundraising arm of the university.
If discoveries also have applications beyond the state's borders, all the better. No one would object, for example, if UNLV's Cancer Institute were to succeed in its current effort to find better techniques for diagnosing cancer.
To help get discoveries to the marketplace, UNLV has set up a separate research foundation which allows faculty members and investors to enter into financial relationships without the red tape normally associated with university research. UNLV is also now in the planning stages of a new $85-million high-tech science and engineering complex.
Perhaps the most notable example of UNLV's new entrepreneurial way of thinking centers around Yucca Mountain, a ridge of volcanic rock that rises from the desert 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. In 2001, the Bush administration approved the site as the country's new repository for some 77,000 tons of nuclear wastes.
UNLV joined the city and state in opposing the plan, yet as soon as the project appeared to be a fait accompli, the university quickly changed course and began looking for research opportunities connected to the repository. Unapologetic about what critics have labeled as blatant opportunism, Harter said, "We would prefer the project not come here but if it is to be here we will make the most of it."
In the past, some faculty members, especially in the liberal arts, have looked askance at applied research, arguing that basic and theoretical studies are the sine qua non of a great university. Chairmen of the UNLV history and philosophy departments are divided in their opinions about the administration's priorities.
Paul Schollmeier, the philosophy chairman, has seen little growth in his field in recent years. The department has lost three professors who retired and one who resigned-none of whom has been replaced. The result has been larger classes, more part-time teachers, and no move to create a graduate program, even at the master's level.
"Some administrators and state legislators think the university should be run like a business...self-supporting, if not making profits," Schollmeier said. "The business model changes the goal of education ...to preparation for particular occupations and no longer an end in itself."
Andy Fry, chairman of UNLV's history department, takes a different view. "I don't think we've been poor stepchildren of the university in any way." In the 25 or so years Fry has been at UNLV, the history department has doubled in size to 22 faculty members. Master's and doctoral degrees are now being offered, and the department has established a reputation as a center for the study of western U.S. history.
"We don't have as much support, but we have less to support," Fry said. "We simply don't have the startup costs (that face researchers in science and engineering). What is crucial is that we have gotten adequate to strong travel budgets. Money for travel is key-or one of the keys-for historians who must get to sources to do research."
Provost Alden said his job is exhausting. "We're constantly on the cutting edge. President Harter wants the university to do for biotechnology, health care, the arts and a host of other fields what it has done for hotel management." That is, become one of the premiere educational and research institutions in the country.
UNLV's William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration was named after a donor who was one of the country's most successful casino operators. The college trains people to manage hotels, restaurants and convention centers offering undergraduate degrees as well as graduate degrees, including a master of science in leisure studies, and a Ph.D. in hospitality administration.
Hospitality administration is fairly self-explanatory, but leisure studies is a relatively new academic field which trains students to become managers of health clubs, YMCAs and park and recreation programs. The curriculum for golf club management was approved recently by the Professional Golf Association, thus making it easier for UNLV graduates to qualify as PGA members.
The International Gaming Institute, which is also part of the Harrah College, conducts research, including salary surveys for hotels and casinos, and offers seminars on a host of topics, ranging from the mathematics of slot machines to problem gambling. Within the institute, a new top-of-the-line casino laboratory attracts gaming regulators from around the world who want to be trained on "state-of-the art" computer surveillance systems, according to Stuart H. Mann, dean of the hotel college.
Rather than try to recruit well-known full professors from other universities, UNLV has hired promising young teachers and researchers who may one day be well-known experts in their fields. It is a gamble, of course, but then so is most everything in Las Vegas.
|Student body president Monica Moradkhan "had the grades to have gone anywhere," but is "thrilled" to be at UNLV.
"Las Vegas is simply not everyone's cup of tea," admitted Richard Morgan, the law school dean. "Beyond the glitz and glitter, the skin and bright lights, it's actually pretty nice. Housing is relatively inexpensive, certainly less than on either coast. There are five-star restaurants and world-class entertainment."
With so much focus on faculty and research, it is easy to forget there are also students at UNLV. While few of them are aware of all the details of what is happening to their university, many are caught up in the excitement of the changes.
"UNLV was once known as a place where every stripper has a right to a decent education," said Eric Ball, editor of the student newspaper Rebel Yell. When Ball announced he would be attending UNLV, a friend mocked it as "the world's largest commuter college." While there may still be some truth to both of those characterizations, Ball sees a wide range of students attending UNLV for a host of reasons.
Monica M. Moradkhan, UNLV's student body president, said she "had the grades to have gone anywhere...I came here. I'm thrilled I did."
The university's new entrepreneurial way of doing business seems to have rubbed off on Moradkhan. As student president, she has learned to manage a budget of $1.2 million and a staff of 100 people. When she finishes her education, she plans to start her own business, a specialty design company aimed at what she sees as an unfilled niche in Las Vegas' hospitality industry. "I plan to specialize in balloon decorations, providing them for conventions and hotels. I'll do that after I go to graduate school and get my doctorate."
UNLV hopes to draw more highly qualified students with a new Millennium Scholarship program, which is supported with funds from Nevada's share of a nationwide settlement from the tobacco industry. The scholarship program will provide support to students based on academic merit rather than financial need.
In many ways, UNLV students don't seem all that different from students in any large public university. They go to football games. They drink beer. They belong to fraternities and sororities. They throw parties. They go to concerts. By virtue of living in Las Vegas, they also have unusual cultural opportunities. For example, last fall The GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) club hosted a free music and dance performance by some of Las Vegas' leading drag queens, among them Sasha Scarlett, who owns his own club near the UNLV campus. But many UNLV students don't take advantage of any activities on campus.
|UNLV's International Gaming Institute trains gambling regulators from around the world in surveillance techniques.
"The average age of a UNLV student is 26," Ball said. "The majority work, many are married and have children." With so many heavy demands on their time, few attend classes full-time, let alone participate in extra-curricular activities.
Unfortunately many UNLV students leave without graduating. Some succumb to outside pressures; others are lured away by high-paying, although dead-end, entry-level jobs in Las Vegas. The six-year graduation rate is a relatively low 37.3 percent.
High dropout rates may also result from the university's admissions policies. The only requirement is a 2.5 high school grade point average, or a minimum composite score of 21 on the ACT or a combined score of 990 on the SAT.
Plans are now under discussion to raise the minimum GPA to 3.0, and also to put a cap on enrollment, which would not only raise the caliber of the student body but would also help the university to deal with a state budget that is not keeping pace with enrollment.
Critics oppose boosting the minimum GPA on the grounds that it will hurt minority students. The dispute turned nasty last year when a student writing in the Rebel Yell called a member of the Board of Regents who opposed the new standard "an idiot." The regent in question-a woman and the board's only African American member-responded by demanding to see the student's record, without his permission.
That, in turn, brought on the wrath of another regent-a white male-who appeared on a popular morning talk show last fall, called his colleague "an orangutan" and urged her to resign. At a regents meeting last December, the two apologized, but were back at it within days.
|Student newspaper editor Eric Ball says UNLV is no longer "where every stripper has a right to a college education."
It is not the first time UNLV has had its dirty laundry aired in the media. "Many colleges and universities can't get their name in the paper. We can't seem to keep ours out," President Harter lamented.
While personnel disputes have been a favorite of the local press, most recently the media have turned their attention to a disgruntled donor who announced that he intends to stop giving money to UNLV, because he does not like the president's "attitude." Stan Fulton, former chairman of Anchor Gaming, has given UNLV $10 million-$7 million of which went to a new building for the International Gaming Institute.
Harter said Fulton was "unreasonably impatient...with how long it took to get permits...and to cut down trees" in front of the building that bears his name. In a letter to the Board of Regents, Fulton claimed that because of Harter's leadership, "many Las Vegas donors wanted to disassociate themselves form the university." However, donations have not dropped off, according to university records, and executives of casinos, banks and development corporations have praised Harter's leadership in letters to the Board of Regents.
A decade ago, UNLV's media exposure focused on basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, who put UNLV on the basketball map by recruiting talented players with questionable academic skills from ghettos around the country. Few graduated, and some ran afoul of the law. Then UNLV President Robert Maxson ordered Tarkanian to clean up the mess. An epic struggle resulted in both men being forced to resign. (Oddly enough, both resurfaced in the California State University system, Maxson as president of Cal State Long Beach and Tarkanian, who is now retired, as basketball coach at Cal State Fresno.)
UNLV's graduation rate for athletes continues to remain well below the national average. The university had claimed to be doing a better job in getting student-athletes through college, but a NCAA study of the performance of the incoming class of 1995-96 found that six years later UNLV had not managed to graduate a single male basketball player. UNLV shared that distinction with seven other Division I institutions. Of all freshman athletes who entered college in the 1995-96 school year, UNLV graduated 30 percent within six years, compared to 60 percent nationwide, according to the study, which was based on data from the U.S. Department of Education.
Especially irksome to UNLV administrators is the fact that its graduation rates for student athletes also lag behind its rival, the University of Nevada, Reno. When it comes to the student body as a whole, the gap between the two institutions is even greater. Reno graduated nearly half of its students who entered college from 1992 through 1996, while UNLV graduated only about a third.
Competition with Reno has always been a thorny issue for UNLV. The Las Vegas campus complains that Reno gets more funding from the state-some say about $8,000 per full-time-equivalent student at Reno compared to $6,000 at UNLV. Some of the discrepancy is a result of Reno being 134 years old and having older buildings with higher maintenance costs. In part because of its age, Reno also has more senior faculty who earn top salaries. Yet some of the difference, as more than one UNLV administrator put it not so delicately, is "purely political." Reno may get more money simply because it has more clout with state legislators.
UNLV has other competition as well. The nearby Community College of Southern Nevada and the newly opened Nevada State College of Henderson, which is only 13 miles from downtown Las Vegas, compete not only for the same tax dollars but also for the same donors and, in some cases, the same students. Insisting she is not worried, UNLV's Harter once again would like to turn a difficult situation to UNLV's advantage. If the new state college takes over more of the vocational end of education, Harter reasons, UNLV can comfortably raise admissions standards and continue to expand research programs.
When she talks about UNLV's prospects for the future, Harter is fond of paraphrasing Pogo. What UNLV faces, she says, are "insurmountable opportunities."