A History of UNLV's College of Liberal Arts

By Eugene Moehring, Professor of History

Author of The University of Nevada, Las Vegas: A History (Reno: The University of Nevada Press, 2007)


The roots of today's College of Liberal Arts lie in the 1960s when enrollment grew large enough for regents to allow Nevada Southern to grant degrees and become a semi-autonomous university. In 1965, the newly-created NSU started departments and placed them within "divisions" and later in "schools" such as Business, Humanities, and Science. Then in 1968, when Nevada Southern became completely independent of the Reno campus, President Donald Moyer authorized the formation of colleges. At that time, the administration and faculty deemed it necessary to create a large number of colleges relative to Nevada Southern's size and student population. These included the colleges of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Fine Arts.

Within a year, however, it was obvious that if UNLV (Nevada Southern became UNLV in 1969) ever developed into a large university it would have an inordinate number of colleges, so incoming President Roman Zorn appointed a committee of faculty, administrators, and students to merge the various colleges into a few larger units. Zorn, a historian, worked with History department head Paul Burns, a John Wright protégé, who chaired the committee.

Creation of the College of Arts and Letters

In one of its recommendations, the committee suggested merging the colleges of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences into one large College of Arts and Letters. According to contemporaries, Zorn supported the move for a number of reasons. First, he believed there was too much bureaucratic inefficiency with three colleges. He also felt that input was too fragmented, and that at least two of the deans were not aggressive enough in seeking the resources necessary to develop their academic disciplines. Finally, Zorn was convinced that decentralization created too many small fiefdoms and encouraged petty competition, but that centralization would permit the larger college to acquire more new faculty positions faster.

The president felt this would speed the process of replacing "deadwood" faculty with more productive scholars whose research would improve UNLV's academic reputation. Zorn and his academic vice president Donald Baepler actually preferred to have a College of Arts and Sciences. But, according to Baepler (himself a biologist) and longtime biology professor James Deacon, the science faculty steadfastly objected. They preferred to have their own separate college, because they were convinced it would help them in fundraising and other research initiatives. Ultimately, they had their way.

The First Dean: 1973-1975

The College of Arts and Letters began in 1971 with historian Robert Davenport serving as "Acting Dean" for two years while a faculty committee searched for a permanent replacement. Dr. Wilber Stevens, with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington and the current president of financially-strapped Prescott College in Arizona, became the college's first dean and served from 1973 to 1975.

Coursework and Departments

At the time of its founding, the college consisted of eleven departments. These included Art (chaired by Erik Gronberg), Music (Howard Chase), Speech and Theatre Arts (Stephen Nielsen), English (Arlen Collier), which also housed the "programs" of Comparative Literature and Journalism, World Languages and Cultures (John Lindberg), and Philosophy (Janet Travis). Anthropology-Sociology (chaired by archaeologist Claude Warren) comprised one department in 1971. It also hosted several programs, including Ethnic Studies (earlier called Black studies), a UNLV response to the turbulent 1960s when students demanded more classes in minority history, and "Law Enforcement" which later evolved into the Department of Criminal Justice. History (Paul Burns), Political Science (Andrew Tuttle), Psychology (Thomas Logan), and the Department of "Social (Helping) Services" (renamed the Department of Social Services a year later and chaired by Harriet Sheldon) rounded out the group.

Interdisciplinary Programs

From its earliest days, the College of Arts and Letters also offered coursework in such "Interdisciplinary Programs" as Comparative Literature, Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. Beginning in 1974, the college established an American Studies program, run by future graduate dean and Mark Twain specialist, Joseph McCullough (English).

By 1976, Arts and Letters students could not only obtain a baccalaureate in American Studies, but also in Comparative Literature, Film, and "Foreign Languages and Literatures." In the early 1980s, the college added Women's Studies as a program — a full decade after Ethnic Studies appeared — with sociologist Lynn Osborne as director. Embracing a contemporary trend, the college inserted "Studies" into all these program titles, so Film became Film Studies, and Social Sciences became Social Science Studies.

New Department

New departments also appeared in the 1970s. The Communication Studies Department (an outgrowth of the old Journalism program in English) began in 1975. Three years later, the Department of Social work split off from Sociology, which itself had split off from Anthropology in 1973. In addition, Public Administration, which had begun as a series of courses in Political Science, left in 1978 and became a separate department (temporarily chaired by Dina Titus who recruited the permanent chair, Steven Parker). Then in 1982, Criminal Justice enrollment grew large enough for that discipline to leave Sociology and form its own department. So, by 1985 Arts and Letters was a much larger college than it had been at its inception, boasting fifteen departments.

Deans: 1975 - 1983

Presiding over this growth were a number of capable deans. Marvin Loflin, an anthropologist specializing in linguistics, came from the University of Alaska to replace Wilber Stevens in 1975. The change occurred after some key faculty, convinced that the college needed stronger leadership, successfully pressed the administration for a new dean. Loflin was not particularly popular with the faculty and stayed only a few years before heading back to the University of Alaska System. But during his tenure he fought tenaciously for new positions and emphasized the recruitment of the best young scholars available.

Loflin's associate dean, English professor John Unrue headed the college temporarily in 1978 before getting the permanent job a year later. Unrue and sociologist Ron Smith (who served briefly as associate dean), emphasized the importance of process for personnel, budgetary, curricular, and other administrative matters that made working with the college easier for chairs and departments.

As a specialist in English literature, Unrue recognized the importance of language in the education of liberal arts majors and therefore urged faculty to approve a foreign language requirement for the college's majors. But in a college vote, faculty, led by the social scientists who were concerned about enrollment losses, rejected the measure.

Perhaps Unrue's greatest contribution was establishing closer ties with the faculty after two years of Marvin Loflin's somewhat autocratic approach. Unrue was accessible, flexible, and more open to discussion than his predecessor. In 1983, Unrue left to replace embattled Provost Dale Nitzschke, whose conflicts with President Leonard Goodall over the new university code and other matters led him to apply for and get the presidency of Marshall University in West Virginia. A year later, new UNLV president Robert Maxson appointed Unrue to be permanent provost.

Deans: 1983 - 1989

Replacing Unrue as dean in 1983 was Latin American historian Thomas Wright. Wright, a Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley, was a son of pioneer History professor John Wright who had come to Nevada Southern in 1956. The younger Wright was a dynamic leader who, along with his associate deans, historian Joseph "Andy" Fry (1986-88) and his successor political scientist Michael Bowers, championed a variety of important initiatives that benefited the college.

Wright's accomplishments were legion during his six years as dean. In addition to establishing the University Forum Lecture Series (which Steve Parker directed for more than two decades) and the University Forum Scholarship, Wright also created the Center for Advanced research (CFAR) to provide funding and course reassignments to support more faculty research. He also formed the College Advisory Council to attract more community interest in and private donations to the college.

Wright also used his experience traveling and teaching in Latin America to set up UNLV's first Study Abroad program in San Miguel, Mexico, and was instrumental in getting UNLV into the University Studies Abroad Consortium, which remains the school's study abroad agency. Like several of the deans before and after him, Wright strengthened tenure and promotion standards. Specifically, he instituted mandatory third-year review of faculty (a practice pioneered by the History department in the mid-1970s) and required outside letters of recommendation for promotion to full professor. Like his predecessor, Wright tried and failed to establish a foreign language requirement but had greater success convincing the Maxson Administration to declare 1986 "The Year of the Arts." This ongoing event showcased the college by raising public awareness of the arts at UNLV through special exhibitions, concerts, and lectures that boosted fund-raising efforts.

Thanks to Wright's prodding, a variety of initiatives were funded, most notably President Maxson's authorization of $200,000 in spending to double the size of the Fine Arts Gallery in Alta Ham hall, Finally, as the Maxson Administration pushed to increase the number of doctoral degrees awarded by UNLV, the dean responded by securing Ph.D. programs in English and Sociology, the first in the college's history.

Wright resigned as dean in 1989, forsaking a bright future in administration, to resume his career in history. Historian Paul Burns replaced Wright that spring and presided over the college when the Maxson Administration decided to break up the College of Arts and Letters by allowing the fine arts departments (Art, Music, Dance, and Theatre Arts) to form a new College of Fine and Performing Arts.

Maxson, Unrue, and many of the fine arts faculty were convinced that autonomy, a new identity, and a separate fund-raising arm would allow these departments, programs, and faculties to develop more quickly. But everyone in the remaining departments recognized the political consequences of downsizing Arts and Letters into a College of Liberal Arts.

Creation of the College of Liberal Arts

When the College of Liberal Arts began operations on January 1, 1990, Paul Burns merely changed hats until a permanent head of Liberal Arts arrived in July. But the downsizing process hardly ended with the departure of Fine Arts. Burns and his successors could only watch as the departments of Criminal Justice, Social Work, Public Administration, and Communication Studies all departed in the 1990s. Even the new Department of Film Studies left as UNLV created more schools and colleges in the 1990s.

Deans: 1990 - 1997

The first permanent dean of Liberal Arts was James Malek who presided over the college for four years. Malek, a University of Chicago Ph.D., served as chair of the English department at DePaul University before coming to UNLV. In a series of personnel decisions, Malek strengthened the standards for tenure and promotion.

During his time, the college hired many promising young scholars, including historian Hal Rothman who was later named a Distinguished Professor. Malek's commitment to excellence led him to secure a Ph.D. program in History. In addition, Malek tried but failed to convince Liberal Arts faculty to adopt a multicultural requirement for the college's majors. He succeeded, however, in obtaining degree-granting status for Women's Studies, which remained a program until it became a department in 2001.

In 1994, Malek resigned to become the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and a year later at Florida Atlantic. Several years after that, he was appointed provost of Ithaca College before moving on to the same position at Rollins College in Florida. Following Malek's resignation, Film Studies professor Hart Wegner served as interim dean until Guy Bailey's arrival in 1995.

Bailey, with a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, came to UNLV from Memphis State where he chaired the English department. He was also a strong leader who emphasized more rigorous promotion and tenure standards. Among his accomplishments were starting the foreign language laboratory and the Cannon Survey Center. Bailey also established the Wilson Advising Center.

The center's origins lay in the frustration that Earl and Hazel Wilson Estate trustee Jay Brown encountered when his daughter, a Liberal Arts major, struggled to get sound academic advising. Brown contacted Lea Sexton, who at the time was an as advisor in the Athletics department, about possible creating an advising office in Liberal Arts. Once contacted, Bailey and his associate dean, Michael Bowers (who served six deans in that capacity from 1988-99), immediately met with Brown and later with Mel Wolzinger, the other Wilson trustee.

Recognizing the costs involved with maintaining such an operation, Bailey then lobbied the Harter Administration for more permanent funding. Provost Douglas Ferraro promised the dean that if he could secure enough start-up money from the Wilson Estate, UNLV would make the center a permanent operation in the next biennial budget. Bailey successfully closed the deal, and the Wilson Advising Center began operations in January 1997 with Lea Sexton as the founding director.

Bailey only stayed two years at UNLV before accepting the position of graduate dean at the University of Texas, San Antonio where he later became provost. Then in January 2006, Bailey left the Lone Star State to become chancellor of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, making him the only former dean to become, in effect, a university president.

Deans: 1997 - 2005

Following Bailey's departure, Provost Ferraro tapped sociology chair, James Frey, to be the college's interim head. A year later, he became the permanent dean. Frey, with a doctorate from Washington State and more than twenty years of experience at UNLV, served nearly seven years in his new position, making him the longest-serving dean in the college's history and giving him the time to undertake a variety of initiatives.

In terms of new programs, Frey secured doctoral degree programs in Anthropology, Clinical Psychology, and Experimental Psychology, as well as a baccalaureate degree in Forensic Science, a major in "Spanish for the Professions" within the World Languages and Cultures department, and a graduate certificate in Women's studies. In addition, Frey championed the transformation of women's studies from a degree-granting program to a formal department within the college.

In this same vein, he worked with historian Joanne Goodwin to establish the Women's Research Institute (WRIN), which eventually helped to promote another Frey goal: attracting more grant money to the college.

On other fronts, Frey hired the first woman (Deborah Arteaga) and African American (Rainier Spencer) as associate deans of the college. He also instituted a New Faculty Mentoring program in which veteran faculty mentored new hires to ease their transition to UNLV.

The dean also created a Peer Counseling Program (chaired by Steve Parker) that identified the college's excellent instructors who, in a series of presentations, shared their insights about teaching with colleagues seeking to polish their classroom skills. Besides improving instruction, Frey also moved to attract more majors to the college.

Recognizing that many UNLV students majored in the college of Business, Hotel Administration, and Education because they were convinced that those degrees were more likely to get them a good job, Frey sponsored an annual "Job Fair for Liberal Arts Majors" in which students received job hunting advice from a panel of speakers representing firms known for recruiting Liberal Arts graduates.

The dean also expended considerable effort in trying to raise private funds for the college. In 1998, he resurrected an old Tom Wright strategy by creating a Community Advisory Board (chaired by Charles Cleveland) and an Alumni Board (chaired by Christina Hinds). With the assistance of his development officer, Cynthia Baca, Frey reached out to the Boyer Foundation and got two years of funding for the University Forum Lecture Series.

The college also sponsored its first-ever golf tournament which raised about $12,000. In addition, he traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby Nevada's congressional delegation to gain support for college projects that might be eligible for receiving earmarked funds. The most significant outcome from this effort was obtaining over $1 million in federal funds for the Test Site Oral History Project.

Frey also oversaw the renovation and reconstruction of John S. Wright hall by serving on the building committee. In this capacity, he met regularly with planners and architects to ensure that department chairs had significant input in a process that spanned his entire time as dean.

In 2005, faculty members greeted the building's re-opening with generally favorable reviews. But the dean also experienced a number of frustrations. Among them was his abortive effort in 2001 to encourage more research and publication by reducing the teaching load for Liberal Arts faculty to 2-2—a move criticized in the local press. Eventually, the mounting pressures of being dean for seven years took their toll, and in Fall 2004, Frey decided to retire in June of the following year.

Deans: 2005 - Present

Following his announcement, the search for a successor began almost immediately. In July 2004, Edward Shoben, a Stanford Ph.D. and former chair of the Psychology department at the University of Illinois (from 1995-2003), left that institution to head UNLV's College of Liberal Arts.

With his new associate dean, historian Andrew Bell, Shoben undertook a series of initiatives over the next three years to enhance the quality of the college. Improving the quality of the faculty was a major objective. Shoben insisted that departments hire only the strongest candidates, trained at America's best institutions, with excellent records of publication/creative activity and ambitious agendas. Most notably, his efforts resulted in the recruitment of an endowed full professor emeritus of political science from the University of Maryland as well as an assistant professor and a postdoctoral fellow from Harvard's Psychology department.

In his effort to improve scholarship overall, Shoben encouraged faculty members to submit their works to the best venues possible by reforming the merit system to reward excellent work as well as the impact of past work upon the field. To this end, he lobbied UNLV's administration to expand the pool of merit money available to a college that traditionally received less of the distribution than many of its counterparts.

The same sense of purpose marked Shoben's effort to fulfill the college's mission in the area of teaching. One of his goals was to create a more diverse faculty. Despite some early progress in several departments, this is an undertaking that cannot be accomplished overnight and will take several more years to fully realize.

The same will be true of his effort to reduce the number of part-time instructors and increase the contact time that students at all levels have with full-time faculty. Shoben's first notable success in this area was in History where he secured a number of new positions, including faculty-in-residence assistant professors, to dramatically reduce that department's reliance on part-time instructors in survey courses fulfilling general education requirements. He also proposed a system of incentives to encourage faculty to teach larger classes while giving others the option of teaching smaller classes.

In 2006, the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute was established. It originated with Glenn Schaeffer, the former Mandalay Resort Group president and CFO, who had attended the Iowa Writers Workshop. Former UNLV President Carol C. Harter, an English professor, became the first director. The institute now bears her name and that of its biggest financial and community supporter, Beverly Rogers. The City of Asylum program, which provides haven for writers under threat in other countries, became part of BMI.

Following a three-year stint as dean, Dr. Shoben left that position in May 2007. Dr. Chris Hudgins, longtime chair of the Department of English and an internationally prominent authority on the works of David Mamet and Harold Pinter, became dean. Hudgins continued building on the creative writing and MFA programs in the English department. He also strongly supported the Black Mountain Institute and became the longest-serving dean in the history of the College of Liberal Arts before retiring from UNLV in 2016.

In 2012, the colleges of Liberal Arts and Education teamed up to start The PRACTICE – the Partnership for Research, Assessment, Counseling, Therapy, and Innovative Clinical Education – a community mental health clinic.

In 2016, Chris Heavey, a psychology professor and vice provost, succeeded Hudgins as dean. During his tenure, the college added its first endowed chair – the Harry Reid Endowed Chair for the History of the Intermountain West – with Susan Lee Johnson, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, beginning the position in 2019. Heavey oversaw a college with 13 departments and centers, more than 170 faculty, and more than 3,700 students before returning to the provost’s office in 2018. He was succeeded by Executive Associate Dean Jennifer Keene.

An Integral Part in UNLV's Evolution

From its birth in 1971 into the 21st Century, the College of Liberal Arts has played an integral part in the evolution of UNLV from a small nondescript school on the edge of a budding city to an R1 university in the midst of America's fastest-growing metropolis. The College of Liberal Arts, through its students, faculty and staff, and administration, will continue to play a vital role in boosting the development and academic stature of UNLV.