Just how vast and significant were Carol Harter’s accomplishments as UNLV’s seventh president? The fact she made history as the first female in the role is more or less a footnote considering what came along the way to her becoming UNLV's longest-serving president.
After leaving the State University of New York at Geneseo, Harter arrived on Maryland Parkway in July 1995 and immediately made an impact. One of the most ambitious items near the top of her to-do list: create the first accredited law school in Nevada history. It took long hours of hard work and lobbying, but eventually she gained the support of both the state Legislature and several key community players, and in 1998, UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law welcomed its charter class.
Along with the law school, Harter was at the helm for the creation of the School of Dental Medicine, the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs, the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada, the School of Architecture and the Lied Library. Under Harter’s watch, UNLV launched 100 new degree programs, including 60 graduate programs.
Among other impressive achievements, Harter overaw UNLV’s transformation into a student-centered university with a renewed commitment to serving the needs of all students in an urban atmosphere; she advocated for top-quality research and education for students; she helped enhance UNLV’s reputation as a trusted community partner; she launched three new women’s sports programs; and she spearheaded the “Invent the Future” campaign, the university’s comprehensive 50th anniversary initiative that launched in 2002 and continued through 2008.
During Harter’s 11-year leadership run, UNLV’s student body nearly doubled, including significant increases in women and minority enrollments. She also emphasized the recruitment and hiring of highly qualified faculty and witnessed the construction or renovation of more than 20 buildings. Most significantly, she led the charge to increase UNLV’s academic profile so that it would one day qualify as a Top Tier institution. Just last December, the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education designated UNLV as R1, a “very high research activity” institution.
Harter stepped down as president in 2006 and went on to serve as the founder and first executive director of UNLV’s newly created Black Mountain Institute, a literary center that took her back to her roots as an English professor. The BMI eventually was renamed the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute. Her name is also on the Carol C. Harter Classroom Building Complex, where most of UNLV’s general education courses are taught.
During her decades in academia, Harter shattered many a glass ceiling. In fact, she was the first female in each of the six administrative positions she held at three universities, including serving as president at two of them.
Now living in San Diego with her husband, Michael, Harter remains connected to UNLV through philanthropic efforts. The couple also supports several Nevada-based entities, including Black Mountain, UNLV athletics, Touro University’s Autism Center, and the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.
Of all your many accomplishments during your 11-year term as UNLV president, which one stands out as the most substantial?
It’s hard to press just one button. Certainly, getting approval for the law school, which took so long and was so difficult for so many different and competing reasons, was a major moment. But so was the creation of the dental school and the architecture school, as well as all the buildings for which we were able to secure construction funding. All those things were important.
But as I look back right now, what might have been the most important moment was actually existential in a way: In 1995-96, my first year, we created a planning council consisting of faculty, staff, and student representatives. Our mission was to establish goals that were few, but persuasive, and we came up with 10 major ones. The first had to do with improving undergraduate education, but the second was to steadily increase the university’s profile so that it would be recognized as a top-level research institution — first at the Tier 2 level and eventually getting to Tier 1 by 2010.
At the time, 15 years didn’t seem like too short or too long of a time period to accomplish it. Now it took us until 2018 to finally do it, but that was a goal that started to be articulated by our planning council as far back in 1995 — they knew how important that was to a university’s reputation. And to finally achieve it, even if we didn’t hit our initial target date, was a major milestone. So in a longitudinal way, it wasn’t a particular moment in time. Rather, it was part of an important planning process by representatives of the entire university who were looking toward the future and knowing that UNLV should be a major, major institution. And achieving Tier 1 status, becoming a high-level research institution, was a big part of that.
So in the long-term, that was probably the most important thing. But in the short-term, those exciting moments when you create a college and the regents and state Legislature approve it, and when you raise the first major donor gifts, each of those was fun and significant, too.
What’s the one thing you did as UNLV president that kind of went under the radar, yet brought you great pride?
We added three women’s sports programs, which most people either don’t remember or don’t acknowledge — I don’t know which. But that was a delight, because when I got to UNLV, athletics was really out of balance — the university really needed more women’s sports. Of course, it meant coming up with more budget and rearranging some of the budget in men’s sports to make it happen, but really, to meet the provisions of Title IX, it was something that had to be done. I didn’t only do it for that reason, but it clearly was incumbent upon us to change from the culture we had previously to bolster women’s sports.
Does the fact that you were UNLV’s first female president mean anything to you?
Oh, yes — in every way. It was very tough going, actually, because many people really resisted a president who was female. A lot of that had to do with athletics — they were so afraid I wouldn’t understand what to do about athletics, which was important to the community, because I arrived right after the Jerry Tarkanian era. Never mind that, as president of a Division III university, I had served on the NCAA board. Many just thought, “Oh, well, Division III presidents don’t know anything about Division I.” But I did. My two sons grew up playing three sports each, and my husband was an athlete, so I had a great deal of experience, which some folks just totally didn’t recognize. So that was an obstacle I had not anticipated.
So, yes, being UNLV’s first female president, as well as being the first female in five other university leadership positions in my career, has always been meaningful. Because it’s always been tough to break through the kinds of biases that have existed for a long time for women in higher education. Thankfully, those biases are starting to disappear, as today many women are in major leadership roles in higher education, including current UNLV acting president Marta Meana. It’s very exciting to see.
Near the end of your tenure as UNLV president, you founded the Black Mountain Institute. What’s it like to see it thriving more than a decade later?
Thanks to the incredible philanthropy of Glenn Schaeffer and critical support from Richard Wiley, Gerry Bomotti, and Chris Hudgins, we created a literary center in the middle of what some people called a cultural desert, although it never was that. When it was approved by the regents, I was overjoyed and began the first of nine years building something that has become very special to UNLV and Las Vegas. When the late Jim Rogers first pledged $10 million to the center, then bequeathed another $20 million when he died, I knew the institute would thrive into the future, which it certainly has done with the incredible support of Beverly Rogers, a literary person and philanthropist in her own right. Serving as the institute’s first executive director allowed me to return to my own academic roots and was a most satisfying way to spend the last years of an incredibly rewarding career.
What’s your message to UNLV students of today and tomorrow?
One of the things I really appreciated about UNLV, and I hope it’s still the case, is that our students — many of whom were first-generation, including an increasing number of minority students — really felt that they could do anything that they chose to do at UNLV. They could be student-body president, editor of the student newspaper, what have you, if they worked hard enough to acquire those positions. In other words, UNLV doesn’t have a built-in hierarchy.
That is an enormously important thing for students, because it means there’s no limit to what they can accomplish, as long as they work hard. And that’s not the case everywhere. Many other universities have these hierarchical systems that students have to come through in order to be successful. Like the notion that the only way to get to Wall Street is to have an MBA from Harvard. Well, I think our students can go to Wall Street if that’s something they want to do.