Brilliant legacies stand on their own merits, but they do deserve to have their mantel of excellence picked up and carried forward.
And so they will with the newly established Robert E. Lang Memorial Fellowship – named for the late, much-admired and respected inaugural executive director of The Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West public policy centers.
Lang, considered a lion in the realm of public policy and whose leadership on economic development issues propelled Nevada forward to new heights of urban expansion, passed away in June 2021 at age 62.
“Rob had a huge impact on Southern Nevada, but before he even got to UNLV he had a long career back East,” says David Damore, the think tanks’ interim executive director and professor/chair of UNLV’s political science department.
“We wanted to figure out a way to honor his legacy and build on the seeds he had sown in Southern Nevada to create the next generation of public policy scholars and practitioners.”
Widely lauded for helping Las Vegas emerge from the Great Recession, the influential Lang also played a powerhouse role in multiple economic development initiatives, including advocating for the creation of UNLV’s medical school, the building of Allegiant Stadium, Interstate 11, and Project NEON. He also championed the potential for UNLV to achieve the coveted Carnegie R1 research status, a distinction the university received in 2018.
Enabled by ongoing fund-raising and donations to the UNLV Foundation, the Lang fellowship is set to begin in the fall of 2023, with applications to be accepted starting this December. They will be awarded to Ph.D. students completing dissertations in metropolitan public policy. Covering tuition, fees and full health insurance benefits, the award will also provide a monthly stipend for each semester of the fellowship.
“Dr. Lang was my mentor. I had known him for almost 15 years,” says Kelliann Beavers, a Lincy/Brookings research associate who also teaches intergovernmental relations at UNLV. Beavers had been a graduate research assistant under Lang and traces their friendship back to her days as a student at Virginia Tech.
“He was really committed to his teaching and creating something like this allows for the many people he taught over the years to carry forth the learning he imparted to them. This allows him to kind of continue teaching and giving in a way from beyond that I know would really matter a lot to him.”
Fellowship recipients will also be required to deliver a public lecture on their doctoral research at gatherings hosted by The Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West at UNLV.
“The lectures allow us bring the work of these budding scholars directly to the community, while at the same time furthering Rob’s legacy,” Damore says.
Bringing Public Policy to the Public Square
By countless accounts, Lang was a once-in-a-lifetime teacher and mentor, a friend, and the ultimate go-to source for Nevada public policy issues.
Several years after studying with Lang in Virginia, Beavers says that, at his suggestion, she transferred to UNLV. His influence loomed that large. “He was 100 percent the reason I came here. He was a magnificent teacher and one of the most brilliant people I have ever encountered, but also extraordinarily down to earth,” Beavers says.
“I always felt I was a friend of his – in addition to always wanting to rapidly take notes every time I spoke to him. If we were going to lunch, I was constantly being introduced to new and valuable information in an easeful, friendly way. He was an incredible part of my life.”
Personal interactions with Lang also linger in Damore’s memory. “We talked about everything under the sun,” Damore says. “Rob was an incredible mentor to me, he taught me how to use the tools of social science to effect change – that’s what he was all about. Academics is great, but if you’re just talking to each other, you’re not making a lasting impact. No one was better at going into the public square to make the case for Southern Nevada.”
In the classroom, Beavers recalls, Lang was expansive in his teaching methods, even sometimes recommending that students delve into popular culture – such as movies and documentaries -- to increase their understanding of public policy and urban development changes throughout history.
In one instance, Lang suggested that the Texas-reared Beavers watch the 1974 crime drama The Sugarland Express (director Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length theatrical film) to gain perspective on the area’s vastly transformed landscape.
“He didn’t just bring up that film to say, oh yeah, that’s about where you are from,” Beavers says. “It is also about people traversing a very specific path of land that is now very suburbanized. In the tale of the motion picture, it was very rural, the boonies, whereas it’s now one of the largest counties in Texas. It was neat how he would make places very real and give you the history.”
Documentaries on James Madison and the Constitution. Programs detailing the history of Las Vegas. Specials about The Gilded Age. Lang used them all to buoy his teaching. “He wanted us to have a deep connection to what came before the places he was teaching us about,” Beavers says.
“It was really powerful to ignite that kind of interest in your students, instead of, ‘This will be on the exam and you should study for it.’ It was his frankness and his boldness in articulating factual knowledge, but he was also a wonderful storyteller.”
Citing Lang’s “encyclopedic knowledge” not just of his field of specialty but social sciences en masse, Damore notes that Lang “was able to distill a lot of information into very easily understandable frameworks. That was his most impactful gift as an instructor.”
Beyond his classroom skills, Damore and Beavers say that Lang ‘s constant yearning not only for knowledge – but to use that knowledge to transform our state and our region – built his reputation and his legacy.
He was not only a workaholic but also a, well, thinkaholic. “No matter what we were talking about, he knew an example or events related to it. He had a hunger for knowledge and it didn’t matter where it came from,” Damore says. “You would get texts and emails from him in the middle of the night as he was going down some rabbit hole or another. It was building on his understanding of the world. He was never satisfied, always looking to learn more.”
Citing Lang’s pervasive influence on her personally – and likely on her future path for years to come -- Beavers gets a catch in her throat revealing a hint of emotion as she summarizes the impact of Robert Lang:
“I’m very, very grateful that he was present in my life.”