Numerology insists that the number 711 is as lucky as luck can get. Carol C. Harter was UNLV's seventh president. Her tenure lasted 11 years.
Do the math and you realize: Numerology nailed it. The president emerita was lucky for UNLV.
Leaving a Lasting Legacy
“In my very first speech I made to the faculty, I said, ‘We need to be the kind of major urban university that UCLA, or the other great institutions are — because we can do that,’” recalls Harter, who guided UNLV’s impressive growth during her 1995-2006 presidency.
That was an ambition the longest-serving UNLV president pursued aggressively, with impressive results. To thumbnail her list of accomplishments – not an easy task – consider just a partial legacy list:
- Overseeing unprecedented growth, with the construction of 17 new buildings, including the Lied Library.
- Creating 100-plus new degree programs – most notably those conferred by the School of Dental Medicine and the William S. Boyd School of Law, championing the creation of both.
- Putting the university on the path toward a Carnegie-designated R1 research institution, a feat it would accomplish in 2018
- Making UNLV more student-centered and responsive to students’ needs.
- Spearheading funding to create the Greenspun College of Public Affairs.
- Spurring the Invent the Future campaign, at the time the most ambitious fundraising program in UNLV history.
- Cofounding the international literary center, Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute, which she continued to lead after departing the presidency.
- Oh, and she also made history as the university’s first female president, a milestone she built upon by promoting gender equality on campus and in the community, supporting the creation of the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada.
“Just keep going — that’s my number one piece of advice,” Harter says she tells young women hoping to carve out academic administration careers similar to hers. “You know who you are, you’re in a position where your education is likely to be at a high level, there’s nothing you can’t do. And don’t let anybody stop you or say, ‘That’s not your job.’”
As she rose in her career, Harter often found herself the only woman in a room of executives. “You may feel uncomfortable,” she says, “But, it’s not a barrier.”
A Love of Literature Blooms
No barriers deterred Harter, whose journey to the heights of academia began humbly in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she was born on June 1, 1941.
“We were not rich at all, we lived modestly in a little house,” she says, fondly recalling the pleasures of a New York upbringing and a working-class life. “We would go to Jones Beach regularly, where I worked as a clerk, a cashier, and a lifeguard.”
Harter’s dad was a businessman who had earned a degree in finance from New York University, attending at night over many years.
“He hoped I would be interested in the business world one way or the other, which in a way you are when you're a president of a university,” she says. “You're running a major operation, it's a business life as well as an academic one. So, he was very proud of what I did.”
Her mom, a typical homemaker of the period, took pleasure in her daughter’s penchant for reading and creativity.
“She was just a darling thing,” Harter says of her mother. “She was very supportive all the way and loved the artistic side of me and the literary side.”
That literary side was apparent early on. First came a classic of young female readership: The Nancy Drew mysteries.
“I read every single one of them, one end to the other,” says Harter, who later happily lost herself to serious literature via a collection purchased by her mom. “It was beautifully bound in gold and brown and green leather. I read Great Expectations and The Count of Monte Cristo and just many of the classic books that she had collected. I realized when I got to college that I had read many classics, that I had been educating myself.”
Inspired by a high school teacher, Harter excelled in honors English classes, but also nursed an interest in chemistry, which might have forged her life’s path — had she not been discouraged.
“When I went to what then was Harpur College (now Binghamton University) and tried to enroll as a chemistry major, the dean of students, who was a woman, said, ‘You can't do that, women don't do chemistry, you have to do something else.’
“She shouldn’t have discouraged me like that, she should have encouraged me, but I took her advice and enrolled as a literature major.”
Still, Harter saw literature as more of an avocation than the launching pad for her eventual career until a faculty member urged her toward graduate studies, eventually earning her bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D in English and American literature.
Along her collegiate journey, she also met Mike — her husband of 61 years and counting — over a ping pong table in a campus rec room.
“I was dating a guy who liked to play, and I would beat him. And Mike was in that rec room watching and he said he wanted to play with me. And of course, he beat me,” she recalls.
It was love at first serve, more or less. And who wouldn’t trade a table tennis loss for a lifelong love? “That’s for sure,” she says. They married when she was 19.
The Road to Academia
Academia as a career commenced for Harter when she served as dean of students and vice president for administration at Ohio University, a move she chalks up to serendipity.
While she was working as a faculty member and a campus ombudsperson, the new president sought her out to inquire about student and faculty grievances. After impressing him with her savviness and her ability to work effectively with students and professors, she rose in the administrative ranks.
Next came a position as the president of SUNY Geneseo. But after six years, job limitations caused her eyes to wander toward other opportunities.
“I felt a little trapped in it,” she says, noting that the system’s chancellor at the time didn’t make distinctions among the state’s institutions when budgets were handed out. “Being really good didn't have any effect on how much money you got in the budget. Feeling constrained, there wasn't really anything more I could do for the place without more money. We just started looking at what kind of place is likely to be a place where we can use some creativity.”
Enter a city on the other side of the country, one known for constant reinvention.
“It's weird when you're at Geneseo as the president, a little upstate New York liberal arts school and you wind up in a major city that's just growing a major university. I tell you, that is a big move,” Harter says. “I've been here 25 years and people still ask me, ‘How the heck did Carol Harter wind up in Las Vegas?’”
Here’s how the heck she did:
“Las Vegas was growing like crazy and the institution was very young and was in competition with Reno to get started. It just made it real attractive to me. It was just an aspirational kind of feeling that we could make something great out of UNLV. And I think it's happened. It's an attractive place for faculty and students, I think.”
Not that her entrance into the campus community was easy. She had to get past resistance all-too-common to anyone breaking through a glass ceiling. Such issues would follow her throughout her tenure, but Harter was determined to let her record prove them wrong.
“Several of the exact people who resisted terribly at the beginning became good friends and supporters, who end up saying, ‘This person is pretty good.’ It helps a lot to strengthen the institution and the presidency.”
Of all her storied accomplishments, she cites several that stand out, including UNLV’s status as an RI research institution.
“At that time (when she was named president), we were barely research two, I think we might have even been research three,” she says. “It is research one now, which is great, a great accomplishment.”
Also on the pride list: The launching of professional schools for law, dentistry, and architecture, as well as laying the groundwork for the eventual opening of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine.
“It took three years before I could persuade the (NSHE) Board of Regents and the chancellor, that the law school was something we should do,” she says.
It is still the only law school in the state.
“The architecture program was there as a small program. We made it into a major school with its own faculty and its own facilities. And, we launched 50 graduate programs in my years there as president.”
Such a fruitful career couldn’t end with her presidency – and didn’t. After leaving the administration, Harter, along with English professor Richard Wiley, cofounded the Black Mountain Institute, headquartered at UNLV, to promote literacy around the globe.
“When I knew I was leaving the presidency, I thought I could do it then. So did (Southern Nevada business titan) Glenn Schaeffer, who had been a real supporter of literary activity at UNLV,” Harter says. “We felt there was no school in Nevada that really had a literary center that could be a shining light. He came to me and said, ‘I will invest in it, if you can get something started that we can work on.’”
And that brought Carol Harter back to the young girl from Brooklyn who was first entranced by Nancy Drew mysteries. The passion has not dimmed, even as she relaxes at her and her husband’s San Diego summer retreat, overlooking the sailboats gliding over Mission Bay.
“I’m in a book club,” she says. “It’s always a novel of one kind or another I read every day, and my husband does too, so we’re readers together. I’m the same ol’ person.”
Carol Harter makes Las Vegas – and Brooklyn – justifiably proud.