This article was written by David Damore, Jaewon Lim, Magdalena Martinez, Fatma Nasoz, and Caitlin Saladino of Brookings Mountain West and The Lincy Institute.
The next time you hear someone say that social science is irrelevant, tell them about Robert Lang. Before his passing in June, Lang was the inaugural Lincy Endowed Chair in Urban Affairs and executive director of The Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West.
Aside from being a brilliant scholar and gifted teacher, Rob was committed to using his skills to help UNLV and Las Vegas reach their potential. His work on Nevada’s post-recession and post-COVID-19 economic recoveries, UNLV’s push for Carnegie Mellon Univesity R1 status and land-grant recognition, the establishment of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV and the construction of its medical education building, the development of Allegiant Stadium, Apex, Interstate 11, Project Neon, and countless other initiatives transformed Southern Nevada in ways we have yet to fully appreciate.
While the Las Vegas community will be forever grateful for his immeasurable contributions to our region’s betterment, we were most fortunate to have Rob as a sponsor, supervisor, mentor, coauthor, colleague, and — above all else — friend. This also afforded us a front-row seat to observe how Rob used his social science to effect change.
A Rutgers-trained urban sociologist who specialized in regional studies, Rob was a practitioner of applied public policy. He used theories, methods, and data to frame Las Vegas’ policy challenges and opportunities.
Armed with an endless reservoir of examples, Rob would step into the public square to artfully translate social science research for a broader audience to rhetorically topple the status quo and bring attention to pressing policy issues. For instance, it was Rob who identified the lack of federal funding directed to Southern Nevada, and it was Rob who traced Las Vegas’ health care deficits to the fact that it was the largest metro in the country without an allopathic medical school.
Underlying Rob’s labors was a deep-seated understanding that Las Vegas’ most meaningful connections are not with Reno or Elko, but with its “Southwest Triangle” neighbors Phoenix and Southern California. Rob’s vision of broader, functional integration among proximate metros formed the basis of the megapolitan cluster concept that he and his co-author Arthur C. Nelson developed in their seminal book, Megapolitan America (2011).
Before he came to Nevada, Rob saw the potential for the Southwest Triangle as a sustainable and resilient megapolitan cluster co-evolving into the next stage of economic development. His efforts to bring Interstate 11 linking Las Vegas and Phoenix to fruition is the most obvious manifestation of this perspective.
Rob also knew that rhetoric that did not lead to action was of little value and that creating change required building networks to overcome Southern Nevada’s economic, social, and governance fragmentation. In fact, one of the first projects he commissioned after coming to UNLV from Virginia Tech University was a network analysis of Las Vegas’s nonprofit community.
Rob’s comprehension of these relationships anchored his ability to present policy solutions in a manner that got stakeholders who might otherwise be in opposition to come to agreement. By engineering robust coalitions, the fault lines that doomed previous efforts to deliver key assets were overcome and poorly thought-out policies or projects were never implemented. When institutional barriers could not be surmounted directly, Rob was not deterred. Instead, he would devise a creative workaround that invariably resulted in his solution being implemented at the very institutions and interests that had rebuffed his ideas.
Academic silos did not exist in Rob’s mind. Instead, he relentlessly sought insights from across disciplines. His hunger for information led him down one rabbit hole after another to continually update and deepen his worldview. During these forays it was not uncommon for him to send emails and texts in the middle of the night, followed the next morning by lengthy debriefings, sharing what he learned and why it mattered.
His pluralistic approach to knowledge-building also is reflected in the fact that none of us hold degrees in the same field. Despite our different orientations, methodological approaches, and fields of expertise, following Rob’s lead, we can collaborate seamlessly and passionately on a range of projects.
Indeed, we are among the privileged few who worked directly with Rob as he forged a path for our metro, region, and state. We do not take lightly the immense responsibility of carrying his unfinished work forward. But with Rob’s guidance and the lessons he shared, we are also motivated, dedicated, and prepared to see his vision fully realized.