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The Unpredictable Future of UNLV

As both a graduate and a history professor, Michael Green has watched UNLV’s growth with some awe. It’s future, he says, will be all the more astonishing.

UNLV History  |  Sep 7, 2017  |  By UNLV News Center
aerial shot of the university in 1960

UNLV's remote location in 1960 earned it the nickname "Tumbleweed Tech." (UNLV Libraries Special Collections, 006-0958)

Editor's Note: 

This year, we're celebrating UNLV's 60th anniversary with a full lineup of events and special coverage. This essay kicks off a series exploring the future of UNLV and our impact in Southern Nevada and the world. Here, professor Michael Green, ’86 BA and ’88 MA History, puts the campus's growth in perspective.

What’s past is prologue, William Shakespeare said. He couldn’t have known he was describing UNLV some 350 years later (although he gets his due in plenty of classes). But the Bard is right: Predicting our future is a tough task. If we are to have any chance of it, we have to understand our past.

What was once derided as Tumbleweed Tech has come so far, so fast, that it’s almost mind-boggling. To put it another way, when Harvard was UNLV’s age, its students were looking forward to the new century, coming up in … 1700. 

Our community’s past makes predicting UNLV’s future all the harder. The unexpected and the unlikely always have characterized our community. Back in 1917, Las Vegas had a population of about 2,000, a combined elementary and high school, an economy that depended almost entirely on the railroad depot downtown, and no paved streets.

Who could have predicted that, 40 years later, when UNLV opened its first building, the population would have skyrocketed to more than 40,000, with hotels dotting Fremont, our first paved street and the skyline of the highway to Los Angeles? Organized crime figures had replaced the railroad’s owners as the area’s economic leaders. And one of those organized crime figures, Moe Dalitz, would found the development company that built most of Maryland Parkway, UNLV’s street. Indeed, when funding for our campus fell short, he would pay for the furniture so that students, faculty, and staff could actually sit down and work.

Yes, UNLV's origin is humble. When the University of Nevada, based in Reno, began offering classes in Las Vegas in 1951, it did so because of pressure from outside forces — Brigham Young University and the University of Southern California were eyeing our growth for their own expansions. Our founding staff consisted of an English faculty member, James Dickinson. He oversaw classes for 28 students held in the evenings at the town’s only high school, Las Vegas High. The classes were held in dressing rooms for the theater company — and when the high school put on a play, the university canceled its classes.

Now some six decades later, Dickinson’s operation has grown to roughly 3,000 full-time faculty and staff and 30,000 students and offers a multitude of arts venues, a new medical school, and nationally ranked programs in law, hospitality, literature, nursing, and so much more. Our Maryland Parkway campus has filled in and we're branching out to other parts of the city. In 1957, UNLV’s first athletic organization was a bowling team that met Thursdays at 9 p.m. Since then, Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels have won a national championship in basketball, major figures in numerous sports call UNLV their alma mater, and the football team, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, might end up sharing a stadium with an NFL franchise.

Based on what has happened, let’s think of the future by projecting growth at its present rate. In the past decade — a time of economic recession, remember — UNLV’s enrollment grew by about 40 percent. It’s a risk for a historian to do math, but such a trajectory would put UNLV well past the 100,000 mark in enrollment by 2057.

That would, or should, bring dozens more buildings (and several more Moe Dalitzes to furnish them), and exponential growth in the number of faculty and staff. Plans for expanding the UNLV campus to other parts of the valley might seem difficult to contemplate, but if, by then, the teleporters from Star Trek are reality, it would be possible to take classes at more than one location. Indeed, if UNLV can’t expand beyond Maryland Parkway or Swenson, or Tropicana, Mr. Scott had better be ready to beam over faculty and staff.

Does that sound silly? If it does, remember that today’s enrollment, today’s graduate and professional schools, today’s nationally ranked hotel college and law school, and all of the possibilities that becoming a Top Tier university offer, would have been a distant, even silly dream to those who built the place in the 1950s and 60s. Not because they didn’t dream big, but because Las Vegas itself seemed to offer no such possibilities, either.

Predictions are difficult — they always have been — but that’s where history is so helpful. Without it, what we predict is based not on reason but on wishful thinking and guesswork. That doesn’t mean history always is the perfect guide, but it helps. After all, “what is past is prologue” appears on a statue outside the National Archives, where the government’s historical documents are housed. The statue, sculpted in 1935, is called “Future.” The meeting of UNLV’s past and present suggest a future full of phenomenal growth, just like the city we affect and reflect.