Half an hour before the now-famous Budget Rally was set to begin, Adam Cronis was rightly concerned. The petition booths were manned along the Academic Mall, the stage was all set, and the DJ was ready to rock. But there were only about 200 people. This isn't going to work, the student body president thought as he left the scene to tie up a loose end. Two hundred people do not make a rally. But what did he expect? This was UNLV, the "commuter college." Maybe even the unthinkable prospect of cutting the university budget in half could not unite its students.
But when Cronis returned that night, there was a new dawn on campus. At least 2,500 students -- many holding signs and chanting protests -- had filled the mall and spilled into spaces between buildings. Some stood atop Wright Hall.
"I was surprised," the fifth-year senior recalls. "We all were. I don't think anyone expected that."
The next day, both local newspapers noted that the rally, with its dramatic turnout and 1960s-style spirit, marked the end of a UNLV problem that's been around a lot longer than budget cuts: apathy. "Crisis," Cronis concludes with a smile, "is a good catalyst."
But sociology professor Robert Futrell, who has been on campus for 10 years, believes that the rally had an impetus deeper than an axing of the UNLV budget. Like the civil rights protests of the 1960s that he and his students had been studying that winter, UNLV's burst of civic activism was built on something stronger than spontaneity.
But what? Futrell's theory is that the campus community has changed, and the reason has to do with changes to the campus itself.
"UNLV has become a place where people do more than drive up, take a class, and leave," he says. "We've made these places where people gather and stay."
Gathering and staying leads to "interaction and talk among people of various networks," Futrell says. "And when you get people gathering and talking and being with one another, you create a sense of community, of identity, of solidarity. And then when issues come up ..."
Mutually unbeneficial issues such as ... oh, let's see ... teachers getting laid off, class sections being cut, and tuition doubling. Issues that lead to action. But not individual action or even group action -- network action. "That's when you get civic activism, a collective participation for a cause," Futrell says. "That's when you get 2,000 people instead of 200."
When Futrell came to UNLV in 1999, a rally of 200 would have been more like it. Having come from the University of Kansas -- the epicenter of the entire town of Lawrence -- he was taken aback by the lack of community here. College campuses are known as being the "seedbed of civic activism," he says, "but UNLV -- I say this mostly anecdotally but also reflecting on what colleagues who have been here a while talk about -- has not had that."
With about 6 percent of students actually living on campus (at the average university, it's around 20 percent), creating community has been an uphill climb at UNLV. Rebel spirit has more or less hinged on the success of the basketball team each year. And it didn't help that, for most of its 52-year existence, the 332-acre campus has been "very suburban looking," as David Frommer, executive director of planning and construction, puts it. "It was sort of an enclave behind a wall of buildings."
Then came a series of improvements that Futrell says were designed "to create campus community." That transformation's first step was in 2001 with the Lied Library, which Frommer calls UNLV's first "landmark building," a sleek, contemporary, high-tech building that provided many needed modern services and encouraged gathering in spots such as the Book 'n Bean caf?.
But the wave of momentum seems to have crested in the past few years, with the big splash being the 2007 openings of the Student Union and the Student Recreation and Wellness Center.
These improvements, Frommer says, came from the Campus Physical Master Plan, whose long list of goals for navigating UNLV into the future included increasing the vibrancy of campus life, "both in the new buildings themselves and the network of campus spaces and buildings that they work with." And while he has no numbers to measure either kind of success, he agrees with Futrell that the changes have had a "significant impact" on the campus community.
A licensed architect, Frommer knows something about why. He points to the appealing "sharp, clean look" of the Student Union and its mall-like food court, the brand-name hangouts such as Starbucks, the game room, the myriad meeting and office spaces above, and the multiple gathering spaces inside and out, including a casual little amphitheater right outside the door. Over at the rec and wellness center, he shows off the bustling, state-of-the-art amenities: the cardio room, sport courts, pool, jogging track, juice bar...
"When you go to a major university, this is more what you'd see," Frommer says. "And it's far superior to most of the athletic clubs around town, which helps keep students on campus."
The facility's statistics certainly show a positive trend in usage. The rec center has averaged about 5,000 users a day, and the numbers have "steadily increased over the past year and a half since opening," says Yvette Kell, the center's director, who has been at UNLV for six years.
And the new facility made room for the student health clinic, counseling center, and health promotion department, so the building acts as the hub for wellness activities. In its first year in the new facility, the clinic saw a 27 percent increase in patient visits, a 75 percent increase in immunizations, and a 5 percent increase in counseling services.
The Student Union also has seen "steady increases over the past couple of years for both visitors and events," says Kelsey Harmon Finn, director of Student Union and Event Services. The facility's guest count was 1.3 million in 2007-08, and this school year it's on pace to exceed 2 million. Event hours were 43,700 the first year and are expected to approach 60,000 by the end of its second.
No records are kept for campus usage overall, but Finn agrees with Futrell's assessment about there being more students on campus, and that they're staying for longer periods of time. "I feel like there's more people here in the morning," she says, "and I see more in the evening, too."
While UNLV will continue to be somewhat of a "commuter campus," at least now "there is campus life," Futrell says, "and that's the difference. People are staying to go to art openings, to eat dinner, to study in the library, to attend movies ... There are a lot of campus activities to keep people tied to a place and space, and this keeps them interactive."
A particular type of interactivity that Cronis likes to talk about is "interfacing." As in his group -- the Consolidated Students of the University of Nevada (CSUN) -- interfacing with other groups on campus. This, at the very least, is happening with greater frequency, he says. "Sometimes we're now meeting on a monthly basis, sharing our goals and trying to see Rebel spirit heightened."
He also has proof of its effectiveness -- namely that a lot more students are staying on campus after class for events, such as CSUN's speaker series, which regularly draws 200, and the university's Rebels After Dark program, which has attracted crowds of up to 600. These, he says, are signs of "a more engaged and enthusiastic community."
While the students are successfully interacting and interfacing, there are even newer improvements to factor in to the campus' fast-changing sociological equation.
Anchoring the southeastern end of campus is Greenspun Hall, UNLV's newest piece of big architecture. In the courtyard beneath the giant steel canopy that shades the handsome building, Frommer points out how this space was designed for formal and informal gatherings, and that with its close proximity to the student union amphitheater, there is now "a network of two big gathering spaces."
The most dramatic contribution of Greenspun Hall to the new campus dynamic, however, might be the four capital letters deeply etched in the brick tower that rises high enough that Frommer can see it a mile away as he drives to work: "UNLV."
An obvious pronouncement, sure, yet one that the university had been lacking. The only spirited competition is the rebellious red sign that wraps around the northeast corner of the student union, and that, of course, is barely two years old.
If those embellishments, combined with the growing collection of 21st-century architecture, don't completely eradicate the old suburban enclave look, this might: What's under construction where Frazier Hall once stood is another major public space. It will feature the Pioneer Wall (with bronzes of UNLV legends) and a park-like atmosphere, to be completed in phases. But unlike the points of entrance the campus has now, this spot -- front and center along Maryland Parkway -- will serve as UNLV's front door. It will show people the way in while giving them a glimpse into the campus life.
Because, it's important to know, there is some. And it's vital -- especially in the dark days of budget shortfalls -- that this maturing campus flaunts it. Like Finn says of the new aesthetic: "Hey, we're UNLV, we're here, we're a part of the community, and we're not going away."