Billionaire Howard Hughes backed a medical school in Las Vegas in the late 1960s, but Southern Nevadans still are waiting more than 40 years later.
The way Robert Lang sees it, that school could finally arrive as early as 2016. The executive director of UNLV’s Lincy Institute, Lang said the historical Northern-against-Southern Nevada political divide has contributed to Las Vegas going without, but that things are changing as Las Vegas matures.
“Even Roanoke, Virginia, with 280,000 people has a medical school,” Lang said. “Other states don’t have these conversations. Only Nevada does. We are the biggest region without a med school. We have 2 million people. There’s nobody half our scale that doesn’t have a med school. There are not any other cases. We are alone.”
There was a chance of establishing a Southern Nevada medical school in the late 1960s, when a national study pointed out the lack of such schools in the Western United States. In response, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon established medical schools, Lang said.
Las Vegas’ chance came when Hughes moved into the Desert Inn resort, and then bought it in 1967 to avoid being kicked out because he didn’t gamble, Lang said.
Hughes was required to appear before state gaming officials to get a license, but the famous recluse instead offered a big donation for a state medical school if he could send a proxy to see the gaming board, Lang said. He told Gov. Paul Laxalt that Summerlin, his planned community, would be a fine location.
The offer was rebuffed, Lang said.
“Laxalt said it will go where we decide, and it wasn’t Las Vegas,” Lang said. “Reno was the older school and had a lot of alum, and they had the state support to get a medical school.
That made sense. UNLV was a decade old when the medical school went to the north.
“When you go back to 1969 when the school was formed, UNLV was a pretty new school, and the University of Nevada, Reno had been around 100 years and was just a mature university,” said UNR President Marc Johnson.
University of Nevada Medical School Dean Thomas Schwenk said that, as the medical school developed, Reno was the “most appropriate higher education institution” for it.
“Las Vegas’ expansion as a population center could not have been anticipated, nor could the state have waited for UNLV to develop so it could host the state’s single school of medicine,” Schwenk said. “The result has been years of tension and political conflict that have served the state poorly with regard to the full development of the University of Nevada School of Medicine as the source of an adequate number of high-quality physicians in a broad range of specialties.”
Mark Doubrava, a Las Vegas eye doctor and member of the State Board of Regents, brought new energy to the longtime debate last year when he asked to place it on the regent’s agenda.
“There’s always been discussion that we should move the med school from Reno to Las Vegas, but there’s been significant state investment to the facility up north that it would be a shame to move it,” Doubrava said. “If you do, you are damaging UNR and the research dollars (it attracts) from the National Institutes of Health.”
Lang said it once made sense to favor Reno, but over the past two decades Las Vegas has grown to four times the size of the north’s population center. He is surprised UNSOM didn’t open a campus in Las Vegas in the early 1990s, considering the size of the city at that point.
“I’m surprised nobody stepped up and had a full branch of UNR” in Las Vegas, Lang said. “But that moment has passed and locals (at UNLV) want to administer a med school.”