Harter exits with character intact

Not long after she was selected UNLV president in 1995, Carol Harter knew she had landed in a very different place.

With an impeccable academic and administrative track record, she had won over her share of supporters. But she had detractors, too. And they weren’t shy about expressing their opinions.

Two university regents, in fact, went out of their way to try to dissuade her from accepting the job. Among other things, they questioned her ability to understand and grow UNLV’s athletic programs.

You know, her being a woman and all.

“It was one of those idiot things you would never ask a male president,” Harter recalls, casually noting that as a university administrator in Ohio and New York she had served on NCAA rules boards at three different levels. She likely knew more about athletic compliance than anyone at UNLV, which had a shabby reputation nationally for following the rules.

Harter, now 72, has spent much of her academic and administrative career cutting a trail for women in the field. Far from being frightened off by a couple of regent chauvinists, she stuck it out as UNLV president for a record 11 years. Add her tenure as executive director of Black Mountain Institute, and Harter has spent most of the past two decades patching, improving and defending UNLV’s reputation as an academic also-ran.

So when she agreed to consider stepping in as the university’s interim president in the wake of the sudden departure of Neal Smatresk, it seemed like a logical thought. Although Harter and her husband of 52 years, Michael Harter, were preparing to retire, she was willing to do her part to smooth the transition. She was easily the best qualified candidate in terms of academic accomplishment and administrative experience. The only real question was why there needed to be an interim selection process.

Perhaps she should have known better.

When longtime banking and casino executive Don Snyder was selected, Harter didn’t grouse. She wished him well and quietly returned to her work at Black Mountain, a haven for creative writers and poets with a budding national reputation, and with her husband continued to plan their life’s next chapter.

Perhaps I should have known better than to think a person so fiercely dedicated to UNLV would throw back the curtain on the strange and sometimes downright malicious politics associated with the public university. Instead, Harter did what she always does: She displayed class and character and took the high road.

In the late 1990s, Harter was tasked with extinguishing the Dumpster fire that was basketball coach Bill Bayno’s tenure in Las Vegas. The next two head coaches, Charlie Spoonhour and Lon Kruger, were men of impeccable reputation.

She also played an integral role in hiring legendary former USC and professional football coach John Robinson, who helped lead the moribund Rebels program to a bowl game.

And Harter pushed to add three women’s sports and increase funding for Lady Rebels athletics in the letter and spirit of Title IX. “I think I served the university well in that regard,” she allows.

But academics always has been a central theme in her life. The Brooklyn-born daughter of an oil company executive, she earned three university degrees after marrying at 19 and becoming a young mother.

Although the athletics-obsessed often talked the loudest, she says, “The academic side was so clearly what people were yearning for here.”

In the mid-1990s, UNLV was a university that had yet to take on the academic weight that accompanies developing a broad range of doctoral programs. Harter was instrumental in crafting a long-range plan that has led it to the verge of status as a research-driven institution.

“I used to say, ‘We need to be like UCLA,’ ” she recalls. “It’s a great university in a great city with great academics, great culture and great athletics. I believed it then. I still believe it.

“Why shouldn’t UNLV be at the level of UCLA?”

Running a university is a business that doesn’t follow the usual business models and methods, she says. A successful university president must be more of an orchestra conductor than a captain of industry.

But the greater challenge in Nevada is beyond any university president’s control, she says. The state Legislature and the state’s monied private sector must embrace UNLV as a cause worth investing in and celebrating.

As she metaphorically packs boxes at Black Mountain Institute, Harter shares this thought for the university she long ago grew to love: “It is my hope that it becomes this great national university, a top research institution, and have a culture of success and quality in every way. I want UNLV to be a major academic leader.”

In retirement, she says, she’ll walk on the beach, catch up on her reading, and perhaps write a memoir.

It will be about a tough, intelligent woman from Brooklyn who came to Las Vegas and toiled for nearly two decades to improve its care-worn university, then against the odds managed to ride off into the sunset with her class and character intact.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.