On Feb. 2, 2006, then-UNLV President Carol Harter stood in the multipurpose room of the Foundations Building on campus and announced her premature retirement.
In fact, Harter was being forced out of the job she’d held for 11 years by then-Chancellor Jim Rogers. Although she had two years remaining on her contract, her record-setting tenure at UNLV was being cut short, and a defiant Harter closed by saying, “And, damn it, all of you who know me know I will not go gentle into that good night.”
Sure enough, she didn’t. In fact, she was back at work early the next day, wrapping up a tenure at UNLV that saw millions of dollars raised, a near-doubling of the student body, increasing female and minority enrollments, more than 20 buildings built or renovated, highly qualified faculty hired, new academic programs created, the most successful law school founding in the country and a university well on its way to Tier 1 research status.
Harter marched directly out of the president’s office into the executive directorship of the Black Mountain Institute, an internationally regarded literary think tank that put Las Vegas and UNLV on the cultural map. Along the way, she converted one-time foe Rogers into an ally, so much so that he donated $10 million to BMI, which will soon allow the institute to offer a $50,000 book prize for fiction, more than the National Book Award winners get.
Last week, standing in that same multipurpose room, and preparing to retire from BMI (by choice, this time) Harter was feted by a long string of colleagues, university officials, former students and even a United States congresswoman.
Rep. Dina Titus, a former UNLV professor, reminded the crowd that Harter was UNLV’s first female president. (To be sure, over a 50-year career in academia, Harter has held six administrative jobs in 30 years, and was the first woman in each.)
“No matter how successful she was … they just couldn’t forgive her for being a girl,” Titus said. And now, finally ready to retire, Harter “can finally tell those who didn’t appreciate her to go …” Titus didn’t finish her thought, but the laughter rippling through the crowd showed she didn’t have to.
Harter herself credited a quartet of women then serving on the Board of Regents who overcame objections from the “good old boys” to help her into the presidency. Those good old girls — Jill Derby, Shelley Berkley, Carolyn Sparks and Nancy Price — certainly look prescient in the light of history, but at the time, there was skepticism in the community. (That skepticism wasn’t shared by the faculty; one group of history scholars greeted the news of her hiring with a standing ovation.)
But, as Harter put it, “the cock croweth, but the hen delivereth the goods.” And she did.
Perhaps the most heartwarming parts of Harter’s retirement reception were the former students who testified about her impact on their lives. A professor of English, and an expert in the work of William Faulkner, the well-read Harter can be intimidating and frank in person. But her students also described her as inspiring. In a telling moment, her No. 2 man at BMI, the accomplished novelist and professor Richard Wiley, described Harter as a “teacher” to him, too.
Harter herself, still every bit the educator, told the crowd that higher education was worth every penny, even in an age where costs are rising. She acknowledged her donors, including Rogers. And she promised a bright future, for BMI and for UNLV.
“Did you notice?” she asked at the close of her remarks. “I did not go gentle into that good night.”
And just like that defiant news conference of eight years ago, Carol Harter got yet another standing ovation.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.