UNLV gives writers way to speak up

Back when Carol Harter was president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a local philanthropist and businessman came to her with a proposal.

Let’s get some arts and culture going on around here. A think tank. An institute. A new college. Something.

Its foundation would be literature, like the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Courses at the small liberal arts college, which existed from the 1930s until the 1950s, were taught entirely by artists.

Harter and Glenn Schaeffer, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and then a top executive with Mandalay Resort Group, kicked around a few ideas.

They ended up founding the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2001. Among its first acts was to establish a City of Asylum program in Las Vegas. City of Asylum provides a safe haven for writers who have been jailed in their home countries for what they have written.

The idea of an entirely new college was impossible to pull off at a public university, Harter said, but still the institute had found a niche. It brought writers in for public lectures. Published a few small books.

Harter, whose background is in literature, was UNLV president from 1995 until 2006.

Her departure coincided with the birth of the Black Mountain Institute. She stayed, and ended up becoming the institute’s director.

Established in 2006 on the foundation laid by the International Institute of Modern Letters, BMI has flourished.

It has brought in writers from Iran, Sierra Leone and China in the asylum program. It sponsors three fellowships a year for writers to simply come here and write. It holds public speaking engagements by some of the nation’s top names in literature.

It publishes a nationally known literary journal called Witness.

And now, the institute has been partnered with the university’s renowned creative writing program, noted by the Atlantic Monthly as among the top programs in the country.

That program, which offers both master’s of fine arts and doctorate degrees, has about three dozen students. Three of them get paid graduate assistantships in the Black Mountain Institute.

But BMI’s most public face is its lecture and speakers series.

Writers — speakers sponsored by the institute must have had at least one book published — have ranged from Nobel laureates to political commentators.

They typically are not the same talking heads you would see on cable TV news, either. They include Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka, among others.

The speaking engagements are always open to the public at no charge, which is the whole point.

“What makes a city is its cultural institutions,” said Richard Wiley, BMI’s associate director, a UNLV English professor and a published novelist. “We are a part of that fabric.”

Vu Tran, one of the creative writing program’s most celebrated graduates, said Las Vegas has never had a reputation as a particularly cultured city. BMI and its programs are changing that.

Tran, who came to UNLV on a fellowship seven years ago to earn his doctorate degree in creative writing, recently announced that he is leaving for a position at the University of Chicago.

Tran’s short stories have been published in many of the country’s top literary journals. Last year he won the Whiting Award, which gives $50,000 to 10 promising writers early in their careers.

Harter said 61 percent of BMI’s annual budget of about $600,000 comes from private donations.

In its four years, she said, the institute has raised $3.5 million in private funds. The rest of the budget — almost all of which goes to the salaries of its four employees — comes from the state.

The fellowships, graduate students and speakers are all paid for with private money.

Christopher Hudgins, UNLV’s dean of liberal arts, said having BMI at UNLV benefits the students by having accomplished writers on campus. It also benefits the city by having renowned speakers visit.

But there is more, too, he said. Once national figures visit Las Vegas as part of BMI’s programs — and, not surprisingly, being in Las Vegas can be a draw even to literary figures — they spread the word among their confederates.

Once word spreads among the elite that Las Vegas has become more than simply an adult version of Disneyland, it makes its way to the general population.

“This kind of cultural activity radiates out into the community in ways that affect the reputation not only of the university, but of the community itself,” Hudgins said.

“It plugs us into a national and international scene that just isn’t possible otherwise.”

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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