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Literary leader gets ready to close the book on long career

Think of Las Vegas, and the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t books.

Think of UNLV, and you probably don’t immediately think “creative writing.”

But maybe you should. And a big part of the reason is Carol Harter, UNLV’s longest-serving president who’s about to wrap up an eight-year stint as executive director of the Black Mountain Institute. A former professor of English, Harter’s efforts went a long way toward putting Las Vegas on the literary map.

Back in 2006, when Harter was essentially forced out after 11 years as president of UNLV by then-Chancellor Jim Rogers, she could have packed up and left town. (She’d taken over UNLV’s presidency in 1995 intending it to be her final posting in academia anyway.) But she was intrigued by the idea proposed by Glenn Schaeffer, then an executive at Mandalay Resort Group and a literary enthusiast who’d graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop: building a literary think tank that would attract world-caliber writers to Las Vegas, to write and to teach others.

There was no guarantee of success. Las Vegas — with lower rates of high school graduations, low numbers of degree-holding residents and emphasis on recreation over serious study — is not exactly known as a writer’s or reader’s mecca.

But that’s slowly changing. During the past eight years, BMI has brought scores of writers, programs and events to Las Vegas that have benefited the community in ways that frankly weren’t dreamt of before. (Disclosure: I have moderated BMI panels, and the Review-Journal and CityLife are sponsors of the organization.) That list includes some famous names, people such as Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian poet, playwright and winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. Up-and-comers such as Vu Tran and Alissa Nutting have spent time in Las Vegas with BMI, too. And the program has allowed writers facing persecution in other countries to find refuge here, as BMI is a participant in the Cities of Asylum program.

Incumbent UNLV President Neal Smatresk has called BMI a jewel in the crown of UNLV, which is saying something. That’s because UNLV also includes a very highly regarded creative writing program with incredibly talented faculty members such as Richard Wiley, Douglas Unger, Maile Chapman, Claudia Keelan and Donald Revell — every one an accomplished author. It’s one of the city’s best-kept secrets.

“I think that there’s a definite capacity for intellectual activity in the community that’s not being met,” Harter said. “Now this [BMI] is a way of meeting some of that.”

And for Harter, it’s been personally rewarding, too. “This has been so much fun,” she says. “It doesn’t have near the headaches of a presidency.” (Keep that Advil handy, however! Harter has been mentioned repeatedly as a potential interim president once Smatresk steps down this month to take over the University of North Texas, and Nevada regents conduct a nationwide search for his replacement.)

As Harter looks at retirement, she has a fond wish for the literary gem she’s helped create: “I just hope that what we’ve created here is ongoing,” she says. It probably will be, thanks to the unlikely rapprochement she’s enjoyed with her former nemesis, Rogers. After Harter worked with Rogers to help make the case for a more fair distribution of state education funding — and working with his book-loving wife, Beverly — Jim Rogers decided to make a $10 million donation to BMI. That money will be used to sustain programs and create an annual BMI award for fiction, with a prize of $50,000 — the National Book Award is worth but $10,000, Harter proudly notes.

Las Vegas, with a literary honor outpacing the National Book Award? You wouldn’t think it at first, but maybe you should, thanks in large part to Carol Harter.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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