The Word From the Mountain

Five years and a Great Recession after its debut, UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute is still fighting for liberal arts in Las Vegas

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Last spring, when the Legislature considered massive budget cuts for both higher education and K-12, a public dialogue developed around the question of the value of education as a whole. Could a community that had for so long prospered with marginal education standards ever understand the multifaceted value of an education? Would a community that equates education to job training, and success to cash on hand, ever really appreciate a broader, classical liberal arts foundation?

The short answer came when cash-strapped UNLV put the philosophy department on the cutting board—a core component of a liberal arts education.

It was no small irony, then, that a former UNLV president, who helped raise more than $550 million for the university and quadruple its research funding in her tenure just a few years before, was simultaneously advancing the mission of providing the public with a mini liberal arts education in her role as executive director of UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute.

The institute offers poetry and fiction readings, philosophical debates and cultural forums, free to the public, paid for largely by Carol Harter’s fundraising efforts. Her mission goes beyond entertaining intellectually curious students—Harter wants to educate a city.

“We are trying to inject high culture here,” Harter tells me as she prepares for poet C.D. Wright’s reading in the Student Union, an event for which people are lined up at the door. “There’s really a lack of it. So few things do that for the public. Part of the desire here is to have a dialogue that creates a sense of public intellectualism.”

That’s no small feat, particularly in a city in which only 21 percent of residents over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 29 percent in Los Angeles, 32 percent in New York and 42 percent in Boston, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Add to that Nevada’s graduation rate—one of the lowest in the nation at 44 percent, according to Education Week—and you have plenty of room to grow the life of the mind in Las Vegas.

But why bother? Particularly when the main concern today is jobs, or the lack thereof. And Las Vegans have long been able to hurdle the income gap by working in the hospitality industry without an education.

As America and its city of id flounder, though, the celebration of ignorance may be going out of fashion. In pockets all over Las Vegas, people are focusing on solidifying the community: investing in its downtown core, focusing on an arts district and—Harter hopes—searching for some intellectual heft. She, like many educators who have watched budgets gutted, stands by the idea that a broad base of cultural knowledge increases a community’s ability to think critically about its future, act wisely with regard to policy, and empathize with its diverse population—which is good for its long-term economic viability. “You get a very different look at the world through a liberal arts education,” says Harter. “Maybe it’s more empathetic. It’s not just analytical. It’s caring about the culture.”

• • •

Harter has short, curled blond hair and a wardrobe full of refined suits she adorns with floral tops or ornate jewelry. Although well-liked around campus, she’s known for being stern, or at least determined. This is not an administrator anyone takes lightly. Harter earned her Ph.D in literature from Binghamton (N.Y.) University. As UNLV president from 1995-2006, she excelled at fundraising—overseeing a half-billion dollars in donations—which turns out to be a useful skill for running BMI, which is largely funded by donations. In many ways she exemplifies the state of education today: Not only is it essential to understand the classics, it’s also crucial to be able to find some money. She’s raised more than $3.7 million for the institute in less than six years, cultivating donors by sharing her passion for education and her belief that it’s important for this city, right now.

On this Thursday night in October, Las Vegas’ fundraising educator zips through a crowd heading into the Student Union Ballroom. She’s in a hurry; the Black Mountain Institute-sponsored debate between atheists and theists is due to start, and more than 200 Las Vegans have turned out—students with open laptops, media members with recorders, a young guy wearing a shirt with “1 Corinthians 13” printed on it, an old guy with a POW hat and an “theist in a foxhole” shirt, and three accomplished international authors who are experts on Christianity, Islam and atheism.

Seats are hard to find. Dozens of people stand in the back. In a few minutes, Harter will have introduced the authors and let the ideas themselves drive the debate; her moderating job here is mostly to keep things orderly. At the event, Black Mountain Institute associate director Richard Wiley calls Harter “the hardest-working woman in panel moderation,” but later he says it’s her ability to secure funding that has made a difference in the institute’s mission. “Carol provides very well. She really does all the fundraising. I can’t raise a nickel.”

The institute works with UNLV’s English department, offering writing fellowships and the Nevada Emerging Writers Series, which aims to create an exchange of dialogue between writers and the public. It works with the College of Liberal Arts to provide faculty fellowships in an array of scholastic enterprises. It also supports the City of Asylum program, which provides a safe haven for international writers who face imprisonment or assassination for their work in their own countries. In addition, it publishes an international literary magazine, Witness.

Notable institute donors include Diana Bennett, Robert Bigelow, Tom Gallagher and the Caesars Foundation.

• • •

Black Mountain Institute was formed in 2006 on the coattails of the International Institute of Modern Letters, which was founded by former casino executive Glenn Schaeffer and his old Iowa Writers’ Workshop classmate, Eric Olsen. BMI’s mission is to “support a series of initiatives that promote humanistic and cross-cultural dialogue, including public readings and panel discussions, degree programs in creative writing, residential and faculty fellowships and literary publications.”

The institute has hosted many free public events aimed at stirring up the brain matter, featuring topical programs such as “The Future of American Liberalism” with speakers Barbara Ehrenreich, Lewis Lapham and Curtis White; “The Death of Old News” with speaker Jim Lehrer; and “From Apartheid to Darfur” with Nobel laureate and BMI Senior Fellow Wole Soyinka. Other events have included world-renowned writers T.C. Boyle, E.L. Doctorow, Alice Waters, Junot Diaz, Joyce Carol Oates, Vu Tran and Michael Chabon. Thousands of people have attended the events, with a core group of regulars. Harter, Wiley and assistant director Jessica Lucero hope to market more broadly through community partnerships in the future.

Each year, Harter, Lucero and Wiley—himself author of six novels—sit down together and plan BMI’s public event schedule. They’re essentially thinking up a syllabus for Las Vegas’ year in a miniature liberal arts program.

“It’s an organic process,” Harter says. “We sit around and brainstorm. We think about current events and the topics that are on the minds of people, and about related artistic topics.”

The main qualification for being a guest on any panel is that one be a published author—even the top panelists on topics such as liberalism or atheism are acclaimed authors.

“Writers have the ability to communicate with the lay audience,” Wiley says. “A lot of this came from [Nobel laureate and former UNLV professor] Wole Soyinka, our first literary light. He is the greatest man of letters I’ve ever met. A real genius about being able to shift from a playwright or poet into being a person who speaks with the same level of erudition and energy about every bloody thing. A ‘Public Intellectual’ with big, capital letters.”

“Creative writers often think about world events differently,” Harter adds. “Artists can have instructive ways of seeing things.”

The upcoming lineup features “Female Novelists in the 21st Century: Not Your Grandmother’s Sense and Sensibility” (Feb. 22) and “Is Moderation Possible in American Politics?” with former NPR journalist and Fox News host Juan Williams (March 22).

• • •

Intellectual public life can build a city. But first of all it helps each of us grow as individuals: The city grows along with it its citizens. When I listened to poet Joshua Kryah read this fall at a BMI event, I felt moved to consider themes of consumption and consolation, which he presented through poetry, but which resonate in this cultural moment. When I listened to Laura van den Berg read short fiction at another BMI event, I felt moved to consider themes of alienation and identity—also pertinent to our times.

I also felt inspired by the people around me. The very fact that they, too, came out to invest time in literature gave me faith in my community. When I attended the Atheism vs. Theism panel, I was impressed by the breadth of history and sociological knowledge the panelists had, and by their ability to string coherent thoughts into a cogent argument. It was different than a political rally or a church sermon, where everyone is of one ilk. Here, different ideologies were presented passionately, but politely and thoroughly. The discussion wasn’t limited to sound bites. It was instructional, given my recent devolution into reality TV and Twitter feuds.

That’s part of the value of a liberal arts education: critical thinking. That’s part of what BMI tries to offer a community traditionally wedded to immediate and easy gratification. It offers an hour or two of time to think about a particular topic or element of living, which is beneficial both to individuals’ mental and spiritual health and to a community faced with stark alternatives: Either grow in new ways, or continue to erode both culturally and economically.

“What we’re doing is putting out something that we want,” Wiley says. “It makes us feel like we have an intellectual life or an artistic life. People come to our events because it makes them feel like they have that. Then it has these wave-like resonances throughout the community: You can pretend to be something, and then you can be it.”