Las Vegas Sun

November 23, 2014

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UNLV programs getting it ‘write’

Former university President Carol Harter has long dreamed that UNLV's academic programs would one day surpass its basketball reputation. That day may have arrived.

Move over, Runnin' Rebels; hello, Writing Rebels.

Atlantic Monthly, always on the vanguard of literature and culture, has listed two UNLV writing programs as among the best in the country.

The magazine's current issue, which ranks programs nationwide, names UNLV's master's program in fine arts as one of the five most innovative programs and its doctorate program in creative writing as one of the top five.

And you thought UNLV was all about grooming basketball players and hotel managers.

The national magazine's stamp of approval for UNLV's writing programs is a huge coup for Harter and the programs' founders, who have long been swimming upstream to bring culture to a city better known for crass.

It also shows what private investment can do, as donors such as Glenn Schaeffer and Beverly Rogers have invested heavily in UNLV's English and creative writing programs. Both Schaeffer and Rogers have established doctoral fellowship programs that successfully compete nationally in recruiting top scholars to UNLV, among other program investments.

Only two other programs at UNLV - other than the basketball team, of course - have gotten such national recognition: the Harrah College of Hotel Administration, which regularly rivals Cornell University for recognition as the No. 1 hospitality school in the nation; and the Boyd School of Law, which has three programs ranked in the top 25 legal programs nationwide by U.S. News & World Report.

And that makes program founders Richard Wiley and Douglas Unger downright giddy.

"It means a lot," said Unger, now interim chairman of the English department. "It means we are on the map, and it means we are being mentioned among the top programs."

The assessment of graduate writing programs, "Where Great Writers Are Made," was based on interviews with more than 350 program directors, professors, students and graduates, said the article's author, Edward J. Delaney, a communications professor at Roger Williams University and longtime Atlantic Monthly contributor.

Those surveyed heaped praise on UNLV - a program that he had not previously given any thought to, Delaney said. They said they were impressed by the university's international approach to creative writing, specifically its partnership with the Peace Corps, and its competitive fellowship programs for doctoral students, Delaney said.

UNLV is the only MFA program in the country to partner with the Peace Corps, allowing students to take two years off in the middle of a five-year program to serve abroad. Every MFA student is required to spend some time abroad and to translate a literary work into English.

"I was looking to hear what programs are doing things that are new, interesting and innovative, that distinguishes a program in its own right," Delaney said. "Doing things that are international and global in scope makes (UNLV) different from other programs."

Indeed, the international emphasis was intended to set UNLV apart, Wiley and Unger said. They attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop together in the mid-1970s, and both said they were struck by how typically American all the writing was - stories of domestic life, cars, drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll.

"The usual suspects," said Wiley, associate director of the Black Mountain Institute, a literary think tank at UNLV. World affairs rarely broke through the American cocoon.

Wiley, a Peace Corp alumnus, and Unger, a former foreign correspondent, believed that their international experience greatly expanded the scope and breadth of their writing, and when they both wound up at UNLV about 15 years later, decided to establish a creative writing p

rogram that would give students the same depth.

Because of a change of presidents, it took them until 1997 to establish the MFA program, and a few years after that to start the doctorate. Harter, then president, and Chris Hudgins, now interim dean of Liberal Arts at UNLV, were instrumental in getting the program off the ground, Wiley and Unger said.

But financial investment from hotel executive Schaeffer, a fellow Iowa Writers' Workshop alumnus, made much of the program possible.

Schaeffer recently renewed his commitment to fund two new doctoral fellows a year, after a one-year moratorium while elements of the MFA program were shuffled because of the creation of the Black Mountain Institute, said Harter, now its executive director. Schaeffer, who could not be reached for comment, has continued to invest in the institute.

Rogers, another major donor, was ecstatic about the Atlantic Monthly conclusions, reading them aloud to her husband, media mogul and university system Chancellor Jim Rogers.

UNLV's English department is an example of how concentrated, private investment can create "pockets of excellence" that raise the profile

of the whole university, Jim Rogers said.

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