Behind the Rogers Foundation's $30 Million (And Counting) Effort to Transform UNLV Into a Writing Mecca

When I read the news that the Las Vegas-based Rogers Foundation — after donating $10 million in 2013 to the University of Nevada Las Vegas' Black Mountain Institute (BMI) — plans to give an additional $20 million to the very same literary center, I couldn't help but think of that old, time-tested adage, "Money won't always make things better, but it sure can't hurt to try."

I admit I more or less made up the adage — catchy, isn't it? But the premise holds true. Sometimes a big, fat check really does go a long way toward solving problems, generating legitimacy, or easing worried minds. Such is the case in Las Vegas. But before we look at the short and long-term impact of this historic grant, let's first look at the funder in question and the details of this massive give.

The brainchild of the late lawyer, television station owner, and university Chancellor James Rogers, the Rogers Foundation promotes education and the arts in the Silver State. Rogers passed away last June, but his wife Beverly continues to carry the torch. The gift to the BMI, which is officially known as the Beverly Rogers and Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute, will enable UNLV to do the following:

  • Add graduate-level programs in creative nonfiction and dramatic writing to its current fiction and poetry offerings.
  • Fund an expansion of BMI's City of Asylum program, in which the center sponsors writers whose creative expression puts them in danger in their home country.
  • Provide its English department's graduate assistants with $25,000 stipends for doctoral students — one of the most generous offerings in the country.

This then brings us to the gift's real impact across the liberal arts world. As you could probably infer from those bullet points, all this extra cash will probably pique the interest of PhD applicants, writers, and faculties across the country, if not the world. Suddenly, overnight, BMI has become a destination.

In fact, by adding graduate-level programs in creative nonfiction and dramatic writing, the Rogers Foundation, with one broad stroke, has elevated UNLV's program to what UNLV President Len Jessup calls the "upper echelon around the country." The gift, Jessup said, "Takes what was already a very good program and now makes it one of the very best." Jessup went so far as to mention the program in the same breath as the internationally acclaimed Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.

At an even higher level, the gift is part of a larger effort by the foundation to "transform Nevada's lackluster reputation" (their words, not ours) as a place for learning. "We wanted to put Las Vegas in position to be on the map in a positive way," Beverly Rodgers said during the announcement ceremony.

I admit, the idea of Las Vegas as a worldwide destination for aspiring writers and poets will take some getting used to. But thanks to the $30 million windfall (and counting) to the BMI, the idea suddenly isn't so far-fetched.

For more analysis on news and funding trends in the world of higher education, check out IP's vertical on this very topic here.