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Rod Smith

Nevadan at Work: Entrepreneurial Spirit Drew Professor to UNLV

6 June 2005

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professor Hal Rothman said a class he took that melded literature and history inspired his career choice.

Getting to the office of University of Nevada, Las Vegas history department Chairman Hal Rothman can be surprising. That's because he has the office with the Michael Jordan nameplate on the door.

It's not that people in the department don't know who he is. The nameplate, instead, speaks buckets about the drive Rothman brings to his job.

Rothman says there's a story behind the nameplate. It seems, as department chairman, he was responsible for overseeing construction of the newly rebuilt Wright Hall on the main campus quadrangle's southern end. When work on the building was done, the construction supervisor asked him if there was anything else he could do. Rothman replied: "Yes. Make me Michael Jordan."

"I came back the next day and there it was," he said.

The new building is symbolic of Rothman's drive to make a mark. He said he really liked the old, 30-year-old building, but it was falling apart.

Now, the department he has headed for three years has a high-tech building to house its 25 professors, three-person office staff, 20 part-time workers and about 130 graduate students.

Rothman is yielding the rotating chairmanship and, for the first time in his 20-year academic career, he'll be left to teaching, research and writing.

Question: What does a department chairman do?

Answer: This is a very good department with a strong culture. We lead by consensus. We build consensus around ideas and then it's the chairman's role to make the ideas a reality. We have a business plan for the department and we've been very, very successful.

We've built a reputation by being entrepreneurial and innovative, by going out and finding resources and by engaging subjects that a lot of places wouldn't. We have an enormous oral history project at the Nevada Test Site that's part of building public-private partnerships.

Question: Why history?

Answer: My last semester as an undergraduate, I didn't know what I was going to do. I had a job lined up: I was going to manage a record store in northern Illinois.

And I came into a class taught by a little old English professor named Lynn Altenbernd. His class melded history and literature. I'd been an indifferent student most of my life, but it pushed every button I had. All of a sudden it made sense to me and he sent me off to graduate school. The rest, as they say, is history.

In graduate school, I was mentored by a Pulitzer Prize winner named Bill Getzman and Arthur Crosby, who is most famous for his look at disease demography and the ways in which European diseases affected people in the Americas. Getzman is famous for a book called "Exploration and Empire," about science and exploration in the American West in the 19th century.

I started out writing a doctoral dissertation about national parks in Santa Fe, N.M. It was a while before I got teaching jobs, so I wrote congressionally mandated histories of national parks.

Question: Why'd you want to teach?

Answer: I developed a passion for learning. If you'd known me at 18, it'd surprise you to find me here today. It became important to me to try to make sense of why humans are the way they are.

Thirty years later, I still have no idea. But it seemed to me by learning about how human societies are and about how humans use the world around them that I might get down that road.

Question: Why UNLV?

Answer: I had a teaching job at another university. I was 33 and I was bumping my head on a really low ceiling.

The appeal here was the entrepreneurial spirit of the university, the way we've grown so rapidly and the things we've been able to accomplish. I could see that. Everything was possible.

You could actually build something; you could go from nothing to something. And that was tremendously appealing. It looked like a place where if you had some energy and used some elbow grease, things would work out.

Question: What did you want to build?

Answer: They'd just started the doctoral program in the history of the American West here at the time. It was tremendously exciting. You hone your thinking by talking. That's what really good graduate students do for you. Now, we're well on the way to being one of the premier programs (for teaching) the history of the American West. We're deeper than just about every other program in the country. There are plenty of programs that are older, there are plenty that have bigger names, but there are few that are as accomplished.

Question: Is that ironic?

Answer: It's entirely appropriate it's in Las Vegas. Las Vegas has a tremendous history; it just doesn't appear to be a traditional Western history. We didn't have enormous fields or great grasses. We had minerals and that became the genesis of the state.

Question: Why does it seem there's so little history?

Answer: Las Vegas is different from other tourist towns. Other places reflect desire, but Las Vegas anticipates as well. In most tourist towns, they have a fixed theme. In Las Vegas, we're chameleonlike.

We're all things to all people all the time. It's not yesterday that's important to us, it's tomorrow. We hold a mirror up to people and ask what they want to be and what they'll pay to be it. That makes us mutable. We're changeable in ways other places aren't and that makes history less important to us.

Now we're seeing the maturation of the city. We're seeing an increased interest in historic preservation. As long as people keep moving here in large numbers, that will never calcify.

Question: Looking back, what have you found most rewarding about working in education here in Las Vegas?

Answer: The exciting thing about being here is we get to build a new world. We at UNLV are part of a process of educating a new public for a new century, providing people with the access to the skills and technologies that are at the core of the 21st century postindustrial economy.

In this, we're reprising the oldest theme in American history: the way this country, and this city, let people become something new and hopefully something better for themselves and for their society. That's why I went into education in the first place.