Las Vegas Sun

October 26, 2021

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UNLV’s pioneering second president, Zorn, dies at 85

Roman Zorn set out in 1969 to make the University of Nevada, Las Vegas a respected independent academic institution.

As president of the university for four years -- the second following Donald C. Moyer -- he did not intend to make UNLV a sports powerhouse.

However, because of Zorn's foresight and dedication, UNLV became known as a center for both academia and for athletics.

Roman Joseph Zorn, who oversaw the construction of a dozen buildings at UNLV to turn so-called "Tumbleweed Tech" into a thriving campus and hired former basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, died Aug. 8 at his Las Vegas home following a lengthy illness. He was 85.

Services were private for the Las Vegas resident of 33 years.

As the driving force in cutting the apron strings to the University of Nevada, Reno, Zorn helped UNLV establish its own identity. As early as 1969 he raised eyebrows by suggesting a law school be built at the university.

"Dad was very proud that he brought UNLV out of its shell and that it no longer was an afterthought to UNR," said daughter Marian Lawrence of Los Angeles. "He was most proud of the academic accomplishments, of UNLV's growth to 26 buildings and of the many members of the faculty he hired.

"There really was no campus when we arrived here. UNLV was just a few buildings in the desert. Dad made it a landscaped campus."

Under Zorn's presidency, UNLV's football team contended for small college national titles. And Zorn's hiring of basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian in 1973 eventually made UNLV a household name nationwide -- though it was not the type of fame Zorn had envisioned.

Tarkanian, who retired as basketball coach at Fresno State this year, had a long but turbulent tenure at UNLV, marked by his battles with the National Collegiate Athletic Association over recruiting practices. It culminated with a national title in 1990 and a Final Four appearance the following year.

After serving as president, Zorn in 1973 returned to his first love, teaching American history. He retired in 1982 and was granted professor emeritus status.

Before coming to UNLV, Zorn was president at Keene State Teachers College -- today Keene State University -- in New Hampshire. Six years ago a building on that campus was named for him.

Born Nov. 21, 1916, in River Falls, Wis., Zorn was teaching American history in Wisconsin high schools at age 20 without the benefit of a college degree.

He earned his bachelor's in history from River Falls State College in 1937 and three years later earned a master's in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin.

A Navy veteran, Zorn returned to the field of education after World War II and earned a doctorate from Wisconsin in 1953.

He later served as director of the University of Wisconsin's Green Bay Center satellite campus, which became the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.

Zorn taught history at Wisconsin, Ohio University, the University of Missouri and the University of Arkansas. He specialized in 19th century social history and was considered an expert on the American anti-slavery movement.

In 1960 Zorn became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Rhode Island. Four years later he was named president of Keene State, where he turned the school from primarily a teachers college into a liberal arts institution and a center for industrial technology studies.

Zorn came to UNLV when there were 4,500 students -- today enrollment is about 22,500 -- and had high hopes for unprecedented growth.

"There is a tremendous potential for a first-rate university in Las Vegas," Zorn told the Sun in 1969.

Weeks earlier Zorn came aboard with a bang, suggesting a law school would work at the tiny college on Maryland Parkway.

"Las Vegas is the type of metropolitan area that could well support a law school," Zorn said in 1969. "Also law is a service-type school that could well fit into the UNLV picture."

Nearly three decades later, in 1998, Zorn's dream came true when UNLV's Boyd School of Law opened.

During his presidency Zorn said it was vital that his administration take steps "to catch up before Reno (UNR) begins to move anymore." He also championed the establishment of community colleges to "fill an important gap in any higher education picture."

In 1971 Zorn was named to the Committee on Cultural Affairs for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, where he helped plan educational programs throughout the nation.

An environmental activist, Zorn in the early 1970s urged people to drive smaller cars and recycle newspapers and bottles to reduce pollution.

In addition to his daughter, Zorn is survived by his wife of 56 years, Ann Zorn of Las Vegas; three other daughters, Frances Zorn of Boston, Carolyn Zorn of Las Vegas and Kathryn Zorn-Bracety of Phoenix; and three grandchildren, David and Aaron Lawrence, both of Los Angeles, and Ann Bracety of Phoenix.

The family said donations can be made in Zorn's memory to St. Vincent's Emergency Shelter or the Shade Tree Shelter.