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John L. Smith On The Resignation Of Joshua Wolf Shenk From BMI

(Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

The sudden resignation of Joshua Wolf Shenk as director of UNLV’s prestigious Black Mountain Institute literary program set off a buzz of speculation in the local creative community. 

The Los Angeles Times has reported that Shenk left his position after accidentally exposing himself during a Zoom meeting with colleagues. 

Through a public relations representative, Shenk said he regretted taking a bath to relieve nerve pain—this, during a virtual meeting with some BMI staff - and did not think the camera was on.

Contributor John L. Smith said there had been a lot of mystery and speculation about Shenk's departure, but it wasn't until the LA Times story that anything was really reported.

Since the article came out, Smith said there has been a lot of chatter about it on Twitter.

“A lot of criticism of what took place and of the story itself because there were some holes in and some sympathy for Shenk as well," he said, "It’s really an unceremonious way to leave an institution that is really highly regarded.”

There are people defending Shenk. 

“He definitely has defenders or people who are at least preaching and calling for some sympathy here that perhaps this was some kind of mistake or just feel for a guy with fibromyalgia,” he said.

However, Smith said, on balance, there are more people criticizing Shenk than defending him. Besides the Zoom incident, others are calling out his style of management at BMI and "The Believer" literary magazine.

“As they move forward, people will also want to know whether this was a pattern of activity or just some really dumb – really, really dumb – thing to do,” Smith said.

Shenk came to BMI in 2015. Smith said he brought a new energy to the institution, which already had a stellar reputation in the literary world.

“He was a very peripatetic guy," Smith said, "He had a lot of big ideas, some of them came to bear, some of them did not. He was a disrupter of the status quo there.”

The Beverly Rogers-Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute, which is the official name of BMI, was already well established before Shenk was named as director.

“He really came in as this kind of dynamic, new idea man there,” Smith said.

Shenk brought "The Believer" magazine into the fold and created "The Believer Festival," which Smith said attracted a new generation of people in the literary world.

“It got hipper but thinner,” he said.

Stipends for writers decreased and stays for major writers went from several months to weeks, Smith said.

Now, Smith has a feeling that the ground is still moving under BMI's feet; however, there are many dedicated people involved with the institute, “who were proud to grow this message of a literary Las Vegas.”

“It’s not the kind of news that goes away in a day; however, in its context, as long as BMI moves forward with the kind of quality that we’ve known from it in the past, I think that’s all good on BMI," Smith said.

Smith does question why UNLV and BMI didn't provide more transparency around Shenk's departure in the first place. 


“Larry Gragg is a historian who has a really clear-eyed view of this. He is a very meticulous researcher, and he covers a lot of ground a whole decade, basically, and more in this book, which is less than 300 pages."

Smith said the book is a fun read and covers some of the most famous stories of the era, but also goes in-depth on the realities of 1950s Las Vegas.

“He brings a lot of close scrutiny to different things, everything from the way Blacks were treated in Las Vegas in that decade," he said, "The way women were treated in that decade, and of course, the great hotels that sprung up and how they did. It is well worth your time, that’s for sure.”

Smith says Gragg does a great job explaining the intertwining of Nevada politics and organized crime at the time, which Smith believes is "the story of Las Vegas."

1950s Las Vegas is Smith's favorite time period for the city. One aspect he loved was the "unabashed hucksterism" of the period. Las Vegas was promoting itself with an eye to trying to counterbalance some of the 'bad press' - which really meant the mob ties the city had become known for.


“Dan Rodimer brought a lot of energy and kind of carnival sense to [Texas] Congress District 6, which is now in a runoff situation after 23 candidates took a shot at it," Smith said.

Rodimer ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in Nevada last November. He was defeated by Rep. Susie Lee, D-NV. 

His campaign in Texas was in a special election after the death of Rep. Ron Wright.

Smith said Rodimer created an ad that featured him riding a bull and being bucked off and then stepping in a cowpie -  "who knows what that was about," Smith quipped.

Rodimer is originally from New Jersey so Smith is not sure the cowboy hat ever fit. 

“I think there is a celebrity factor of politics that is under-appreciated in American culture,” Smith said of why people who lose in one race will run again. 

John L. Smith, contributor

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.