Controversy and Confrontation, NMSU: 1968-1978

In 1964 the radicalization of American students began in force with the movement for Free Speech which incited rioting on the University of California-Berkeley campus. According to Roger B. Corbett

(NMSU President from 1955-1970), “the sharpest and most devastating change during the fifteen years from mid-1955 to the mid-1970s was in student attitudes. In the 1950s students could be characterized as serious, hard-working, and desiring an education.” In Corbett’s view, the radical views of the Sixties led to breakdowns in discipline, personal conduct, morality, and respect for authority. Corbett firmly believed that complicit, enabling university administrators and faculty only encouraged the anti-establishment revolution spreading across the country.

The student unrest that bubbled to the surface at NMSU during the 1960s and 1970s was far from the rioting, destruction of property, and violence raging elsewhere in the country. Aside from protests against mandatory ROTC, NMSU students paid little attention to Vietnam. Corbett’s ongoing battle with insurgent, irreligious, and disrespectful elements on campus ended in 1970 when Gerald W. Thomas became president of NMSU. Although small groups periodically railed against social, racial, and gender inequalities, Thomas found the principal issues to be mis-communication, distrust of administration, and a repressive speaker’s policy that dampened the exercise of free speech. Less inclined to authoritarian measures, as well as a patient and perceptive listener, Thomas weathered a rocky period of demonstrations, bomb threats, and assertive students demanding respect for cultural diversity and liberalization of on-campus rules, including the right of “intervisitation.”

President, New Mexico State University, 1955-1970

“What has student violence accomplished in the years since 1864 for colleges and universities, their faculties and students? What has the nation gained? Following is one analysis:“What has student violence accomplished in the years since 1864 for colleges and universities, their faculties and students? What has the nation gained? Following is one analysis:

I. A serious down-grading of moral decency in America

II. Tearing down respect for all authority

III. Belittling honest workIV. Lowering academic standards

V. Demanding a voice (sometimes control) in the hiring and firing of administrators, faculty, and staff.

VI. Fostering disunity between the two largest minority groups (Blacks and Mexican-Americans) and between these groups and the majority

VII. Interference with the basic work of the boards of trustees or regents

These seven points give only a part of the losses suffered by the universities due to demands and pressures from students. What about dress on campuses, with the loss of cleanliness in many instances? The “Drug-Culture” which some are now calling the “Marijuana-Sex Culture” has benefitted whom? The total history of mankind proves lack of ability to maintain peace in the world. The virtual elimination of ROTC programs and programs of military research on campuses will prove to be losses rather than the gains that many students, faculty members, and churchmen, are still chortling over as great victories.”

NMSU Archives and Special Collections. Records of the Presidents: Roger Bailey Corbett Papers 


President, New Mexico State University, 1970-1984

On Students

We can no longer talk about indifference and apathy among students. There is evidence of the increasing importance of college students in political circles and social activities. Actions of college youth frequently have both a national and an international impact. These young people are asking penetrating questions of serious concern to us all. They are probably the best informed, most perceptive, most concerned, and least materialist of any generation in our country. But college students across the nation have a bad image. I’d like to see them do something really revolutionary—make a concerted effort to improve that image.

Gerald W. Thomas, New Mexico Aggie, v. 19/Issue V/1970




Radical Literature of the 1960s

NMSU Underground Publications

The Conscience

Gordon Solberg, recipient of a B. S. in Physics from NMSU in 1968, returned to campus as a Junior Astronomer researching the atmosphere of Jupiter under Professor Clyde Tombaugh. He also became the editor of a campus underground newspaper, The Conscience, the first issue of which appeared September 30, 1968. Sparks immediately began to fly between Solberg and NMSU administration. Roger Corbett found the contents of the magazine “cheap, disgusting, even revolting” and designed entirely to “smear the administration.” Believing that freedom of expression and academic freedom were under attack, Solberg found a ready ally in Rev. James Nielsen of “The Hut,” who had endured similar vilification. Solberg, however, eventually enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union to bring a successful case against NMSU’s Board of Regents and President Corbett when he was forced to give up his graduate assistantship. The Conscience briefly continued on without him but finally ceased publication in 1969.

The Delightful Middle

The “Delightful Middle” was a short-lived counter-punch to “The Conscience.” It was edited by Steve Pearce, NMSU student council president (and eventual United States Representative to Congress for the New Mexico Second Congressional District). His aim, clearly, was to show that many of the grievances for which students were demonstrating and being arrested could be addressed by student organizations already in place.

The Hut

At a time when unrest was wide-spread on college campuses, “The Hut”—the United Campus Christian Fellowship’s coffee house—provided a forum for explosive local and national issues. Through its newsletter, “Man-Alive”, it publicized its activist agenda of exploring contemporary issues in lively and unusual formats.

“The Hut” became a center of contention and a thorn deep in the side of NMSU’s administration. President Corbett particularly vilified the Reverend James Nielsen, staff minister, whom he accused of embracing radicals, hippies, and non-conformists of all races and persuasions.

Corbett said, “The complaints that came to me were along the lines of too much noise (including loud, vulgar language), the smell of marijuana, off-beat words on the walls, the meeting place to plan disruption of some phases of the University program, and the description of a generally undesirable place…About the only constructive point made was that “The Hut” gave the blacks…a congregating place where their “soul” music was to be found.” -Roger B. Corbett, “Memoirs…” NMSU University Archives.

The Issues

Intervisitation Rights

President Thomas notes in his book, The Academic Ecosystem, that an administrator from UNM remarked to him, “I don’t understand you Aggies. Your students didn’t do a damned thing about the Vietnam war or the invasion of Cambodia, but the Board of Regents interferes with their sex life and all hell breaks loose!”

EQUUS: Bringing Sophistication to a Provincial Institution

“…the thing, I think, to remember is Presidents don’t realize when they become President, when they’re new to the job, that parking and athletics are not the only problems: that the Arts are going to sneak up on them from time to time.” Dr. Thomas Gale, Interview (2-9-95) University Archives: UA-T-525

In 1978 Theatre Arts faculty member Mark Medoff proposed staging the nationally award-winning play, “Equus” by Peter Shaffer at NMSU. He duly warned administrators that the play had a nude scene. Assured that this nudity was a brief but integral part of the play, President Gerald Thomas agreed to the production. Word circulated quickly, however, that NMSU was about to stage a “pornographic” play and letters of condemnation poured in, both from conservative elements outside and within the university. Eventually, the protesters persuaded the City Attorney to threaten to “march on stage and arrest any students who were nude.” In response Medoff enlisted the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union and the federal courts promptly issued an injunction forbidding any action against the production by the City Attorney. The play went on and was sold out for its entire run.

According to Dr. Thomas Gale, “…in my mind, this was partly the coming of age in the institution. It became a really much more sophisticated place. I think the faculty, particularly in Arts and Sciences, and I think the Business and some of the other Colleges, developed more respect for the institution [and] felt that they were teaching at a first class institution.”