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Controversy and Confrontation, NMSU: 1968-1978

black and white portrait of a man, Roger Corbett, standing in an archway
Roger Baily Corbett, President,
New Mexico State University, 1955-1970

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 miscommunication, distrust of the 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.”

“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 the 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 a 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 

On Students

black and white portrait of a man, Gerald Thomas
Gerald Waylett Thomas, President,
New Mexico State University, 1970-1984

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. The 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

book cover of Jack Kerouac's Dharma BumsJack Kerouac’s novels were the forerunners of the countercultural revolution. On the Road, published in 1957, became the classic definition of the Beat Generation—a thinly disguised memoir of purposeless road trips punctuated by drugs, sex, and jazz. The Dharma Bums explores Kerouac’s (unsuccessful) attempt to find spiritual enlightenment through Zen.

title page of  Irwin Allen Ginsberg's HowlIrwin Allen Ginsberg was to many the face of the counterculture. His poem “Howl”, perhaps his most famous work, denounced conformity and the complacency of American culture.  Ginsberg’s works were proclaimed obscene because of their graphic treatment of homosexuality at a time when sodomy laws were in effect in nearly every state. Eventually, the courts found that “Howl”, in particular, was not obscene but a manifestation of freedom of the press and of speech.

title page of Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton's book Black PowerA native of Trinidad/Tobago, Stokely Carmichael was the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, working with Martin Luther King Jr. and other Southern leaders to stage protests. His book Black Power served as a call for black people to define their own goals and resist cultural and political imperialism. It inspired a more radical generation of civil rights activists. Carmichael himself later lost faith in the tactic of non-violence and allied himself with the militant Black Panther Party as a Black Nationalist.

Charles Hamilton was one of the first African-Americans to hold an academic chair at an Ivy League institution—Columbia University. If Carmichael was the activist and folk hero, Hamilton was considered the intellectual half of the “Black Power” duo.

book cover for William Burrough's Naked LunchBorn into privilege and, briefly, a Harvard pre-med student, William S. Burroughs abandoned that life and became a member of the group of writers known as “the Beats.” The Naked Lunch chronicles his fifteen-year addiction to heroin. Condemned as pornographic in 1962, the book’s “redeeming social value” was confirmed in 1966 thanks to a high court ruling.
title page for Herman Huncke's book Huncke's JournalHerman Huncke embodied the non-conformist ideal of the Beats and they loved him for it. Unlike many of them, he was not rejecting the conformity of a privileged childhood. He was uneducated and a cheerful lawbreaker, a drifter, a thief, a junkie. Huncke’s reputation rested on the regard the Beats felt for him. They regarded his few writings as honest and pure manifestations of the Beat philosophy and thought of him as a kind of role model for the counterculture.
cover of manifesto The Port Huron StatementThe Port Huron Statement , written in 1962, became the political manifesto of the student activist movement, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Although he was not specifically credited, the manifesto was penned primarily by Tom Hayden, a University of Michigan student and later a spearhead of ‘60s and ‘70s activism.  Roger Corbett vilified the SDS as a communist organization when it appeared on campus and held meetings at The Hut.

NMSU Underground Publications

The Conscience

typed document called The NMA and M Conscience
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typed document called Banned at NMSU
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Gordon Solberg, the 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 on 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

typed document titled The Delightful Middle
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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

black and white photograph of a marquee at The Hut
The Hut
black and white photograph of a man unlocking a door to The Hut
The Hut
typed document titled The N M A and M Conscience special Hut edition
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At a time when unrest was widespread 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.

black and white photographs of Reverend Nielsen
Reverend Nielsen
By 1969 President Corbett believed so strongly that The Hut fostered such seditious and nefarious activities that he requested the police mount a camera outside the facility to record the comings and goings of its clientele. Shown here are surveillance photos of Rev. Nielsen.

The Issues

Vietnam and Compulsory ROTC

typed document title ASNMSU Senate Action
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newspaper clipping with photograph titled Protestors carry crosses, signs during anti-ROTC demonstration
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newspaper clipping from The Round Up of article titled Police arrest 20 anti-war activists for refusing to vacate bank hallway, with two black and white photographs of protestors
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Anti-war protestors
Anti-war protestors on the NMSU campus
Anti-war protestors on the NMSU campus
Anti-war protestors on the NMSU campus
Anti-war protestors on the NMSU campus
Anti-war protestors on the NMSU campus
Anti-war protestors marching on the NMSU campus
Anti-war protestors on the NMSU campus
Anti-war protestors on the NMSU campus
Anti-war protestors on the NMSU campus

Students for a Democratic Society

newspaper clipping for article titled SDS wins appeal; starts paper project
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newspaper clipping for article titled Reactions occur over SDS denial
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Rock Concerts

newspaper clipping for article titled Regents review anti-rock restrictions
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newspaper clipping for article titled Concert policy questions fielded by representatives
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Minority Activism


newspaper clipping of article titled Ortego advocates changes
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newspaper clipping of article titled Ethnic groups set proposal
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newspaper article titled Black students, SIE deliver demands to administration
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newspaper clipping of article titled Senate considers statement regarding BSO ultimatum
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Sgt. Wilbourn and unidentified student in Garcia Hall disturbance
Sgt. Wilbourn and unidentified student in Garcia Hall disturbance
Protest by black students at 1970 Inauguration
Protest by black students at 1970 inauguration

Fake News

This placard appeared around campus at the time the Radical Education Project, an offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society, came up for validation by the Recognition Committee. Its intent was to horrify its audience and cast doubt on the "trustworthiness and intentions" of the REP. The publicity stunt worked as the Recognition Committee refused the group's petition to be a legitimate voice on campus.

handwritten sign that reads Demonstration, There will be a demonstration of the effects of napalm upon a live dog. Time and place to be announced.
Fake news spread on campus to create distrust of a student organization.

Bomb Threats

typed police report for a bomb theat
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Fires of Mysterious Origin

black and white photograph of the aftermath of a fire in the barracks near the Science Hall on the NMSU campus
This World War II barracks housing the Art Department caught fire during a February 1973 riot. Arson was ruled out and peace was soon restored to the campus. -- Gerald W. Thomas, The Academic Ecosystem

Intervisitation Rights

newspaper clipping of article titled What do you think about intervisitation?
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newspaper clipping of article titled History of intervisitation reviewed
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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!”

newspaper clipping of article titled State court studying intervisitation
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newspaper clipping of article titled Brief defends intervisitation policy
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newspaper clipping of article titled Students' brief awaits court action
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EQUUS: Bringing Sophistication to a Provincial Institution

color photograph of Mark Medoff in theater production
Mark Medoff in Equus
black and white photograph of two people in theatrical production, one person portraying a horse while the other person sits on their back
Theatrical production of Equus

“… 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.”