Originally a teachers college, Highlands University has evolved into a multifaceted institution of higher learning, a reflection of its own multi-cultural heritage. For alumni the real university, and the true story of Highlands was their experience in the classroom with faculty who inspired, nurtured and instilled the sense of curiosity critical to learning and living.
No one disputes the bumpy history of Highlands, but that’s only part of the story. In recent years the university has emerged as one of the top Hispanic-serving institutions in the country.
Its heritage goes back 120 years and has been sustained by community generosity. That too is part of Highlands’ history.
The actual moment of Highlands’ inception was Feb. 11, 1893, when New Mexico territorial Gov. L. Branford Prince signed into law the creation of two normal schools in Las Vegas and Silver City. The law had grown from a Senate bill introduced by Albert Fall of Silver City, which was originally intended to create just one such school. His bill was changed to include a second school in Las Vegas — thanks to Félix Martinez, a wealthy businessman, politician and owner of La Voz del Pueblo, Old Town’s populist newspaper, and John D.W. Veeder. Both lived in old town Las Vegas and served in the territorial Senate.
According to Maurilio E. Vigil, a retired Highlands professor of political science who wrote a centennial history of Highlands titled, “Defining our Destiny: The History of New Mexico Highlands University,” it took some impressive maneuvering by Martínez and Veeder to get Las Vegas included in the legislation.
“The conclusion I reached (in research for the book) was that there were really two founders of Highlands, Felix Martínez and John D.W. Veeder,” Vigil said in a recent interview. “Martínez … has been referred to, and correctly so, as the founder of the school. He had been an advocate as the publisher of La Voz del Pueblo, and he was of course instrumental, along with Veeder, in developing what I call a masterful strategy to get the bill for Highlands University passed.”
Then came the task of locating the new school. The first Board of Regents created two committees to consider possible locations on each side of the river.
According to Vigil in his book, the regents decided by a 3-2 vote to build the school at an old town site, but an East Las Vegas group filed suit and got an injunction to stop the plan. Events developed that convinced both sides it was time to talk.
“Aware that the controversy could jeopardize the whole project, the citizens committees from both towns entered into negotiations in 1894 which eventually resulted in a compromise,” Vigil wrote. The new site selected was just east of the river, in New Town territory.
Construction of a building to house the school began in 1895, but it was delayed twice because of a shortfall in funding. Revenue from a tax levy, the sale of bonds and an ample amount of community generosity completed the project.
“In 1899, the Territorial Legislature appropriated $19,300 to repay the money loaned by Las Vegans,” Vigil wrote in his book. “However, all the contributors… returned the money to the board to be used for the university. These citizens were thus the first donors of the school.”
In 1898, the New Mexico Normal School at Las Vegas opened its doors in what would later be named Springer Hall after one of the original supporters of the school, attorney Frank Springer.
In July 1898, the school’s first president, Edgar Lee Hewett, went to work, hiring 12 teachers and organizing five departments. New Mexico Normal School at Las Vegas opened its doors on Oct. 2, and began classes for the first time. The first enrollment included either 92 or 103 students — Vigil and Lynn Irwin Perrigo’s book “Gateway to Glorieta: A History of Las Vegas, New Mexico,” differ on the actual enrollment numbers for that first term. Maybe that discrepancy is understandable, given the rapid pace in which the school grew: According to Vigil, enrollment had swelled to 160 students in just three months.
Also during this time, Regents chairman Springer, and President Hewett managed to get a measure through the Territorial Legislature renaming the school the New Mexico Normal University, while also expanding the institution’s offerings by including, according to Vigil, a “pedagogical laboratory where new theories of education could be tested.” So the designation as a university wasn’t simply semantic — the school really was broadening its academic pursuits.
The Highlands name would come much later (in 1941) by another legislative act — but by 1899, the university that exists to this day had arrived.
In 1903, a rift developed between a majority of the regents and Hewett and he announced his resignation. Springer, who continued to support Hewett, also resigned as the board’s chairman.
What followed was a succession of presidents with varying levels of success — marked by the construction of new facilities and an overall increase in enrollment. To the dismay of west-side leaders such as Felíx Martínez, the school had become Anglo-centric, and under the rule of East Las Vegas.
Vigil reported in his book that it wasn’t until 1907 that the first two Hispanic faculty members — Antonio Lucero and Henry M. Lopez, who taught Spanish and public speaking — were hired. Such a disparity would remain in place for more than a half-century, well past New Mexico’s designation as a state in 1912.
The school wasn’t without a diversity of supporters. Among the regents who hired Hewett was a Jewish merchant named Charles Ilfeld, who had migrated from Germany to New Mexico in 1865, set up shop in Las Vegas two years later and become one of the most successful businessmen in the Southwest.
By 1920, a year after his wife Adele died, the Normal University was bursting at the seams. During the summer session, enrollment had exploded from 418 to 968 students, according to Vigil’s book, because of a new state law that required teachers to enroll in refresher courses and renew their teaching certificates.
A few years earlier, the legislature had appropriated $75,000 for new buildings on the campus and the regents started planning for a 1,000-seat assembly hall, but it soon became apparent the state funds wouldn’t be enough. That’s when Ilfeld offered to donate $25,000 toward its completion, on one condition — that the building be named as a memorial to his late wife.
As costs continued to rise, Charles’s brothers Herman, Louis and Arthur Ilfeld threw in additional money. By 1923 the Adele Ilfeld Auditorium was well on its way to becoming a reality. Construction of this monument to the arts — actually, a work of art in itself — took a decade to build, but by 1931 the sandstone structure in its Romanesque Revival style of construction was finally complete.
Even as it was being built the facility was put to use with its first performances taking place the same year construction began.
Politics at the highest level of Highlands’ administration has been present at various times through the university’s history. Edward Eyring’s 12-year tenure as president is a prime example. He was the one who ushered in the “Highlands” name, and he was dismissed after a series of politically charged run-ins with the Board of Regents. It began, Vigil wrote in his book, when he refused to fire several employees.
H.M. Mortimer, the Board of Regents chair, suggested that Eyring make room for some new hires, to be “recommended by the Republican county committee,” but Eyring wouldn’t do it. That led to a series of conflicts with the board, which ended in his dismissal. Even then Eyring refused to go along — until state police physically escorted him from his office in 1952.
Thomas C. Donnelly ushered in a new era. The author of two books on politics in the Southwest, he is to this day considered to be among the most beloved of all the Highlands presidents.
“Donnelly came in with a very firm agenda,” said Doyle Daves, a Highlands Foundation board member and a Class of 1959 graduate. “I think by the time I entered the school in ’55, one could make the case that it would be hard to find a better quality small college anywhere. It was a wonderful, wonderful school during that time and Tom Donnelly gets a lot of credit for that.”
Vigil says protests really began with the G.I. Bill after World War II, when veterans returned home and were given cash payments to pay for tuition. It provided them with a means for attending college, and many enrolled in Highlands during Eyring’s tenure as president.
They were older and had “paid their dues” in the war, and they weren’t afraid to challenge the administration at a number of levels. That set the stage for an even more reform-minded generation that came of age during the Vietnam War.
By the 1960s, Donnelly was feeling the heat as local political leaders such as West Las Vegas mayor Junio Lopez, West Schools superintendent Ray Leger and local District Attorney Donaldo “Tiny” Martinez were publicly criticizing Donnelly and his administration for the lack of diversity on the teaching staff.
By the late ‘60s, Donnelly was suffering from health problems; plus, he was facing mounting criticism from the Hispanic leadership in West Las Vegas and his friend and ally, state Sen. Gordon Melody, lost a re-election bid to Junio Lopez. In 1969, the longstanding university president announced he would resign in May 1970.
A screening committee whittled the list of possible replacements down to five candidates. Only one, John A. Aragon, was Hispanic. Formerly of Las Vegas, he was a well-qualified candidate out of Albuquerque and several leaders on the west side wanted him to get the job. Instead, the regents selected Charles Graham, a college dean out of Wisconsin.
That set off a series of events. Vigil reported in his book that Martinez, as the local DA, leveled criminal charges against three of the Anglo regents, alleging they had unlawfully decided to hire Graham, “…at a secretly held meeting not open to the public,” and that they had discriminated against Aragon, “…because of his national origin and ancestry.”
Moreover, the sole Hispanic regent, Taos Schools superintendent Joe L. Otero, resigned in protest, charging his colleagues with “tokenism” by not seriously considering Aragon for the job.
Nevertheless, throughout the onslaught, the Board of Regents stuck by its decision to hire Graham.
Then came the student protests, including a five-day sit-in at the administration building. It all remained nonviolent but tensions were so that even the governor, David Cargo, got involved as a self-proclaimed mediator to quell the dispute.
About two months later Graham backed down, asking the Board of Regents to release him from his contract. Shortly after, Ralph Carlisle Smith, Highlands’ vice president and academic dean and professor of political science, was named as interim president, and in January 1972, newly elected Gov. Bruce King appointed a new Board of Regents.
In August 1972, the board selected the nation’s first Hispanic university president — Frank Angel — as Highlands’ 12th president.
“Frank Angel was generally acceptable, a good choice, a good alternative, a good compromise,” Vigil said in the recent interview. “He was a native of Las Vegas (and) had a distinguished teaching career.”
During Angel’s tenure as president, Vigil said, Chicano, African American and Native American studies were incorporated into Highlands’ curriculum and minority professors were hired.
“Really, the transformation of Highlands University occurred during this time,” Vigil said.
Angel served until 1975, when John Aragon — the lone Hispanic finalist in 1970 — was named the school’s 13th president. Since then five more presidents have served the university: Gilbert Sanchez, Selimo Rael, Sharon Caballero, Manny Aragon and James Fries. During Fries presidency, the university has raised and spent millions of dollars on new facilities, advanced the green initiative with several LEED Silver and LEED Gold buildings, including the university’s largest dormitory ever and a state-of-the-art student center, and made recognized advancements in several academic fields of study.
Leveo Sanchez, a Highlands graduate who currently serves as chair of the Board of Regents, said the NMHU Foundation is integral to Highlands’ success., founded in 1983 — 30 short years ago. Sanchez said such an entity is important to the university’s development because it can do things the university can’t.
Sanchez cited as an example the establishment of the Highland’s center at Rio Rancho, the fastest-growing city in New Mexico. Sanchez and others spearheaded the move into Rio Rancho through the Foundation. The university couldn’t have done it without the Foundation, he said in an interview.
The New Mexico Highlands University Foundation is now run by Sharon Caballero, a former Highlands president, the first woman to serve as a public university’s president in New Mexico. She works closely with President James Fries, now in his sixth year, on a variety of endeavors, mostly in the realm of fundraising.
The Foundation is a nonprofit organization that works to support the university and its students. Foundation Board member Daves says it’s a way for people like him to give back to the university they hold so dear.
“I have never, ever doubted that my career (as a chemist) would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the guidance and help that I got in this institution. It seemed natural to come back to the university to see if I could find a role to help out.
“And I’ve been very lucky. I was invited to join the Foundation Board and that gives me a place to, I think, really make a contribution.”
Which brings us full circle, back to the generosity that has helped sustain a university through its 120-year history. It’s a gift, and a heritage, like no other.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in NMHU’s fall 2013 alumni magazine.