Nuestra Historia - Amid uneasy truce, Smitty gets HU nod

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By Jesus L. Lopez

On July 29, 1970, in a dramatic and alarming announcement, Board of Regents Chairman John D. Robb informed the media that Charles Graham’s request to be released from his appointment as Highlands University president, was the result of “continual harassment culminating in threatening letters addressed to Graham’s wife, and impairment of his health as a result of the harassment.” Robb also said he advised Graham to send the threatening letters to both the FBI and postal authorities.

Robb called an emergency regents meeting for the following day in Las Vegas, at President Donnelly’s office, but Gov. David Cargo immediately intervened, and requested that the regents meet at his office at the Capitol in Santa Fe.

Though it had been two months since the student protests and occupation of the Highlands administration building, Cargo was concerned that precipitous action by the regents could again trigger student demonstrations and unrest at Highlands, saying later, “I needed to keep a tight rein on those regents.” (All five regents attended the meeting at Cargo’s office, including Dr. Jose Maldonado, a Santa Fe physician named by Cargo to replace Joe L. Otero, who had resigned two months earlier in protest of Graham’s appointment.)

The meeting at the governor’s office was crowded, attended by many Highlands students and alumni from throughout New Mexico, and Cargo did not hesitate to make known his displeasure with the regents. In what amounted to a public scolding, Cargo cautioned the regents to “be open” as they moved forward. He also intimated that Graham’s selection was made secretly, quipping, “I can’t prove it, but then again sometimes you can’t prove adultery.”

Then, in an obvious reference to Highlands President Tom Donnelly, Cargo said he was concerned that the “university’s administration” had too much control over the presidential selection process when Graham was appointed. Finally, the Governor implored the regents to be more “circumspect and inclusive” in naming a new president. “If there’s anything wrong with Highlands, it’s that the university has not related itself to the community,” said Cargo. (Throughout the meeting, which the writer attended, the regents, except for Maldonado, were visibly perturbed by Cargo’s remarks, and Robb later told the media that the governor’s comments were “completely unjustified.”)

Several students spoke during the meeting, including Joseph Silva, who said the student protests and court proceedings were proof that the issue confronting Highlands “is big, and if denied, a large explosion could result.” Another student said that after Graham withdrew, he felt “free, and for once in my life I said God Almighty, we’ve got a chance.” And student leader Francisco Gonzales told the regents that students were willing “to meet you half way, but you need to include us in the process.” (District Attorney Tiny Martinez was also present, at Cargo’s invitation, and they conferred before Cargo met with the regents.)

As the meeting came to a close, a surprising air of cooperation appeared to overtake the room, perhaps because of Gov. Cargo’s forthright prodding. For the first time since Graham’s appointment and the student protests two months earlier, John D. Robb expressed a willingness to listen. Addressing the large audience, and Highlands students in particular, Robb said, “We realize the problems. We are not against you, we want to be with you. Let’s have some kind of reconciliation. Let’s not have hatred. We are all Americans together. I want you to respect us, as we respect you.”    

The meeting ended with no definite plan on how the regents would proceed. Yet there emerged, almost instantaneously, a mutual, if uneasy, realization that Highlands University should not again be engulfed in the tumultuous events of the preceding two months. Within hours, and into the following day and weekend, Francisco Gonzales and Albert Ortega, and other student leaders, together with professors Willie Sanchez and Sigfredo Maestas, met with university faculty and administrators — and the name of Highlands Academic Dean Ralph Carlisle Smith soon emerged as a possible temporary president.

Both affable and accessible, Smith had been a professor at Highlands since 1961, and was well liked by both students and faculty, many of whom called him Smitty. Everyone fearing that delay could be disastrous, the uneasy truce continued as lightning-speed negotiations indicated that Smitty would be acceptable to students, faculty and community leaders alike. (A retired lawyer, Smith had been a patent attorney for Los Alamos National Laboratory before coming to Highlands, and held an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic in New York, and a Ph.D from UNM.)

By Monday, Aug. 3, Robb said the regents were prepared to name Smith as interim president. Gov. Cargo was notified, expressed his approval, and again requested that the regents meet at the Capitol to make the announcement. On Tuesday, Aug. 4 1970, at the governor’s office, Ralph Carlisle Smith was named interim president of Highlands University — as the Highlands Revolution of 1970 drew to a close.

Meanwhile, the quest would continue for the appointment of the country’s first Hispanic university president — at New Mexico Highlands University.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.