Nuestra Historia: Donnelly retires, regents oblivious

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By Jesus L. Lopez

For the Optic

In the spring of 1969, Tom Donnelly informed the Highlands Board of Regents that he would retire the following year, after his 18th anniversary as university president. Though continuing to maintain his imposing demeanor, it was apparent that Donnelly was tired, and he would later say that the last two years of his presidency were his most difficult.
In sum, “The mounting criticism, the defeat of Sen. Melody, and his failing health probably all figured in Donnelly’s announcement that he would retire in May, 1970,” as noted in “Defining our Destiny,” Maurilio E. Vigil’s 1993 history of Highlands University. What Donnelly faced during his last years as president was remarkably different from the social and political climate that marked his inauguration in 1952 and the years that followed. Times had changed. The civil rights movement of the 1960s had made its way to Las Vegas, local Hispanic leaders were demanding equality and diversity at Highlands, and the university’s student body was asserting its presence and demanding reform.

In “Defining our Destiny,” Vigil keenly describes the “restive” mood encountered by Donnelly in his last years at Highlands: “The university was viewed as an Anglo institution that reflected the subordination if not oppression of minorities. The university administration and faculty were dominated by Anglos and the curriculum similarly reflected Anglo-American values with little regard for the special historical experience or educational problems and needs of ethnic minorities.”

It was this ever-increasing discontent in the Hispanic community that was overtaking Highlands when Donnelly announced his retirement. “Consequently,” Vigil observes in his book, “by the late 1960s there was growing resentment that the ‘fine small university of the Southwest’ still reflected White Anglo-Saxon Protestant middle class values, even though the majority of its students were Hispanics and Native Americans.”

Until the last year of his presidency, the barrage of criticism leveled at Donnelly had come from outside the university, mainly from local leaders Tiny Martinez and Junio Lopez, as recounted in previous columns. This changed in 1969, when Highlands students began to demand change, and among the more activist student groups were the Spanish American Student Organization (S.A.S.O.) and the Organization of Concerned Black Students. (S.A.S.O. would later change its name to C.A.S.O, replacing “Spanish” with “Chicano.”)

By the spring of 1969, S.A.S.O and O.C.B.S. formed a coalition and together wrested control of the student senate from the Greek (mostly Anglo) fraternities. Bernie Price, an African American, was elected student body president, and the student coalition soon asserted itself in university affairs. The new student senate adopted a resolution demanding that Donnelly and the Board of Regents provide scholarships and counseling services for Hispanic, Black and Native American students, institute a minority studies program, and initiate a recruiting effort for Hispanic and other minority faculty.

Donnelly politely replied to the students that he and the regents would consider the proposals, but repeated his usual pronouncement that it was difficult to find qualified minority professors and staff, an excuse that had long been ringing hollow with both Highlands students and the Las Vegas community. (The lack of qualified applicants was the reason always advanced by Donnelly for the absence of Hispanics and other minorities in the university’s administration and faculty.)

It was this growing and unshakable yearning for change that marked the last years of the Donnelly presidency, and it emanated from both inside and outside the university. Yet the school’s trustees remained unfazed, if not deliberately indifferent — and their insensitivity would set in motion a chain of events that would forever change Highlands University.

In an unspoken and iniquitous tradition existing since its earliest days, Highlands had been governed by a Board of Regents consisting of four Anglos and one “token” Hispanic (or no Hispanic at all), and so it was when President Donnelly announced his retirement — and Regents Chairman John D. Robb, as if out of a playbook, personified the very patrician protector whom the Hispanic community had grown to resent.

Born in Minneapolis, Minn. in 1892, Robb was a New York attorney until 1941, when he left the practice of law to become a professor at the University of New Mexico, where he served as Dean of the College of Fine Arts until 1957.

Towering at about six feet three inches, with a shock of white hair and signature mustache, the scholarly Robb, a music composer and musicologist, established the UNM Symphony, and was renowned for having amassed the largest collection of Hispanic folk music in the Southwest.

Joining Robb on the Board of Regents were Stuart Beck, publisher of the Las Vegas Optic, Margaret Driscoll, and Frank Peloso, a prominent Albuquerque businessman who owned the Sunshine and Hiland Theaters on Central Avenue. Joe L. Otero, superintendent of schools in Taos, was the fifth member, and the sole Hispanic regent.

It fell to this board to name President Donnelly’s successor, but except for Otero, the regents would remain oblivious to the cries of the Hispanic community — and Highlands University would soon be overtaken by unparalleled upheaval and unrest.

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