Enchanting People of New Mexico - Roger Corbett

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Episode 5 - Roger Corbett

Michael Swickard here. Welcome to Enchanting People of New Mexico sponsored by the Fresh Chile Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Our award-winning Hatch Green and Red Chile is from locally owned farms in Hatch, NM, The Chile Capital of the World. Hit subscribe to automatically get these Podcasts. Every Monday and Friday we have regular Historical and New Mexico cultural Podcasts. Wednesdays, today, we celebrate people important to our area.

Normally on Wednesdays we talk about one person who has made a difference in our little slice of paradise. Today, I want to celebrate Dr. Roger B. Corbett, who in 1955 became the 15th President of New Mexico State University though when he was selected it was known as the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. He served for 15 years, the longest of any President of the institution. And yes, if you are on the campus of New Mexico State University there is the Corbett Student Center. And not that it matters all that much, but I did talk to Dr. Corbett several times when I attended NMSU while he was still president.

One more thing. At the time I didn’t like him. He was condescending, I thought and very very authoritarian and so we didn’t agree on the legitimate role of a university in a free society. However, and I do mean however, I have changed my view of Dr. Roger B. Corbett 180 degrees and think he was one of the three best presidents NMSU ever had. More so, the more I look at his legacy of achievement I become more and more impressed by his leadership. In the late 1960s he was not on my favorites list and though he died in 1984, by the time of his death since I graduated in 1972, I had already dramatically changed my opinion of him.

A couple of weeks ago I did one of these retrospectives about Dr. Gerald Thomas who followed Corbett as president of the institution. I liked Dr. Thomas as soon as I met him and throughout his long life. Well, he said about Dr. Corbett: 'He served NMSU for 15 years, the longest of any president. During his tenure, the university made giant strides in terms of the physical plant and the move toward much stronger academic areas through the development of graduate degrees.

So what I want to focus on is what at NMSU that we value today in 2023 is directly tied to the leadership of Dr. Corbett and afterward, Dr. Thomas. But first let me tell you about Dr. Corbett. who was born in Morgantown, West Virginia. He received his graduate degree from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. His field of study involved Agriculture and Agricultural Economics, graduating with his Ph.D. in 1925.

In the next thirty years before becoming the President of what is now NMSU, he was at Rhode Island State College, the College of Agriculture at the University of Connecticut, and the College of Agriculture at the University of Maryland. He was also a senior economist for the United States Department of Agriculture and worked with the American Farm Bureau Federation along with being the executive secretary of the New England Research Council. He understood much about how colleges dealt with Agriculture and Economics.

Those thirty years before coming to Las Cruces steeped Dr. Corbett in Agriculture, Economics and the ins and outs of Land-Grant institutions. So, when the job opening came and he applied I understand they didn’t wait, they in effect hired him in January 1955 and let him start August 15, 1955. He was charged with moving the college from a college to a university. And while there was two thousand students, he was charged with increasing the student population to what seemed unlikely, but he did, to 5,000 students before he left in 1970. He was charged with increasing the academics and research to support all of the roles that a Land-Grant university must achieve. He was even at NMSU on the 100th anniversary of the Morrell Act in 1862 that set up the Land-Grant system and he was a constant firm hand to professional agriculture.

Changing from the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts to a full-fledged university took five hard years of work because part of it was creating doctorate degrees and increasing the research ability of the institution to a university standard. It wasn’t easy.

Over the first few year Dr. Corbett had to convince the leaders in Santa Fe and the Board of Regents to this change to university rather than college. It was not easy. Dr. Simon Kropp wrote a book, That all may learn , published in 1972, which details the start of the college in the 1880s to 1970 which I would recommend if you are interested in what makes NMSU the institution that it has become. First step was to reorganize the institution into colleges such as the College of Engineering, The College of Education, the College of Agriculture and to get some Doctorate programs. Part of becoming a university was to get the quality professors hired and to get the research grants and projects going. This he did.

Another of Dr. Corbett’s priorities was to improve the intercollegiate athletic programs and especially, to improve the athletic facilities. The football and basketball programs were not competitive at that time. Over several years and with the changes of coaches they did become much better. The football stadium was enhanced to hold many more fans and in the late 1960s The Pan American Center, a 13 thousand seat basketball arena was built along with hiring Lou Henson, who took the NMSU Aggies to the final four one year. Having the Pan American Center was also a magnet to being able to have concerts in our area which we did. Likewise hiring Warren Woodson as the head football coach was controversial because he was paid more than the previous coaches, but he had real success. Around 1960 the Aggie Football teams was good and won twice in the post season. Woodson was the football coach in the modern era that had the most success including those post season bowl game wins.

In Corbett’s 15 years of progress, he was able to improve many areas such as in the computing area, the residence hall so the students who increasingly came to the college had dorm rooms and especially all of the connecting technologies that run underground throughout the university along with the branch campuses and the research connections to farmers and ranchers. Corbett had a strong vision of what the preeminent agriculture university in New Mexico should be.

A campus radio station, KRWG-FM was started in some barracks along with the Journalism and Mass Communications Department. The WWII barracks were beside Kent Hall and were torn down after the radio station and the department moved to Milton Hall which they did after the Student Center was built. It was all part of the master plan. When the student center moved from Milton Hall, and then Milton Hall was released from being the student center to a number of roles including the FM Radio Station the television facility, KRWG-TV in 1972.

NMSU had a strong outreach for foreign students who came and brought their connection to other countries and cultures. Also available was internships in Engineering and Agriculture for NMSU students who could study for six months and then work in the field for six months. The on-the-job training this provided put a premium on the NMSU students since employers had already seen their work and their work habits within their organizations.

There was also a strong push for Reserve Officer Training Corp, both Army and Air Force which is a focus of Land-Grant universities. At the time it was a requirement that male students who had not been in military service participate in the ROTC program for their first two years. Then they could either move to the Professional Officer Corp or not continue. I was in Air Force ROTC my first two years and enjoyed the experience. Also I should mention the University Airport which was closed in the 1970s to build the current football stadium. That airport is where many students learned to fly and was also used by the Civil Air Patrol. My uncle, Major Eugene McKim was the commander of the local squadron when I lived with him going to NMSU. I loved flying out of that airport. It was a great part of the university.

Under Dr. Corbett’s watchful eye, there were many expansions of programs and new buildings built such as Guthrie Hall, the Business Building. The education building O’Donnell Hall was built and many others. The old Hadley Building was torn down because it was about to fall down, and the new Hadley Hall was built where it is now.

There was a big push for the Physical Science Laboratory, and lots and lots of other buildings were shepherded onto the campus under Corbett’s watchful eye. So much more research was done under his guidance in many areas including in plants and animals, space travel, physics, chemistry, and psychology. I know I’m missing many of the quiet things Dr. Corbett was able to accomplish over the years and I will apologize in advance. Again, in just 15 minutes I can touch on the overall wonder of his leadership, but it would take me hours to speak to all his accomplishments. I know I have left several important achievement out. Sorry.

Now the last couple of years of his leadership were difficult to him who had done so much to bring NMSU into the university realm because the students in the late 1960s were a mouthy rabble at times and he did not take the challenge very kindly. Know this, I was always respectful, but we did not agree on several issues including a completely free press on campus.

In 1968, my first year at NMSU, I was the Head Photographer of the yearbook, worked for the campus newspaper and I also was a stringer for the Las Cruces Sun-News, the daily newspaper in Las Cruces so I interacted with Dr. Corbett and other administrators often. I enjoyed several of these administrators, such as Dr. Phillip Ambrose, but several of them seemed to me to have been yelled at by campus activists to the point of not being very happy with students.

Again, I was respectful and was in many meetings taking pictures so that for the most part President Corbett knew my name and one time advised me to quit all the time in the student government – I was a student senator at the time - and go get a professional job since I had the professional skills. It was sort of a compliment, but I didn’t receive it gladly. He was right.

In 1968 I thought President Corbett was over the hill old and should retire which he did two years later. In retrospect, he stayed to finish several important projects. Again, I realized a bit too late how good President Corbett had been to the university community. All I can do now is to turn your attention to the very fine job Dr. Roger B. Corbett did and how much better we all are in the area because of his leadership. When I go into Corbett Center, the Student Center, I say a little prayer of thanks for all the improvements NMSU President Corbett achieved. Oh, and partly personal, when Dr. Corbett came to our little slice of paradise there were not Ph.D. programs at our institution of higher learning. Afterward, I, Michael Swickard, did get a Ph.D. from NMSU in 1998. So I give thanks for him starting that process that I finished.

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Michael Swickard here. This is the Enchanting People of New Mexico. Hit subscribe to automatically get the Podcasts. Every Monday and Friday we have regular Historical Podcasts and on Wednesdays, today we celebrate someone important to our area.

Thank you for your time today. We will always have lots of News and stories about New Mexico for you on these Podcasts. If you have something you want me to talk about in a future podcast, write to: michael@freshchileco.com The same is true if there is someone you would like me to talk about who was or is important to our little slice of paradise. Have a great rest of your day. Oh yes and eat plenty of that good Hatch Valley Chile. Like I always say, “Some Chile is good, more is better.” Bye for now.

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