Greg Hansen’s column last Friday about the 1970 burning of Jerry Sherratt’s plywood Highlander in Romney Stadium brought back lots of memories. Almost half a century later, much has changed — or maybe not. Romney Stadium has been buried by a new structure bearing the name of a commercial company that contributed thousands of dollars to a multi-million dollar debt. And that we can watch most Aggie away games on television.
The early 1970s were heady times at USU. The “Michican State mafia” had taken over. President Glen Taggart, Provost Gaurth Hansen and Assistant Provost Dick Swensen were local boys with distinguished records at major universities. Back home in Logan, they surrounded themselves with people who had served in major un-Utah schools. They encouraged their team to adjust to, and improve, the things that had made USU a good school. But they stressed that our main responsibility was to create new ways of making the university better.
Jerry Sherratt was a local cheerleader with lots of ideas, energy and a talent for making things happen. When he came up with the plan to change the Aggies to Highlanders, President Taggart said give it a try and see what happens. After fans booed bagpipers and burned the Highlander, Glenn told us to move on, involve students and improve strong programs that had made USU a good university.
In 1970, USU had a diverse student body. About 10 percent of USU students were Iranians. Farsi, their mother tongue, was common downtown and on the Quad. Land- and water-related programs at USU had active international projects that brought students from all over the world. Most foreign students wanted knowledge and skills to make their countries a better place. International students did not care about football or college mascots. They wanted an education to help bring their countries into the modern world.
When Greg and friends burned the Highlander, I was a newly appointed 40-year-old dean of what he called the “renowned range science and forestry” college. About 90 percent of our students were non-residents from one of 45 or more states. Often there were more undergraduates from New York or California than from Utah. Our graduate students came from 11 countries. There were more Roman Catholics than Mormons. Almost all were males. Many were veterans or were deferred from military service as long as they advanced toward a degree.
Choosing between Aggies and Highlanders was not as important to most non-Utah students as having at least one game day designated “National Tequila Day.” Those events were not as raunchy as the stories about them told today. Conflict was just an over-reaction between young adults used to sharing a beer at a game back home and a culture that wanted the sale and possession of alcoholic beverages hidden behind closed doors.
Most student rebellions at USU were trivial, local and often triggered by cultural differences between Utahns and newcomers. However, two major nationwide social movements found their way from our college campus to the local communities and changed our valley and our state. They were 1) reaction against the Vietnam war and 2) formation of environmental groups to save the earth.
War protesters on the Quad increased in numbers in the spring of 1970. Some days they were so noisy they interrupted meetings in Old Main. On May 17, hundreds of students, townspeople and faculty members gathered at the USU amphitheater and demonstrated against the Vietnam War. They marched through downtown Logan, past the high school and to Central Park. Participation by people like Allen Stokes (beloved professor, Logan Quaker leader) and Alison Thorne (Logan School Board member and wife of a USU vice-president) endorsed anti-war demonstrations as legitimate free speech.
In January 1970, English professor Tom Lyon helped organize a chapter of Earth People. Tom started out as a forestry major but became a popular teacher of literature. Some professional natural resource scientists and managers thought the Earth People were non-professionals tredding on their turf. Though not environmental experts, the Earth People were demonstrating that everyone, regardless of training or beliefs, depends on a healthy planet. To take care of the earth, everyone needed to be environmentally informed.
Forty-eight years later, USU continues to be strong in most environmental areas, but the percentage of students from outside Utah has declined. Funding for research in areas where USU excels often comes from federal or international sources. Foundation gifts are often for buildings or programs that will be named for and/or benefit the philosophy or business of the donor. Having a federal government that can’t agree on a budget and a state government more willing to support growth than science does not speak well for funding a land grant university with the people’s money.
Utah’s population is predicted to double by 2050. Information and tools for using it increase at unprecedented rates. Land grant universities like USU were created to help ordinary people live a better life. In January, USU appointed Noelle Cockett as its first woman president. She is a product of the land grant system, a distinguished scientist, willing and able to speak for the land. It’s hard to imagine a better choice for USU at this time. But she will need the help of all of us who love the land to assure that in 2070 USU will be one of the world’s best land grant schools and not BYU lite.