The voices of students and administrators alike come through in the new exhibit Please I’d Like to Grow on the first floor of Lied Library. It highlights student activism at UNLV from its founding up until the present day. Rebel Yell articles, posters, T-shirts, fliers, and other historical documents provide evidence of student-led social and political activism around issues such as education, racism and civil rights, war, gender and sexuality, immigration, and the environment.
The exhibit explores how activism has been a part of student life since the campus’s days as “Tumbleweed Tech,” said social sciences librarian Heidi Johnson, who curated the exhibit. “That nickname that stuck after students constructed a mock campus out of shipping crates and plywood to protest against inadequate funding and the desolation of the campus,” she said.
Documents from the University Archives offer examples of students working with administrators to change curriculum and programming to meet the needs of minority students. Yearbooks and student newspapers illustrate opposition to national events, such as the Vietnam War. Throughout the exhibit, quotes from individual students highlight how their activism impacted their lives and careers beyond their time at UNLV.
“The title of the exhibit, Please I’d Like to Grow, is intended to evoke the idea that the growth of the university has mirrored that of individual student activists,” Johnson said. “As student activists address issues of immediate concern, they look inward to discover themselves then outward to the causes of others, gaining a greater understanding of their influence on more local, national, and global concerns.” Likewise, she said, the university has grown from a small, fledging commuter campus where budget issues were the primary concern and minority groups were tiny into a university with a very diverse student body with international research programs.
Here, Johnson highlights a few images from the exhibit.
Growing the University
Students at Nevada Southern University, as UNLV was once known, were activists for issues having to do with their own education. Tumbleweed Tech — the name of a mock campus that students constructed out of shipping crates in 1968 — became a common nickname for UNLV, referring to the university’s lack of funds and the desolation of the campus in its early days.
In his book, UNLV: A History, Eugene Moehring wrote that NSU students “...played a significant role in making sure that state officials neither neglected nor marginalized the school.” Students sought to differentiate themselves from Reno and become not just a commuter campus, but an independent university with a strong campus infrastructure, athletics, academics, and a unique identity of which they could be proud.
A Flower Power School
Many students across the country engaged in activism opposing the Vietnam War and the draft in the 1960s and early 1970s. UNLV students were no different, but they remained peaceful. The student group Students for Political Action (SPA) distributed newsletters and UNLV students participated in a national Anti-Vietnam Moratorium Day on Oct. 15, 1969. Some students even occupied the Social Sciences building, now named John S. Wright Hall, in protest of the war.
In the Rebel Yell, student government president John Cevette pointed out that UNLV’s participation in the anti-war moratorium would be a “constructive and responsible movement.” In this sense UNLV was a “flower power” school; students practiced nonviolent, peaceful resistance.
Quiet, But Not Content
The 1980s and 1990s were quieter for students across the country. Moehring wrote that UNLV students in the 1980s “went to sleep. ... The ’90s weren’t much better.” Yet UNLV students during this era were still concerned about issues such as women’s rights, gay rights, the environment, immigration, and Apartheid.
As Tony Vellela wrote in the book New Voices: Student Activism in the ’80s and ’90s, campuses during the 1980s became a “test area for future encounters,” as students explored their various identities. In the absence of any national issues that unified student activists across the country, UNLV students continually expressed their desire for personal growth and social change.
In a 2016 interview for the exhibit, Michael Bowers, UNLV professor of political science and former interim executive vice president and provost, noted that student activism in the 1980s and 1990s centered around building UNLV’s academic reputation: “There was a real organization of students to say that UNLV is more than sports — that UNLV is an academic institution.”
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The Days of Apathy at UNLV Declared Dead
There are many reasons why students choose not to engage in the kind of extensive protests that attract headlines, such as the risks that it poses or the time that it demands. Yet, if there ever was indifference among UNLV students, even the media will tell you, it didn't last.
On Jan. 23, 2009, Richard Lake of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote, “the Days of Apathy at UNLV were declared dead shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday.” The article covered ongoing protests over double-digit budget cuts proposed by then-Gov. Jim Gibbons and led to letter-writing campaigns and students trips to the Legislature.
In a Spring 2009 article, UNLV Magazine noted:
Sociology professor Robert Futrell, who has been on campus for 10 years, believes that the rally had an impetus deeper than an axing of the UNLV budget. Like the civil rights protests of the 1960s that he and his students had been studying that winter, UNLV's burst of civic activism was built on something stronger than spontaneity.
“But what? Futrell's theory is that the campus community has changed, and the reason has to do with changes to the campus itself.
"UNLV has become a place where people do more than drive up, take a class, and leave," he says. "We've made these places where people gather and stay."
Gathering and staying leads to "interaction and talk among people of various networks," Futrell says. "And when you get people gathering and talking and being with one another, you create a sense of community, of identity, of solidarity. And then when issues come up ... That's when you get civic activism, a collective participation for a cause."