Illustration of students stealing a cannon

Seizing Autonomy

It took deft work at the legislative level — and some rebellious students — to earn UNLV the ability to stand apart from Reno.

Editor's Note

: This story is part of a series on the moments that shaped UNLV on the way to its 60th year.

The late 1960s were a time when ambition was impatient with the progress at then-Nevada Southern. Chancellor Donald Moyer wanted a football team. Faculty wanted raises. The library just wanted books. And the students? They wanted the state to loosen the purse strings to make it all happen. They wanted the Board of Regents, which was dominated by northern representatives, to pay attention to the south.

In January 1967, a group of students, including student body President Jack Abell, got together and, spurred on by the spirit of anti-Vietnam protests, formed Students Helping to Assist and Maintain Higher Education, better known as SHAME. 

They organized a student teach-in, sent telegrams to the Legislature, and campaigned to have regents removed, but their real stand was set for Feb. 2, 1967.

On a winter night that dipped below 40, Abell and a crew of seven other SHAME members climbed to the top of Archie C. Grant Hall, scaled a scaffold, and hung Gov. Paul Laxalt — whose “hold-the-line” budget would severely curb spending on the young university — in effigy. And then they set the effigy on fire. 

“I was a little bit more experienced at political activity, but everybody was nervous,” Abell said. “We had one campus policeman, a wonderful man, and he was very enabling that evening. He was just there to make sure there was no damage to the property. The sheriff [Ralph Lamb] wasn’t happy with a bunch of us for a long time after that because we burnt him, but he was chuckling about it in private. He was enabling in a responsible way.”

SHAME wasn’t done shaming leaders for shortchanging the campus. Plotting in the Red Barn Saloon, about a dozen SHAME members hatched a plan to get Reno’s attention.  They dispatched a squad to snatch the original Fremont Cannon from in front of the ROTC building on UNR’s campus.

Unfortunately for the thieves/freedom fighters, the Reno police popped the caper right as they were loading the artillery into the back of a moving van. Thus the origin of the Fremont Cannon that our respective football teams vie for today.

“I wasn’t on the team that went up to get it, but I ended up being responsible for helping get them released from the Reno jail overnight,” Abell said. “I just loved it. It drove [Reno] nuts.”

As for Laxalt? He took it hard at the time. And tried to take James Bilbray, by far the youngest regent on the board and a former Nevada Southern student, to task over the incident. What can I do? the governor asked Bilbray, who would go on to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

“There’s no way the students down there are going to feel more friendly to you unless more money comes south,” he recalls telling the governor, “because we have students that are in their third year that haven’t been able to take freshman English … We need buildings. We need teachers. We need money.” 

Laxalt could only reply, “Yeah, but that really, really bothers me.”

By late February, SHAME disbanded as student government adopted much of its platform. Thanks to the vocal student body and a reapportionment of the Legislature as the population of Las Vegas neared Reno’s, more money started to flow southward. The activism had spurred Southern Nevada legislators from both sides of the aisle to take up the fight.

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