Former UNR President N. Edd Miller, who became a national symbol of dialogue and inclusion on a college campus, died Nov. 12.
Miller served as the campus president during the turbulent Vietnam War years. His openness and respect for students on both sides of the war issue set an example that helped create a climate of tolerance that kept the campus relatively peaceful. While violence was not entirely absent—the ROTC building and an antiwar hangout were firebombed—students seemed to prefer debate over confrontation at a time when confrontation was widespread in the nation.
On Oct. 17, 1969, two days after a massive nationwide protest against the war called Moratorium Day, students at UNR held “N. Edd Miller Day.” In that era of anger and generational combat, a college president being feted by students was so unusual that it made headlines across the nation.
Students tended to refer to Miller familiarly and whimsically as “N-Edd” or “Nedd.”
The most difficult period for Miller was the month after President Nixon widened the war by ordering an invasion of Cambodia. The nation erupted in protest, with colleges a particular focal point. Five hundred campuses altogether were shut down, and one scholar has calculated that “explosives or firebombs ignited at the rate of over four per day.” Something similar was happening in Vietnam, where a Pentagon study later said there were numerous incidents of commanders being “fragged” by their own troops. At Kent State and Jackson State universities, students were killed by National Guard or police.
At UNR, state officials refused to cancel an annual ROTC ceremony called Governor’s Day that had been inopportunely scheduled for what turned out to be the day after the killings at Kent State. A peace rally and the military ceremony were a volatile mix, and the governor’s car entered the campus not at the entrance nearest the ROTC event but near the peace rally, guaranteeing a collision. No violence ensued, but the ROTC event was disrupted, to the embarrassment of Miller and other administrators. A professor was fired, and Miller’s accomodationist policies were blamed by a minority of regents, who seemed to ignore the fact that UNR remained fairly peaceful while other campuses experienced major violence.
Miller also supported new programs, such as ethnic studies, environmental studies and oral history, reflecting the rising disciplines of that fertile period in higher education.
Miller was hardly without critics. At a Nov. 12, 1971, Board of Regents meeting, Regents Molly Knudtsen, Mel Steninger and William Morris attacked his administration in a closed session, and Miller submitted his resignation, forcing the full board to take a position on the dispute.
“If the nature of the dissatisfaction, and the strength of the feeling with which some regents expressed it, is shared by even a substantial minority of the board, I would have to conclude that I could no longer be an effective spokesman before the board on matters relating to the University of Nevada, Reno,” Miller wrote in his letter of resignation.
Faculty and students on the UNR campus responded with furious organizing to support Miller, petitions and resolutions flying. Nevada’s arm of George Wallace’s American Independent Party called for the regents to accept Miller’s resignation and suggested right-wing former state Senator James Slattery as a replacement.
The regents refused in an 8 to 2 vote to accept Miller’s resignation, with Knudtsen crossing over to support him, and his authority on campus was validated.
At a gathering of 300 well wishers after the vote of confidence, at which his remarks were delayed, Miller quipped, “I’m sorry for the delay. The television people here have also had a power problem.”
Miller served at UNR from 1965 to 1973, then became president of a Maine campus, after which he returned to UNR.
A public memorial gathering was held at the student union on Nov. 21, missing by one day the 33rd anniversary of his Nov. 20, 1971, vote of confidence.