Annals of MSU: 1964-1970
This seven-year era covers the term of MSU president Leon H. Johnson (President 1964-1969). In February, 1964, Roland Renne resigned as president of MSC and declared himself a candidate for the Montana governorship. The next day, Dr. Leon H. Johnson was appointed President of MSC. He had been the acting president during Renne’s leave of absence. Tim Babcock won the governorship over Roland Renne in a close election.6
"Distracted since 1960 by harsh and sometimes perfectly ugly political confrontations, demoralizing budget cuts, and bothersome uncertainties about the future of the college's administrative stability, the community looked to the new president [Leon H. Johnson] to provide the leadership that would depoliticize higher education, provide MSC with a strong and predictable economic base, and enable the college to meet the sometimes awesome and bewildering changes that seemed to be taking place on a consistent and even revolutionary basis in this most extraordinary decade—the 1960s. In retrospect, the new president proved to be just the leader the college needed to tackle these problems."9 MSC President Johnson quickly moved to improve interactions with the politicians in Helena. Governor Babcock exhibited confidence in, and respect for, Johnson. By 1965, the negative political attitude toward MSU faded. Johnson and the contemporary presidents of UM worked together to gain support from the Board of Education.
When Leon Johnson took over the MSC administration after Renne's departure, he was already an experienced administrator. He started as a faculty biochemist at MSC in 1943, then was appointed executive director of the Endowment and Research Foundation. A few years later, his duties also included service as Dean of the Graduate School. Johnson supported research, stating, “The responsibility of the university is not the dissemination of knowledge alone, but also its acquisition.”12 Johnson’s time in the graduate school led to a growing graduate program. Soon, MSC offered doctorate programs in 16 fields. Johnson was a strong advocate for the arts, for creativity in general, and for the Museum of the Rockies. He pushed for degrees in the arts, worked for the construction of a new creative arts complex, and supported the Museum’s move from the old building on South 11th to its present location. A Council of Indian Students was founded, appearing for the first time in the Montanan yearbook of 1964.
After much political wrangling, on July 1, 1965, MSC officially was renamed Montana State University. Henceforth, the university will be denoted by MSU. "[President] Johnson celebrated the event at the faculty meeting that opened the fall quarter that year: "I got you the name," ... his forefinger pointed emphatically ..., "and you're going to live up to it."15
Teaching conditions improved. In 1968, the class schedules no longer included Saturday morning classes, potentially providing a 2-day weekend for both students and faculty. Salaries were moving upward. Teaching loads dropped, more so in disciplines having graduate programs. Entry-level salaries were competitive and promising new hires were recruited.
The 1965 legislature canceled the moratorium on university construction and even established a prioritized plan for the construction of state buildings. Roskie Hall, North and South Hedges, Nelson Story Tower, and Peter Koch Tower residence halls were constructed. Throughout the 1960s, enrollment at MSU increased exponentially, at an average annual rate of 8 percent, reaching 7200 in 1968 when the population of Montana was approximately 700,000.18 As MSU grew, Johnson was faced with the need for administrative assistance. He created an Executive Council to serve as an advisory board and he created three vice-president positions – VP for Administration, VP for Research, and VP for Academic Affairs.
Students in the 1960s complained about restrictions on student rights and the university gradually abandoned traditional restrictions such as dorm hours and dress codes. Students held forums and rallies concerning academic freedom, the military draft, the Viet Nam war, civil rights, and women’s rights; however, the protests at MSU were less intense than those on campuses around the country. Students successfully rescued the last on-campus barn from destruction and the SOB (Save Our Barn) still stands (as of 2019).
On Founders Day in February of 1968, and on multiple other occasions during the year, MSU celebrated its 75th anniversary of “investment in people.” In that November, the people of Montana overwhelmingly voted to renew the six-mill levy for higher education. Between 1960 and 1969, MSU granted 10,000 degrees, the same number as were granted during the previous 67 years. The campus radio station KGLT began providing “Alternative Public Radio” in 1968, initially to the Gallatin Valley, later to all of southwest Montana and, via webcast, to the world at large.
Leon Johnson became incapacitated by a serious heart attack in October 1968. Following slow recuperation and surgery, he died in June 1969. During his period of illness and for almost a year after his death, William (Bill) Johnstone, then VP for Administration, capably served as MSU’s Acting President.
Last revised: 2021-04-14