Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
William E. “Bud” Davis served as University of New Mexico president from 1975 to 1982, championed the school’s academic achievements, added faculty, supervised campus expansion, healed wounds, wrote a book chronicling UNM’s history and rode out one of the institution’s most storied storms.
“He was a good leader in that he told the story of the university well to the public and to the (state) Legislature,” said Karen Abraham, who was associate dean of students and director of student activities when Davis became UNM president. “He provided stability for a university coming out of the tumultuous times (of the late ’60s and early ’70s). He was able to calm the waters.”
According to an article posted on the UNM Newsroom site, Davis, UNM’s 11th president, pumped up the funding of UNM’s Medical School from $4.9 million to $21 million during his tenure as president, increased the university’s faculty by 217 positions, saw faculty salaries increase by 65% during his watch, presided over the construction of UNM’s Children’s Psychiatric Center, Family Practice Center, Health Sciences Learning Center, Biomedical Research Facility and Art Building and played a vital role in creating UNM’s Valencia and Los Alamos branch campuses.
It was also while Davis was at the university’s helm that Lobogate, the 1979 UNM basketball recruiting scandal, which involved rigging academic eligibility requirements, exploded. UNM head basketball coach Norm Ellenberger was fired, and the university’s basketball program was put on probation and barred from post-season play for three years.
“That may certainly be what he will be remembered for, and that’s too bad,” Abraham said. “I think the university moved forward during his administration. We became a much better institution under his leadership.”
Davis died Sept. 24. He was 92. A memorial for him and his wife, Pollyanne “Polly” Davis, who died in December, will be at 10 a.m. Friday at Central United Methodist Church, 201 University NE.
Survivors include his brother Jim Davis; daughters Deborah Davis Walker, Rebecca Davis Toevs and Brooke Davis; a son, Douglas Davis; four granddaughters; and four great-grandchildren.
Davis was born on Feb. 15, 1929, in Wamego, Kansas, grew up in rural Kansas and moved to Loveland, Colorado, with his family when he was 16. He met Polly in Colorado, they both attended the University of Colorado and were married on March 17, 1951. Davis was president of the student body and a varsity football player at Colorado. He graduated from there in 1951 with degrees in physical education and English, joined the Marine Corps, was commissioned a second lieutenant and served in Korea and Japan from 1952 to 1954.
He started his career in education in 1954 as an English teacher and track coach at Loveland (Colorado) High School. His track team won a state championship in 1955. He taught English and coached football at Rapid City, South Dakota, from 1955 to 1958, and at Greeley, Colorado, in 1959. His Greeley football team won the state championship, prompting the (Denver) Rocky Mountain News to name him high school coach of the year.
Davis returned to the University of Colorado in 1960 to serve as alumni director and to begin studying for a doctorate in higher education.
In 1962, when Colorado’s football coach left due to NCAA sanctions, Davis was named the team’s interim head coach, even though he had never coached at the college level. The Buffaloes had a 2-8 record that year, but one of the victories was a 34-10 upset of much-favored Air Force.
His brief college football coaching career behind him, Davis earned a doctorate in higher education from Colorado in 1963 and went to work as executive assistant to the president for student affairs at the University of Wyoming.
Davis was 36 when he was named president of Idaho State University in 1965. He was there for 10 years, but took a leave in 1972 to run for the U.S. Senate, winning the Democratic nomination but losing in the general election to his Republican opponent.
He left Idaho State for UNM in 1975, inheriting an institution still trembling from the clash of the counterculture and the establishment.
In 1969, the state Legislature threatened to cut funding for UNM after a poem, considered obscene by many due to its use of offensive words and description of “perverted acts,” was distributed in a freshman English class.
And in May 1970, hundreds of UNM students protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia staged a sit-down in the Student Union Building. About 130 were arrested, and nearly a dozen people were bayonetted by New Mexico National Guardsmen deployed to the campus to maintain order.
Abraham, who, counting her time as a student, was at UNM for 52 years and served 13 university presidents, said Davis was the man to bridge the growing gap between the university and the New Mexico community at large.
“He had a soothing voice, was very personable, had a good sense of humor, did not take himself seriously, smoked a pipe and was kind of folksy,” she said. “But he was sort of a man’s man, too. He developed good relationships with the Legislature. We got our fair share (of funding), if not more, from the state.”
According to the story on the UNM site, initiatives launched during Davis’ administration included the Office of Student Financial Aid and Career Services; the Latin American Institute; the Southwest Hispanic Research Institute; the UNM Foundation, which raises, invests and manages private donations to the university; and the Presidential Scholarship Program.
“The presidential scholarship, a four-year scholarship given to students throughout New Mexico, was one of his greatest gifts,” Abraham said.
She said UNM employees liked him because he got them raises, but he was also focused on making the university a good environment for students.
“We were trying to keep the university going while adapting to changing times, but also bringing back traditions – honors programs and welcome-back days,” Abraham said of Davis’ administration. “Homecoming came back a little bit better than it had been.”
Davis departed UNM in 1982 to become chancellor of the Oregon University System and served as chancellor of Louisiana State University from 1989 until 1997. He continued at LSU as a faculty member in the higher education program until 1999.
Davis and his wife returned to Albuquerque after he retired from LSU. His book “Miracle on the Mesa: A History of the University of New Mexico, 1889-2003,” was published in 2006.
“He told you what you needed to do, and, if you didn’t do it, there were consequences,” Abraham said. “But you knew what he wanted. He was the right president at the right time.”