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Evaluating WNMU After Bad Press 

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Western New Mexico University is under fire after an article by Joshua Bowling of Searchlight New Mexico. The story was critical of its spending priorities. But even if the story had elements of truth, its critique is not the problem I wonder about.

The story concentrated on President Joseph Shepard’s spending on furniture, but also threw in a few allegations about expensive foreign travel. If you follow local news, you’ve probably read or heard about the allegations and the response by Shepard and various members of the press and community. The claim is that he spent about $28,000 of university money on furniture for the president’s house and $100,000 on recruiting trips to places like Zambia, Spain and Greece.

Shephard defended spending both on foreign recruiting and on using his house for fundraising. I can verify that entertaining does occur at Shepard’s, because I hear it from my home two blocks away. They seem to be having a good time. I heard long before this story that a lot of money gets raised there. I’ve also met tennis team members from Ukraine, Argentina and Mexico (but not Zambia).

But, really. The spending the article reported is peanuts compared to the university’s $75 million budget, and it’s negligible next to what’s been spent upgrading the campus. Some of us don’t agree with every change. I preferred the big spreading elm that used to be in front of the athletic building better to the new mustang statue. But I do like the solar panels in the parking lot next to the football stadium. And I especially like the university’s support for the Western Institute for Lifelong Learning.

The campus improvements are obvious to anyone who was here before Shepard. A lot of money has been spent, and most of it paid off. That’s not to approve of every penny, but as a neighbor of the university, I can see that this would be a completely different town without it. Just compare Silver City to some of the university-less towns in rural New Mexico.

One hard lesson I didn’t learn in college is that you have to spend money to make money. If President Shepard’s fundraising exceeds his fundraising expenses, my only question is what he does with the money.

I agree with Shepard’s evaluation: “We’re a tiny little university that’s punching above our weight.” The university is certainly punching above its weight in the cultural arena. It makes good use of the facilities it has developed for indoor and outdoor concerts.

But the measure of a university is the education it offers, not the beauty of its campus or how many concerts it sponsors. If I were a reporter rather than a columnist, I’d be reviewing university data and interviewing students and faculty. As a mere columnist, I ask more questions than I answer, although I try to base my questions on evidence. What I know about WNMU education is based on anecdotes, and not enough of them to consider myself well-informed. Still, you do hear stories…

Here are some questions I wish the Searchlight reporter (or one from the Daily Press) would ask: Does the university have too many low-paid adjunct professors? Does it pay its professors enough to keep the good ones and recruit more? What has a higher priority – teaching, administration or pleasing the community? Are students being challenged, rather than just entertained? How does Western compare to similar universities?

I don’t compare WNMU to large universities. For one thing, it has open enrollment. Almost anyone can attend, and that’s not by accident. Trying to serve anyone inevitably leads to some students starting at a lower level in writing and math. Western has programs to try to bring everyone up to the same base level. Nevertheless, I’ve heard about some excellent professors and programs. I’ve also heard about problems.
A small university can’t be everything to everybody, but my wish is that WNMU had at least one magnet department with a national reputation for educational excellence. For example, I’m part of a group that has proposed and pledged money for a new Wilderness Studies program. So far we haven’t persuaded the powers that be, and maybe some other idea would fit better.

So ask yourself: Based on what you know, would you send your child (or grandchild) to WNMU? I appreciate what Western does for the community, and I take advantage of it. But the real issue is the quality of education. College students live in a separate world that I rarely interact with, but here’s wishing them the opportunity for challenges and growth, like those I experienced many years ago.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to bruce@greensilverlinings.com.
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