Highlands University folks have been commenting on their institutional expectations under new Gov. Susana “La Tejana” Martinez. Their expression demonstrates some justifiable angst.
One concern is Martinez’s clear (and understandable) disenchantment with the chaotic, illogical and wasteful expansion of higher education’s geographical franchises. Near the center of her bull’s eye — and not the dumbest target — is the somewhat anomalous Highlands Rio Rancho operation, a big cash producer for my alma mater that sits in the University of New Mexico side yard and the Central New Mexico Community College (formerly TVI) backyard, and which has been, after an incompetently led and poorly planned startup period a decade ago, the enrollment growth zircon in the pot metal NMHU crown.
The net cash it generates has been, for at least the past five years, a consistent bright spot in the miasma of Highlands’ finances. That positive cash flow mitigates, in part, the millions initially spent establishing HU in Rio Rancho, one of America’s fastest- growing cities.
That presence did not come quickly, cheaply or easily. Early Rio Rancho enrollment targets offered by that proven source of bad numbers, then-President Selimo Rael, proved unrealistic. Home campus money and resources were taken and sent south. Low- and no-skill leaders, one with a distinctly unsavory past (he was dumped), wasted much of this.
Despite Highlands’ incompetence, the greater foolishness of UNM, and initially TVI, in ignoring for several years Albuquerque’s west side and its growing education market, shielded HU from the fiscal disaster it might otherwise have earned, and slowly, slowly, enrollments grew. But these are now tailing off as the increasingly aggressive competition draws off the students, and the end of significant growth in Rio Rancho for Highlands seems near.
Ultimately, there is no raison d’être for Highlands in Rio Rancho. More capable, better managed, better led and more respected competitors are now successfully working the neighborhood.
Highlands has only a limited time to behave opportunistically and negotiate an equitable, even advantageous, swap of its programs and enrollments — remember, the money follows the students, so Highlands has something to trade to UNM and/or CNM — and attempt to carry out a quid pro quo, perhaps an enrollment exchange in Farmington, before the Martinez folks go public with the full absurdity of Highlands’ presence in Rio Rancho, and pull the plug.
Highlands tried a version of this script once before, at my behest and in response to an overture from UNM, but my fellow regents, in their wisdom and to my dismay, sent then-Regent Walter Adams and then-President Manny Aragon as the HU emissaries for discussions with top UNM leaders. The performance and demeanor of these two, as I feared, destroyed the negotiation process.
Current President Jim Fries, however, is cut from a different bolt and might have a chance to make some lemonade of the lemon that Gov. Martinez is probably going to hand him. He has sufficient credibility and fiscal savvy to fashion what might be a reasonable trade of an asset that NMHU might soon lose, for another, more durable, asset — additional enrollment elsewhere — that has traditionally been hard to acquire for HU. Santa Fe, Farmington, Roswell and Raton may all be up for grabs under a revised Martinez higher ed re-do. If NMHU could show some good, quick growth in one of these places and gain something even approximating a position of dominance, in Farmington, for example, the gubernatorial ax might strike only a glancing blow, if HU pre-positions itself advantageously in one of these markets.
I’ll admit that the odds of success here are not optimal. The devastatingly low HU academic reputation, the low-, slow-, no-growth home campus enrollment patterns, the cynicism in Santa Fe toward the leftover Aragonistas in the Highlands leadership, the inability to retain or graduate its students at less than ridiculous levels, all militate against Highlands’ success in this proposal.
Additionally, NMHU regents spend much time asleep at the wheel of opportunity. But if the Martinez administration decides to make some rational decisions on higher education offerings, Highlands can only be further diminished by not initiating a less painful alternate exit plan, even with the risk that goes with moving ahead of the pack.
At the least, Highlands might have an arguable position, compared to the empty space of their current circumstance.
John Loehr lives in Montezuma. He may be reached at 454-1731.