To the Point: An expensive shellgame

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By John Loehr

The outgoing State Higher Education leadership has proposed a plan — kind of — only eight years after a first term Richardson transition team said it was needed.

The plan has been justifiably panned, but I think the fatal flaw for me is the large and obvious conflict of interest between the authors and those who should be the targets of the plan.

We all know New Mexico’s higher education litany: high dropout rates, low graduation rates (Highlands is the worst); disproportionately large amounts of taxpayer money spent on duplicative services; too many overpaid, underworked, low-skilled administrators; political interference at all levels (jobs for friends, family and supporters); an irrational proliferation of branches, learning centers, non-contiguous satellite campuses — even branch campuses of branch campuses — far beyond what our size, population and resources justify; and, last but not least and at the heart of the problem, institutional governing boards with regents who distinguish themselves by their continuing failure to act in the best interests of the whole state. (The community colleges have their own boards; to see one of the worst, cast a glance at Luna.)

The so-called plan addresses none of the root causes of these expensive and wasteful problems, and you will not be surprised by the cozy, reciprocal, “you-take-care-of-me-and-I’ll-take-care-of-you” relationships between the plan’s authors and the institutions they’re supposed to be planning for. The top leaders of the State Department of Higher Education move in and out of Santa Fe with alacrity, accompanied by the continued preservation of those six-figure salaries and tenure back home. This has been especially a feature of the Richardson years.

One of the five (in eight years) heads of the department actually had his salary openly subsidized by over $100,000 annually by his former employer, UNM, while he was in Santa Fe, charged with the responsibility of independently creating policy and priorities for his ever-generous past and future employer. (He did little, quickly returning to the UNM womb.)

The last and just departed Richardson appointee, a loquacious babbler of education-ese, is taking a protected university position having declared that she saw no conflict of interest and was not influenced in her decisions about what was good or not for her future employer — and the whole of New Mexico — by an offer of big bucks and sinecure.

I urged her to withdraw the Higher Ed Department’s plan because of this inherent bias, and she indicated that she saw nothing wrong with state and university leaders reversing roles, as they protect each other from insidious outside interests, such as the taxpayers or the students.

Her claim ranks right up there with the assurances of politicians who swear that the millions in contributions from special interests have no influence on their votes. In the case of our Higher Ed folks, their plan itself is powerful evidence that those lovely high-pay, low-demand tenured university positions have lots of influence on the recipients. Regents are very sensitive to even the most rational interpretation that might limit their sacred constitutional prerogatives, and they’ll not welcome those who disagree with them.

Astute critics know this self-serving, local-constituency, jobs-for-my-friends orientation dominates regents’ thinking. I am a former regent, appointed three times, once by a Republican, twice by Bill Richardson, and I’ve seen this up close, here and elsewhere.

Generally, these appointments are given to the big donors and fundraisers and are thought to be maximally prestigious. The exception is Highlands:  Several appointees made every effort to move on to UNM (Wayne Bingham tried but couldn’t) or NMSU (Javier Gonzales worked hard to ensure that Manny Aragon got big going-away money; Manny then went north to federal in Colorado and Javier then went south to NMSU).

I’ve known only a few altruistic regents. Highlands’ Peter Bickley was by far the best of these. Overall, their intellectual and organizational savvy was low and selfishly oriented.

Highlands was the worst case, but not by much. UNM, for all its size, money and prestigial desirability, had — and has — some true incompetents, whose skills at raising money for their governor did not translate to leadership success.

I concluded, at the first reading, that the Higher Ed plan is fully discredited by the values and behaviors of its authors. Gov. Susana Martinez should shred it and start again. I hope she will require an independent analysis of where we are and how we got there as a first step. If that’s not done, all that is likely to happen is that the edges will be trimmed, the loose ends snipped, but the dry rot in the center will remain, much to the cost and educational disadvantage of all citizens.

John Loehr lives in Montezuma. He may be reached at 454-1731.