Dr. Margie C. Huerta has become the face of poor leadership in the system of higher education in southern New Mexico, but she is not the only failed leader; indeed, she is only one of many. The local system, broken and accused of being broken for years, has finally proved itself broken. The proof is DACC’s loss of accreditation for its nursing program and all that the loss tells us about both DACC and NMSU leadership.
As the husband of a recent graduate of NMSU’s nursing program, I am acutely aware of, and sympathetic to, the enormous emotional and awful professional harm to current DACC nursing students. I know the effort, the hours, and the stress involved in arduous nursing studies; I know something of the many sacrifices of many kinds made not only by the students themselves, but also by parents, spouses, and other family members. In light of this loss of accreditation, those leaders who proclaim that they do everything for the students and their education have demonstrated their real indifference to students and the duties of their position. So, even at this remove from DACC, I grieve for the students and rage at those implicated in the damage done to them and theirs.
The magnitude of the breakdown leading to the loss of accreditation corresponds to the importance of DACC’s nursing program to DACC, NMSU, and southern New Mexico. Students completing DACC’s nursing program graduate with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), and graduates passing the state licensing examination become registered nurses (RNs). They work in hospitals, assisted living facilities, and medical offices, many in this region. After some years of nursing work, some enroll in NMSU’s one-year program enabling these experienced RNs to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree before returning to work, many in this region. To enroll in NMSU’s RN-to-BSN program or similar programs elsewhere, experienced RNs must have graduated from an accredited nursing program. Experienced RNs who have graduated from DACC with an ADN have constituted the larger part of NMSU’s RN-to-BSN program.
The loss of DACC’s accreditation for its nursing program means that its current students cannot graduate from an accredited program in the region. They can train for licenses as RNs, but they cannot gain admission to RN-to-BSN nursing programs which require a degree from an accredited college. It means that NMSU will lose most of its students for its RN-to-BSN program. Finally, it means that local hospitals, assisted living facilities, and medical offices will have fewer, more highly qualified nurses available to them. DACC has thus done harm to its students, damaged its most important program, impaired its relationship with NMSU, and diminished the quality of regional health care.
(In addition, the loss of accreditation raises a question whether DACC courses taken as pre-requisites, some specific to nursing, to save money will transfer to NMSU for credit toward satisfying BSN requirements.)
The history of this breakdown, with these terrible effects, covers misconduct over a multi-month period. In April, the National League for Nursing Accreditation Commission (NLNAC) visited Dona Ana Community College to review and evaluate its two-year ADN program. As is routine at the end of such visits, the visitors indicated the likely results of their work: loss of accreditation. In response to this informal report, Huerta released a vague statement which did not clearly describe the situation or indicate its seriousness.
Huerta may have had her reasons for vagueness. From at least as early as April and into July, Santa Fe Community College sought a replacement for its departing president. Huerta applied, made the cut to the final six candidates in late April and to the final three in late May, but lost in July. Although she might have reported in April to students that DACC’s nursing program was at great risk of losing its accreditation, she might also have considered that the disclosure might reach SFCC and jeopardize her chances for the new job because it showed that she could not do the old one.
Since early August, when NLNAC announced its decision to withdraw accreditation, Huerta has responded with statements dismissing the importance of its decision. For she claims that accreditation is merely an additional evaluation without significant effect because students who pass the licensing examination can find employment as RNs.
Two implications of this statement, seemingly intended to discount the damage and diminish responsibility, are astonishing. One shows that Huerta cares only about DACC graduates’ first job, not their later opportunities for professional development and financial growth. The other is either her ignorance in not knowing the purpose and importance of accreditation, and the interface between the DACC and NMSU nursing programs; or her dishonesty in not admitting them.
In cases like this, it is usually important to answer the questions who knew what when, and what did they do to communicate, or act on, their knowledge. In this case the answers hardly matter. Some knew but did nothing, and others should have known in order to do something.
Huerta had an affirmative obligation to provide clear information to DACC students (and faculty) in the spring, when they could have made arrangements for the coming school year. She had a similar obligation to inform NMSU leaders. Given her failure, Evelyn Hobbs, dean of the Health and Public Services Division, or Tracy Lopez, Nursing Program Director, had the same obligations. Apparently, none of these three women discharged their obligations, in a collective, perhaps coordinated, dereliction of duty.
But if anyone did pass along such information, either to Barbara Couture, NMSU president, or Pamela Schultz, director of the School of Nursing, neither of them made any use of this information. Strangely, they seem not to have heard or investigated the rumors known inside DACC, but also outside, among local professionals. Worryingly, they seem not to have known about the NLNAC accreditation review and evaluation. For, if no one told them its results, they seem not to have inquired about them; if they did inquire and learn about them, they seem to have chosen to avoid the implications for action; and if they did inquire and were misinformed or misled, they seem not to be outraged. Expressions of a desire to help these affected DACC students—what else would they express?— are all to the good but they are not enough or good enough. With a half-million dollar bonus to be awarded for five years’ service, Couture may not wish to make waves and jeopardize this reward for her longevity in office.
Evasion, concealment, or denial at DACC, and cluelessness or inaction at NMSU have done some damage to formerly strong nursing programs. The underlying issues of failed leadership—faulty program management at both colleges, dissembling or non-existent communication within DACC and between the two colleges, failing supervision at both colleges—must be addressed by NMSU’s hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, do-no-good regents. And they must be addressed by the hear-no-evil, see-no evil, do-no-good state senators and representatives.
The first constructive action which the regents can take is the immediate firing of Huerta; she should not be allowed to resign in order to protect her record and enable her to work elsewhere and harm others. The Law of Just Compensation—eye-for-an-eye, etc.—should punish her as she has, in effect, punished DACC students. Anything less amounts to official concurrence in her misconduct.
The second constructive action which the regents can take is the appointment of an independent investigator charged to develop an analysis and narrative of these events, and to report to the public and the regents at the same time and without prior consultation with the regents.
Finally, our local politicians need to recognize the inadequacy of the regional culture of congeniality and concurrence, at the expense of competence and a commitment to it. They also need to confess the inadequacy of their go-along-to get-along approach to their public duties. At great expense to the lives and livelihoods of residents, these inadequacies guarantee the educational and economic deficiencies which plague this region. If southern New Mexico is to be other than a third-world-like region, it requires a counter-cultural resolve to improve itself.