Monday, October 1, 2012

IS COUTURE A SCAPEGOAT FOR THE GREATER SINS OF OTHERS?


Every story has two sides.  So far, we have had one side—the newspapers’ side—of those two sides about Barbara Couture’s leave of absence from NMSU.  Part of that one side I myself have told in criticizing Couture for several reasons: her fatally flawed leadership which contributed to DACC’s recent loss of accreditation of its nursing program, NMSU’s low faculty morale and continued academic mediocrity, and her allocation of millions to support its football team, a mediocrity then, now, and forever.

As the one side of the story unfolds, I have to qualify my criticisms.  I stand by my criticism of Couture’s management of subordinate and satellite campuses.  I even add that it seems to involve poor communication with donors and legislators.  But Couture alone is not responsible for low faculty and staff morale, and has tried to improve it by increasing compensation.  As I used NMSU’s low national rankings to criticize its poor academic performance, so I have to use its improved rankings to commend it for better academic performance and give Couture a share of the credit.  Her role in, and the reasons for, the increased funding of the football program are not clear, so I withdraw judgment, but I am sure that she should not be blamed for the collapse of the WAC.

But the criticisms reported in Sunday’s Sun-News suggests that Couture may be far less to blame than her critics, who are not without sin, would have the public believe.

Consider the persistently mediocre NMSU football team and the recent collapse of the WAC.  Probably in response to its donors and its then-new president Mike Martin, NMSU moved to a then-stronger conference since abandoned by other schools.  NMSU lacked the football talent to enhance, and the resources to sustain, the WAC, though Couture, in a widely criticized move, used an additional $4 million to support NMSU’s participation.  Neither NMSU nor Couture caused the failure of the WAC, and I find it hard to believe that Couture did more than she, as a new president, was persuaded to do.  Blame should be assigned to the donors who want their opinions made creed, to Mike Martin, and to Ben Woods, whose strong ties to donors make him their voice to NMSU’s presidents.

Consider the donors, as represented by Marci Dickerson, who are whining about Couture because she did not woo and win them—read: not stroke their egos and kiss their derrieres.  Obviously, donors, especially businesspeople like Dickerson, equate their money and their mouth; believe that anything which they recommend is worth doing; and, if it is not accepted for action, complain that Couture did not listen.  They act as if public institutions exist to serve their whims and wishes.  They assume that their money gives them an expertise on education which no educator can match.

Consider the politicos for even bigger egos and bigger derrieres.  State Rep. Andy Nunez complains that Couture did not visit him in his office; for his self-revelation of the pettiness of self-impressed officials, Nunez wins gold.  Andy, if you are truly concerned, do not stand on ceremony, do your job, pick up the phone, and call Barbara.  State Sen. Mary Jane Garcia complains that, because of a “background in anthropology,” Couture might have visited Garcia’s El Camino Real revitalization project—which is relevant to NMSU exactly how?  Mary Jane, if you nursed a grudge on that basis, you have only your ignorance to blame: Couture’s background is her three degrees are in English.

So much for the prima donnas and the petty politicos.  Two interesting and revealing absurdities come from Bob Gallagher, frustrated in his desire for reappointment as regents chairman and fired as president of the NM Oil and Gas Association.

Gallagher denies that frequent turnover in presidential leadership creates a sense of instability on campus.  Mike Martin may be his mentor, here, but Mike is probably rationalizing his personal ambition realized by frequent moves.  Bob as well as Mike is wrong.  Everyone else, from successor regents to higher education evaluators, regards high rates of turnover in faculty or officers as serious deficiencies—which fact explains why the regents who succeeded Bob established a five-year longevity bonus for Mike’s successor.  Bob’s comment insinuates a smear of Couture for remaining at NMSU because, so Bob implies, she was not good enough to be sought by others.  The fact is that she was encouraged by the bonus to stay (and, for all anyone knows, was offered but refused opportunities to relocate).  Bob’s insinuation certainly does not justify the regents in firing her for staying on the job or in trying to save the bonus money.

Gallagher even denies that university presidents need academic credentials.  I have no idea where he gets this idea.  No major university, certainly no land-grant university, has a president without academic credentials.  Indeed, I cannot imagine any university of good repute having someone without them.  Bob’s notion seems to be that a better leader for NMSU would be a high-level business executive, a CEO who could serve as a back-slapper, fund-raiser, and power-broker.  Sorry to say, Bob, not only will Mitt not be available after the election, but such business-minded people are a large part of the problem, and no part of the solution of the problem, with higher education.

It is unfair to both Harvard University and New Mexico State University to mention them in the same sentence, much less compare them.  But, with Gallagher’s comments in mind, let me report that Harvard presidents have always been academics distinguished by scholarly attainment and educational vision, and have averaged terms of more than 13 years.  Harvard’s president for five years has been a woman who is a distinguished history scholar and teacher; as such, she leads a university with a world-renown faculty, an annual budget of nearly $4 billion, and an endowment of more than $30 billion.

It should be possible—it is highly desirable—that NMSU ensure that its highest officer be a distinguished scholar competent to lead a much smaller university and direct the management of its affairs and resources.  But, first, the state must decide whether it intends NMSU to commit to, and focus on, the three missions of a land-grant university—research, teaching, service.  Note: every word is about academics; not one word is about athletics.  Note also: no critic mentioned NMSU’s improved ranking.  Then, the governor must appoint educationally knowledgeable regents who will select and support as NMSU’s president a leader of academic distinction, educational vision, and managerial competence.  Then, the regents must ensure that the president has a loyal staff to promote his or her vision and implement his or her efforts.  To this end, the regents must not give undue or unquestioning regard to long-term, high-level officials who, too often, serve themselves, other insiders, and outsiders.  If NMSU needs a new leader, it also needs new senior staff; if it does not, it still needs new senior staff.

7 comments:

  1. Thank you. After reading the same Sun-News article I felt like writing a letter to the editor but feared I might have been deliriously out of touch. You've not only expressed my thoughts but in a much more entertaining way. The word bribery came to my mind as I was reading what the high-dollar donors were saying... The article shifted my opinion about Dr. Couture. Maybe she was actually standing up to these thugs! Dare I say that?

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  2. Thank YOU. I think that the DACC mess is sufficient grounds to dismiss Couture, but I think that the stuff in the paper indicates the culture which she was up against and probably tried to resist.

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  3. I don't think Dr. Couture was any less involved than past presidents concerning DACC's accreditation processes. Bad luck and bad timing. It's true that NMSU holds the purse strings on hiring but DACC's president clearly lacked the understanding of the impact the loss of accreditation would have. The public outcry took her by surprise. Thanks for the vigilance!

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  4. Independent of the reasons that the turnover occurs, students, and communities suffer financially due the exodus payouts, either through necessary programatic cuts, or directly increased costs. This happens both in higher education, as well as in our school districts. Part of the problem is our fascination with the idea that there are ideal candidates, or even rainmakers. In our attempts to find an ideal leader, we should focus primarily on loyalty and character, as opposed to tangental achievements in far-flung locals, indicative of the reststop mentality that they will bring with them, and take a few years later.

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  5. Very well written. I also believe that Dr Couture tried to get a little house cleaning done. The best thing she did was get rid of Jennifer Taylor. She should have kept on going, straight on to Ben Woods and Maureen Howard. I also think Dr. Couture bears some responsibility for the DACC mess, but do you think that since Dr. Huerta was at the helm, she should also be shown the door?

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    1. Yes. I have written to that point in previous blogs. "The New Mexico Nurse" (Vol. 57, no. 4, for Oct., Nov., Dec.) has a long discussion of the situation (p.5). The New Mexico Nurses Association reports, that "through Freedom of Information Requests it came out that the administration at DACC had been put on notice a long time before the NLNAC survey last spring that because they had high faculty turnover, questions of the educational preparation and experience of the faculty and THE DIRECTOR OF THE PROGRAM [emphasis mine], they were in danger of losing the accreditation." But nothing was done. So Huerta's account about being advised that all was well and of forthrightly advising the students and much else is not credible. Apparently, the regents believe her claim to have informed Couture and been frustrated in her efforts to initiate corrective action. Such belief would explain why Huerta has not be fired. But it is beyond my belief.

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  6. Very interesting. Thanks for the post.

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