Were it not for the fact that Northern New Mexico College in Española has been the recipient of enormous sums of money from the state over its nearly 45 years of existence, and that few other institutions in the valley can serve as a potent catalyst for positive community development in an otherwise impoverished region, its poor performance record could be overlooked.
In just the last two years, Northern’s enrollment has plummeted, as students are voting with their feet by taking their tuition dollars to other institutions. Student migration has been prompted, in part, by a recent dramatic hike in tuition from $36 per credit hour to $114.50, with additional mandatory fees of $500-$600 slapped on top of this. The college could be justified in assessing such onerous increases if it were indeed offering an improved product. Instead there has been a wholesale elimination of programs and personnel and little or no improvement in course offerings or services that directly benefit students. Not surprisingly, NNMC was recently singled out as the state’s higher learning institution receiving the largest number of complaints.
It appears that the heart of the problem today is the lack of community concern amongst its current leaders. There is no evidence of an ethic of service-minded leadership, nor is there a palpable love and excitement for learning and the furthering of human potential among them. It also appears that there is resistance by the college leadership to engage the community at large in genuine ways to create a vision and implement a plan for the college that meets the needs and aspirations of the area’s people.
After 45 years in operation, the college is known more for its fiscal difficulties than for the strength of its academic programs. Its buildings and grounds exude an air of sterility and vacuity. Northern’s president and Board of Regents have taken the approach of eliminating longstanding programs, staff and faculty as quickly and ruthlessly as possible, while at the same time promising miracle cures that would come by building dormitories and by merely naming themselves “university” rather than “college.”
NNMC is embedded in a distinctive geographic landscape. The population it serves is one of multiple cultural identities, each of which has distinct and specific needs. The college would do well to reflect on each of the realities that comprise our world and tailor its approach to provide meaningful and creative learning approaches in order to reach all of its students.
There are many in this community who believe in Northern as a precious resource that deserves to be salvaged. It is unfortunate that members of the current administration have proved themselves either unwilling or incapable of guiding the college and making it a productive resource for our state. There are numerous talented and deserving individuals in this area, young and older, who look to the college to provide them with the education and skills they need to be more productive and better serve their community. There are an equal number of committed citizens who would love to serve their community by participating in the mission of making the college a welcoming and enlightened space for students, citizens and employees alike.
Despite all of the above, the community is not completely without hope. Recently, the governor appointed and the Senate unanimously approved two new members to Northern’s Board of Regents. The air is now one of anxious anticipation that a changing of the guard in the board composition will inspire a change of focus from status quo to that of open and compassionate management.
Now is the time for Northern to fling wide open its doors to listen to community voices and make use of its collective knowledge in deciding how to provide excellent-quality training and leadership in the study of and creative interaction with ecosystems, land grants, traditional communities in transition, forests, alternative energy, green building, permaculture, agriculture, food production and preparation. A strong sustainable agricultural initiative could greatly assist in protecting the area’s population as we face the reality of resource scarcity. With the help of a committed and compassionate college this area could explore alternatives to “job creation” that have consumerism as the foundation, and instead look at developing and sustaining the resources that are here. That means honoring traditional ways of knowledge and improving education in new sustainable practices.
One such initiative could be the development of a progressive and dynamic business school with a mission to inspire students to take on the challenge of understanding the city and region’s elusive business climate and help them participate in the rebuilding of the economy. By engaging students in conducting incisive studies, interviews and dialogue, business incubation models and decisive community service learning projects, the college could inject vitality back into the community. Considering the age in which we live, the college must also choose to facilitate students’ entry into the global arena by weaving the strands of global cultures, languages, diplomacy, international politics and social work into its curriculum.
Given that Northern was originally founded more than 100 years ago with the mission of training teachers to serve the region’s Spanish-speaking population, we must not overlook the possibility of founding a Spanish language center of national importance, along with working museums that reflect the many important aspects of northern New Mexico cultures. In this same vein, a vital and dynamic fine arts center that recognizes and promotes the traditional arts of northern New Mexico must be created for the benefit of the local communities. Instead of shuttering programs such as Spanish Colonial Furniture Making and Río Grande Weaving, the College needs to make space on its current campus for them so they are more accessible to a greater number of people.
We must identify and define what the new technical trades and vocations might be for this area and in this age and offer them with inspired and competent personnel. Such an initiative could go far in reviving the school’s community mission of providing viable trades to members of the northern New Mexico community.
But whatever it does, it is incumbent upon the leaders of the college to forge a collective will to care for, even love, serve and benefit the people and land of northern New Mexico. We must insist that they create a deeply meaningful and vital learning process in which the area’s greatest challenges are addressed and its greatest strengths and resources employed. Such a process might yet succeed in establishing a learning-centered climate that benefits the community instead of one in which individual egos and the bureaucratic machinery drive the majority of its functions eclipsing the best of what students, teachers, community have to offer. Poor, battered, glorious NNMC deserves respect, care, love and attention from us and from the community leaders amongst us if it is to survive the current challenges and re-make itself into the community beacon it was meant to be. To fail to do so is unconscionable.
Susan Meredith is a longtime resident of New Mexico and the former chief of staff at Northern New Mexico College. She is a writer, an editor and a fiber artist. She resides on her two-and-a-half acre farm in Española.