April 2017

Seeking True North: Realigning Northern New Mexico College with a Quest for Excellence and an Ethic of Service


Alejandro López


There is no place in the world where I would rather be.

— NNMC President Rick Bailey, Ph.D


If institutions, like the individuals who steer them, become infirm, lose their strength and sense of direction, can they recover their health, power and bearings? Northern New Mexico College, with new president Dr. Rick Bailey at the helm, will soon demonstrate that this may indeed be the case—if he is able to translate his vision into reality.


Founded as a land-grant institution under the Territorial Constitution in 1909, NNMC had its beginnings in an educational process aimed specifically at developing certain skills and abilities of a people who, since the appropriation of the northern half of México in 1846, had remained at the margins of U.S. society but were grounded in their own meaningful and physically demanding agricultural way of life. The Spanish American Normal School at El Rito, as it was then called, was designed to train area individuals in pedagogy so that they might serve as teachers to other, mainly rural, Spanish-speaking students who comprised the bulk of the state’s population.


Since few people in the area spoke English, it was also designed to inculcate the New Mexican—Mexicano—population with English and the culture that came along with it.  Those responsible for the school’s creation believed that by assimilating the national language and worldview, this historic community, older than the country itself, might function more effectively in the highly demanding, rigidly structured industrial U.S. society that was quickly overtaking the region. Later on, operating as a boarding school for high school students for many years, El Rito campus, across many decades of the 20th century, became a thriving incubator for much of northern New Mexico’s emerging bilingual and bicultural homegrown leadership.


Fast forward to the middle of that century: The school’s leadership decided that adding instruction in highly practical and marketable trades would be a great asset to the populace, particularly because, in the decades since its founding, much of northern New Mexico had modernized and become dependent on a largely industrial-technological infrastructure. Under a new name, Northern New Mexico Technical Vocational School, in 1969, and operating in two locations 30 miles apart, El Rito “mother school” and its offspring, the Española Branch campus, offered highly coveted courses in plumbing, electrical engineering, barbering and cosmetology, construction, welding, auto mechanics and other trades. These trades enabled many individuals to earn a living during radically changing times.


In 1977, after undergoing yet another name change, Northern New Mexico Community College continued to offer courses in the trades while simultaneously developing a strong academic and humanities arm. Indeed, that period may have been the school’s finest moment because it offered something for everyone in the region at a reasonable cost, but also because the college attracted some enormously talented individuals who created a rich, intense and creative climate of learning and doing. For a people used to participating in the magic of co-creating life in their fields, with their animal flocks and artisan hands, this was a climate that fed their mind, body and spirit.


Among those it attracted were folklorist Dr. Enrique Lamadrid, novelist Jim Sagel, master musician Dr. Cipriano Vigil and former State Historian Hilario Romero. Under the direction of a colorful, free-spirited and utterly inspiring teacher, Joan MacDonald, the arts thrived, while graphic designer extraordinaire, Angela Werneke, produced the most highly crafted school publications anywhere, stamped, as they were, with her elegant eagle-in-flight logo, which the college maintains to this day. Connie Valdez, a big-hearted community-oriented president, served as an enormously stabilizing force who grew the college during her lengthy tenure during the late ‘80s into the ‘90s.


In 2005, the college, now called Northern New Mexico College, became a four-year degree-granting institution. To that end, it further built up its academic offerings while de-emphasizing the trades. The change reflected the spirit of the times as well as the predilections of the subsequent college presidents, Dr. Sigfredo Maestas and Dr. José Griego. At that time, El Rito campus began to wane while the Española Branch campus grew in size, importance and enrollment. 


In recent years, the college has developed strong math, science, business administration, computer engineering, nursing and education programs while generally maintaining a viable arts and academic arm, even as it eliminated nearly all of the trades. These changes took place, in part, as a response to Los Alamos National Laboratories having become the area’s biggest employer. The lab needed people trained foremost in math and science. The lab had also begun investing in the college’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program during this period. Today the STEM program as well as biology, chemistry, environmental science, neuroscience and science are among the college’s strongest programs. They are headed by department chair Dr. Ulises M. Ricoy.


In spite of having graduated thousands of individuals in multiple fields over the years, the college in recent times experienced many a crisis that left the area’s population deeply concerned. El Rito campus was closed in 2015 due to what some considered a lack of vision and disregard for its charter in the New Mexico State Constitution stating that El Rito campus cannot be closed while the Española Branch campus is operating. A state-of-the-art automotive repair shop, recently built to the tune of more than a million dollars on the Española campus, now lies vacant. The ball was dropped with regard to applying for funding for several of NNMC’s longest-lived federally funded programs, which are no more. Except for barbering and cosmetology, NNMC has shed all of its trades, including its once-stellar solar adobe construction, Spanish colonial furniture-making and weaving programs.


During the last administration, the college fell into fiscal management problems and in 2016 it came under the scrutiny of the State of New Mexico Auditor. Last month it was reported an employee had embezzled $200,000. To make up for budgetary shortfalls, in the last three years, tuition was increased significantly. This led to an exodus of nearly a thousand students within an 18-month period, from a once-thriving population of 2,500. Many of those who left enrolled at Santa Fe Community College, which picked up many programs that NNMC discarded. Española-based students are not happy commuting to Santa Fe and would rather take classes at a smaller institution closer to home, but the tuition for individual classes is less at SFCC, and the programs are a lot more varied.


Enter Dr. Rick Bailey, an unlikely candidate for president of the college. Bailey, from Colorado Springs, had made his career in the Air Force as a pilot. Thoughtful, dynamic and upbeat, he seems to possess the sensitivity, intelligence and, most importantly, the will to serve the people of northern New Mexico to the best of his ability. Although aware of Northern’s recent problems, he steadfastly focuses on the potential for writing—not alone, but together with other members of the regional community—a brand new and highly positive chapter in NNMC’s history.


Having assumed his position in mid-October 2016, Dr. Bailey has already begun sketching out a plan for reviving El Rito campus, one that might actually work. If a well-attended community meeting and a favorable reception to his ideas are any indication, it appears that El Rito community generally supports a proposal to transplant a successful educational program currently operating in Phoenix, Arizona. Planet Athlete is a nonprofit organization that helps high school athletes bridge the gap between high school and college. The program would bring to El Rito between 60 and 90 male students, six coaches and a handful of administrators. Although it would not hire many local people, the program would nevertheless inject much-needed dollars and infuse the campus and school with new energy and life. Perhaps in a few years, the college can do the same for its own students.


Other recent positive developments include an increase in enrollment after years of losing students. Last fall’s enrollment went up by 7 percent, far higher than any other in the state. According to President Bailey, “Northern New Mexico College is the single most affordable four-year institution in the Southwest. Its programs are nationally accredited. At Northern, we are providing an incredibly qualitative education at the most affordable price. Every person here is committed to the success of the students in ways that overwhelm me. I am proud of every single program in the college. Passionate educators lead every program. I have been heartened by this community. There is no place in the world where I would rather be.”


As part of his dream, President Bailey hopes to foster a climate that honors a diversity of thought—one that values each and every student and staff member. He also hopes to make education transformative in people’s lives so that they will walk away from the college equipped not only with knowledge and skills that will enable them to make a living but also with the desire to contribute to society, both locally and nationally.


This newfound spirit of community service is reflected in the recent appointment of Dr. David García as chair of Fine Arts. García, a musician and anthropologist, has already launched a speakers’ series called Northern Confluence, Currents in Arts, Technologies and Cultures. He has also begun scheduling exhibits by local artists and integrating the indigenous arts of northern New Mexico into the college’s curriculum and college life. The first art exhibit is Ordinary Grace, wood sculpture of Manuel López of Los Palacios, N.M. It will run from April 27 to April 28.


Another development at the college has been that director of financial aid, Jacob Pacheco and his staff, recently took on the additional work of the New Mexico Educational Opportunity Center (EOC). The EOC program was funded by a $2.5-million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Unfortunately, the program was lost during the last administration. During the past 42 years, EOC recruited, retained and graduated thousands of Northern’s students and sent thousands of other students from north-central New Mexico to institutions of higher learning. 


A particularly important victory was recently achieved with national accreditation recommended for the college’s nursing program by the Accrediting Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). A visiting team of evaluators deemed the program “exemplary.” A process 10 years in the making and its having reached this nearly final stage is a testament to the dedication of Theresa López, director of the nursing program. López is known for her personal quest for excellence and devotion to serving others. Hopefully, the college can catch the fire from these and other inspired individuals who work at NNMC, as well as by other recent encouraging developments.


Alejandro López, a northern New Mexico educator, artist and writer, studied at NNMC among other colleges and universities. He later served as publications specialist at NNMC, instructor of Spanish and English as a Second Language and as director of El Rito campus between 2006 and 2007.





An Eagle’s Flight


Like mighty eagles, human beings can attain transcendental flight to levels of being supreme. What wings and keen sight are to them, reason and imagination are to us. Whereas eagles remain aloft on currents of cool and warm air and mighty gusts of wind, as human beings we must propel ourselves with arduous tasks of love, ceaseless cultivation of knowledge, and a passion for life. 


An unbreakable core, moral fiber, untiring work—these—and not a breeze, enable us to forever soar above craggy peaks and treacherous drops.  Meanwhile, an undying quest for a perspective from above, the sight of dawn from a thousand feet in the air among the clouds, and our own quickening pace of heart, compel us to teach this most wondrous art, this most daunting of disciplines to those who would follow and aspire to fly!  For to fly, is to live, and nothing short of it can ever take its place!


— Poem by a faculty member dedicated to President Rick Bailey and the Eagles of NNMC



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