Trouble at Northern New Mexico College—Community or Corporate Goals?

By KAY MATTHEWS

Contention at Northern New Mexico College between dismissed and resigned faculty and the administration under President Nancy “Rusty” Barceló has heated up over the last few months as documented by a blog, Northern New Mexico College Study Group. While much of the controversy has been covered in the press, a letter written to the blog by Dr. Patricia Perea, former NNMC professor, hasn’t been as well circulated. La Jicarita reprints the letter below, following a brief summary of what has recently transpired at the college. In a subsequent issue La Jicarita will take a look at a related controversy involving Perea: her removal by Barceló from the 2014 site committee of the Mujeras Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (MALCS) summer institute at NNMC. MALC is a Chicana/Native feminist organization that works for social and environmental justice. An issue pertinent to both Perea’s letter and her removal from the MALC committee is her questioning of the financial ties of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to decisions being made at the college.

nnmcc06According to the Study Group blog, since Barceló’s arrival four years ago the mission of the college, to serve the educational needs of the Hispana/o and Native American students of Rio Arriba, Taos, and Los Alamos counties, has been whittled away as the college strives to attract more out-of-area students by cutting “career–tech” courses and instituting more “academic” ones.

Former humanities professor Tim Crone backs up this assessment. La Jicarita spoke with him about his criticism of the administration: “At first I thought that if they wanted to destroy the college this was the plan to follow. Then, at a meeting with some other AFT [American Federation of Teachers] folks I realized that what they’re doing is going on all over the country, where people are trying to turn decent community colleges into regional universities, ignoring the population.” Crone went on to place a lot of the blame squarely on Regent Michael Branch’s shoulders. Branch, owner of Branch Realty in Santa Fe, has apparently been advocating that the college become a four-year institution throughout the tenure of the two previous presidents and finally pushed his agenda at least partially through in 2005 when the college was authorized to offer bachelor degree programs. Barceló seems to be willing to fully implement Branch’s agenda. Crone also said that one of the other regents, Alfred Herrera, who graduated from the for-profit University of Phoenix, seems to want to follow a path towards privatization.

Professor Tim Crone
Professor Tim Crone

Crone, a longtime faculty member, recently retired but has been denied adjunct status, along with Patricia Perea and Annette Rodriguez, one of the main authors of the Study Group blog (Perea and Rodriguez were fired as full time faculty).

Specifically, the blog lists the following actions implemented by Barceló. The Heritage Arts program, which had provided an Associate of Arts degree in Fiber Arts and Spanish Colonial Furniture, was cut from the curriculum. The Spanish language program was undercut with no fulltime Spanish instructor or faculty. The legendary norteño musician Cipriano Vigil was demoted to the position of adjunct professor, with no regular salary or benefits. This fall, no English as a Second Language (ESL) of GED courses are being offered. The Auto Tech, Career Tech, Radiology, and the Child Care Center have also been cut.

Since Barceló took office in 2010 tuition has doubled. Since 2011 enrollment has dropped from 1,254 full-time equivalent students to 400 in 2014. A particularly contentious issue has been the administration’s pursuit of the Student Housing Construction Project, the dormitories that would house the students it wants to attract from outside the region and state as part of its scheme to “diversity” and “to recruit a higher caliber” of student (language used at a board of regents meeting addressing the need for dorms). At a July meeting before the New Mexico Board of Finance the administration requested a $16 million revenue bond for the construction project, but the Board declined to vote on the request.

Professor Annette Rodriguez
Professor Annette Rodriguez

Perhaps the most damaging of all the impacts at the college is the loss of faculty. During the 2012-2013 academic year 25 percent of the full time faculty was either fired or resigned. These include tenured, tenure track, and program directors. Tim Crone believes that most of the resignations are due to frustration with the administration.

In April the remaining faculty voted no confidence in five administrators. Of the more than 50 faculty members at the college about 67.5 percent of them voted, with 85 percent voting “no confidence” and 11 percent abstaining. One staffer voted “with confidence.” The Student Senate also voted no confidence in two of the administrators.

In a paid advertisement in the May 9, 2014 Rio Grande Sun Barceló responded to public criticism: “Regardless of how people feel about myself, the current leadership or recent decisions, the college’s reputation is something we all take part in . . . Sadly, misinformation and attacks obstruct opportunities to have civil conversations to address these important issues. This ultimately harms our community relationships and our ability to serve students.”

Finally, in August, Angelo Jacques, former Information Technology Director at the college, filed a whistleblower’s lawsuit alleging financial indiscretions by the administration including misuse of federal funds, wasteful spending, gross mismanagement, and retaliation against employees. Less than a year after he was hired, and after he complained and objected to activities he interpreted as improper or unlawful, he was placed on administrative leave and his contract was not renewed.

Annette Rodriguez is also threatening legal action unless the college releases public documents and records she has requested regarding financial and contract information.

Professor Patricia Rodriguez
Professor Patricia Rodriguez

This is the letter from Patricia Perea:

July 1, 2014 Dear NNMC Study Group:

I write this statement knowing that I have amazing support. At the same time, I know that most of my supporters are afraid to say so publicly. That is something I completely understand. However, I feel it is necessary to speak about my experience at Northern New Mexico College (NNMC). I do not take this lightly as it is incredibly painful and to be honest feels a bit like betrayal on my part.

I got to Northern New Mexico College in June 2013 and I was so grateful and excited to  be here. In fact, I had started researching available positions at Northern in Fall 2011, while I was still visiting faculty at Brown University. There was talk that Northern was building a Chicana/o Studies program and I so wanted to be on the ground floor. I also relished the idea of working with Dr. Nancy “Rusty” Barceló. I had seen her at every National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies Conference (NACCS) and Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (MALCS) conference I attended since I began my Ph.D. program at the University of New Mexico in 2000. She was a role model _ an out-Chicana lesbian, an activist, a feminist, a champion for equity and diversity, an artist and as of 2010, the new President of Northern New Mexico College. It was my dream to work with Dr. Barceló – someone who understood what it means to be a Chicana in academia. Who could possibly be better to work with?

One year later; however, I am compelled to say that Dr. Barceló and her administration have failed not only me, but other committed Chicana and Native academics, our largely Hispanic and Native students, and our northern New Mexico community as a whole.

I was not raised in northern New Mexico. And although my ancestral roots are here, I would never claim to be a northern New Mexican – that is, I believe, disrespectful to a community that has struggled immensely and has often been objectified as romantic, exotic, and tragic. I can empathize, but I cannot and will not co-opt it.

Nevertheless, I was, and still am dedicated to working for the people of northern New Mexico. I thought President Barceló and her administration were also similarly dedicated to the students and this hard-working community. And it is because I so strongly believed in that dedication that I was surprised to hear Dr. Barceló say that it was time for NNMC to attract a “higher caliber of student.” In my short experience here, the caliber of students is fantastic – they are committed; they are eager to learn. They have also been vastly underserved by a broken public school system. That says nothing about their potential – in fact, it says exactly the opposite. They still come to college despite having negative experiences in the K-12 public school system. They still want to learn.

Northern was given notice last week by the Department of Education that its High School Equivalency Program (HEP) Grant would not be renewed for the 2014-2015 academic year. This is a grant that has been renewed every five years for over 40 years. In a location where high school graduation rates are abysmal, a grant such as this is vital for getting students into the doors of higher education. To lose it, is devastating. The only other HEP program in the state is about 75 miles away at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. And while public transportation is available, (a student could take an hour bus ride to Santa Fe, switch to the RailRunner for a 1.5 hour trip to Albuquerque and then take the bus from the train station to UNM) it is unrealistic.

Northern is vital to this area. With all my heart, I believe this. I do not want to see this school fail. Every week since the semester ended I have run into students – at Chili’s in Española, at the Country Farm Supply in Española, at The Sopapilla Factory in Pojoaque. Each student is worried about the rising cost of tuition; each student is upset about the cutting of vital programs such as automotive technology, radiography, construction trades; each student is upset about the loss of faculty. And so far each student is transferring to another school or simply taking “time off.” This worries me. What if they do not come back? We will have failed them again.

Unlike many of my wonderful colleagues, I do not believe NNMC should return to community college status. I think it should stay a four-year college. I think it should expand and grant more B.A. or B.S. degrees – perhaps eventually M.A. degrees. Just in terms of basic geography, New Mexico only has eight public four-year colleges/ universities in the state: Eastern New Mexico University (about 250 miles away), the Institute of American Indian Arts (about 30 miles away), New Mexico Highlands University (about 100 miles away), New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (about 170 miles away), New Mexico State University (310 miles away), University of New Mexico (about 90 miles away) and Western New Mexico University (about 310 miles away). I understand that this is probably the case across many states in the U.S. West. I am sure Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, etc. are in similar situations; however, we in northern New Mexico do not have to be. Our college is right here. This is what makes its inaccessibility to our local communities baffling.

Undoubtedly my focus has been on the cancelling of the vital programs mentioned above; yet, there are programs that remain and the approach of the administration to some of these programs troubles me as well. Engineering and Math remain important programs to Northern. I do not know the actual numbers for the number of students enrolled in these programs but for Spring 2014 commencement, the number of graduates combined from these programs was less than twelve. However, these low numbers are not my primary concern. My primary concern is that I have heard President Barceló and Dean of Arts and Sciences Dr. Anthony Sena regularly announce that the Engineering program’s goal is to get students prepared and eligible for employment at Los Alamos National Labs (LANL).

And I do come to this with personal experience. As a Chicana growing up in the Amarillo, Texas area I am well aware of the benefits of government jobs. My mother spent over three decades working at Pantex, which is a nuclear weapons plant formerly overseen by the Department of Energy. This job was stable and provided my mom and my brother and me with enormous benefits – excellent healthcare, living wages. I understand the benefit of these jobs. Without question, LANL provides the most stable income in the Española Valley. What I cannot ignore is the environmental injustice of LANL; the constant battles that organizations such as Honor Our Pueblo Existence (HOPE) are engaged in regarding the environmental degradation brought on by LANL. This has gone unaddressed by NNMC and when I brought it up during a MALCS site committee meeting, I was told by President Barceló that as LANL provides NNMC with quite a bit of money, I could not publically critique its participation in MALCS. This is offensive to me and disappoints me. Where is the spirit of activism and social justice I was sure would be embodied in this administration led by an activist-oriented Chicana? Still, I respected Dr. Barceló and often defended her when others made critical remarks.

I kept faith for as long as I could but when I saw the determination of the college to dismantle vital programs and when I saw the determination of the administration to dismantle the Faculty Senate (of which I was the secretary), I also began to question their political structure and policies. Several comments were made at meetings that demonstrated the anti-union sentiment of Northern’s administration. In fact, our AFT union representative is another faculty member who has been removed from the adjunct faculty list. In addition, with the exception of one member, President Barceló’s executive committee is all male and I was disappointed to find that all four of the final candidates for our Provost job search were also all male. Finally, what is the most egregious to me and also the most sensitive is that there are numerous allegations of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment against members of President Barceló’s executive team. Some of these claims have been taken through Northern’s Office of Equity and Diversity and they have been dismissed; therefore, many of these claimants have taken their claims to outside lawyers.

As it became visible to the college community at large that both the Faculty Senate and the Student Senate were about to decide whether or not to vote no confidence in President Barceló and her administrative team, colleagues began to reach out to me. Notes were slipped under my door detailing grant irregularities, intimidation practices, retaliation practices, sexual discrimination claims, and sexual harassment claims. People who were afraid to be seen with me in public asked to meet me off campus, in Santa Fe, in Pojoaque. They wanted to talk; they wanted information out there but they were afraid to come forward. I presented all of this information sans the sources in our April Faculty Senate meeting. We as Faculty Senate decided to go forward with conducting a vote of confidence or no confidence. To be clear, the faculty could vote either way. Four weeks later, the President of the Faculty Senate was not renewed, the Vice-President had resigned and the incoming President (me) was non-renewed.

What is important to know is that every bit of information I was given unofficially – all of the information I collected to go forward with a vote of confidence or no confidence –has proven to be true. We did lose our HEP grant; we were found guilty of supplanting funds in our Title III grant; retaliation is real. And, for me, one of the most hurtful is the reason Dr. Anthony Sena gave to one of the chairs at the college for the removal of Annette Rodriguez, Tim Crone, and me. Students were asked by the administration to report if any of us said anything negative about the administration in class. I did answer students’ questions regarding tuition, salaries of adjunct faculty, salaries of the administration, the cutting of programs, the significance of tenure. We discussed all of this and I encouraged them to go to the Board of Regents meetings. I encouraged them to write letters to the administration. I told them to make sure their concerns were addressed. And I also encouraged them to voice their support for the administration. For this, I am told and Vice-President Ricky Serna has confirmed, I was not renewed.

As I finish this letter, it is the end of June. Twenty-five percent of Northern’s full-time faculty is gone. Both my partner and I (the only out-Chicana lesbians on the MALCS site committee) were removed from that site committee. Another Chicana resigned from that site committee due to hostile work environment in her own department. I have been saddened to hear NNMC faculty that have remained employed at the college consistently make homophobic remarks about my partner and me to students. Students tell me this. Insulting remarks regarding female Pueblo elders have been posted on social media by currently employed NNMC faculty members. I have seen this. Of all the concerns I have outlined in this statement, these are the hardest to articulate because I expected so much more from a Chicana-led administration.

Before arriving at NNMC, I held Dr. Barceló in the highest esteem. Even now as I write this and make it public I feel like a traitor. I have been warned by several people that criticizing Dr. Barceló could adversely affect my future career in Chicana/o Studies. However, at this point I am exhausted by the silence. I have written letters to President Barceló, her administration and the Board of Regents. I have gotten absolutely no response. I have read these letters in public at Board of Regents’ meetings and gotten no response. What else can I do except reiterate what I said in the last Board of Regents meeting? I got a Ph.D. in order to speak out regarding issues that otherwise go ignored or on behalf of communities that are easily dismissed.

I absolutely respect President Barceló’s experience, her history, and her commitment to activism. I cannot respect the current conduct of her leadership; nor the administration she guides.

Currently, many former faculty members of the college are putting together a resolution regarding the treatment of women, in particular women of color, at Northern New Mexico College. As one of these former faculty members, I am asking all of you to consider this statement, these concerns and the forthcoming resolution with an open mind and open heart.

With Much Respect,

Dr. Patricia M. Perea

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2 comments

  1. You an inspiration for the cause and I wholeheartedly stand with you. This is my community and I was once one of those lost souls as a young man looking for a path. Returning with excitement to share my abundant expertise to only be dismissed is not within the spirit of our culture. Godspeed to you and all that have stood.

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