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UNM regent: ‘We don’t have a good product’

Tom Clifford

Tom Clifford

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As the University of New Mexico regroups from a dramatic enrollment decline and tries to prevent future bleeding, one of UNM’s own regents is suggesting that a poor “product” could be part of the problem.

Regent Tom Clifford said the state’s largest university cannot ignore its shortcomings, saying half of the “customers” at UNM “get nothing of value” – remarks that drew a rebuttal from the university’s top academic officer.

“I think we have a terrific product for many, many of our students,” interim Provost Richard Wood said during Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting.

This fall’s unexpectedly marked student dropoff has UNM officials evaluating the cause and seeking strategies to ensure it does not continue. The 7.2 percent enrollment slide is nearly three times larger than anticipated, creating a nearly $10 million hole in this year’s budget.

During an enrollment discussion Thursday, UNM administrators cited New Mexico’s stagnant demographics, growing competition for students, and an improving economy that drives potential students into the workforce instead of the classroom.

Wood also noted another headwind: Surveys show that Americans increasingly question if a college degree is worth the cost despite evidence that it pays financial and health dividends over a lifetime, he said.

But Clifford – a member of UNM’s governing board since 2016 – said UNM is not proving its value to the public and failing to graduate two-thirds of its students. Wood responded that 50 percent of UNM’s first-time freshmen have a degree within six years.

“So 50 percent (graduate). Fine,” Clifford said. “Fifty percent of our customers get nothing of value they can show. They get debt for coming here. That’s not a good product, folks.

“We don’t have a good product. We need to improve this product, and telling ourselves it’s because people don’t understand what a good product we have, that’s ridiculous. … That’s how we get the reputation for being ivory tower, out-of-touch people.”

Wood disputed Clifford’s assessment and defended UNM’s performance, specifically citing a four-year graduation rate that doubled in the past five years, climbing above 32 percent from 15.8 percent in 2013.

He also said a number of factors outside UNM’s control contribute to its students’ academic performance, including financial and family hardships.

About 40 percent of UNM’s undergraduates are eligible for Pell Grants, a federal subsidy for low-income students.

“Are we where we want to be? No. But, in fact, if you study the backgrounds of our students and compare it to national rates, we’re performing way above the bar,” Wood said.

Clifford said in an interview after the meeting that he wants UNM to look closer at itself, focusing on improving academic programming, student support and graduation rates.

“We have a lot we can do internally, so that was the point: Let’s not blame other people for not perceiving what a great job we’re doing,” he said.

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