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Regent’s comments about UNM not offering a ‘good product’ draw fire

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A University of New Mexico regent’s public proclamation that the institution offers a poor “product” is drawing criticism as being disrespectful and potentially harmful.

Tom Clifford, a member of UNM’s governing board for the past 2½ years, said during Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting that the university’s failure to graduate a greater percentage of students might be to blame for its sinking enrollment. Half of the university’s first-time freshmen earn a degree within six years – a rate he flouted.

“(The other) 50 percent of our customers get nothing of value they can show,” Clifford said. “They get debt for coming here. That’s not a good product, folks. We don’t have a good product.”

Tom Clifford

Tom Clifford

UNM interim Provost Richard Wood disputed Clifford’s characterization during the meeting, noting the university has doubled its four-year graduation rate since 2013 and has better results than many institutions serving students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

Now others in and around the university are registering their concern.

“It is reprehensible that a regent, a person brought on to serve the university, would characterize an enrollment dip in such a manner,” Faculty Senate President Pamela Pyle said in a written statement to the Journal. “This endemic disrespect is unfathomable and does not recognize all the good that is the University of New Mexico.”

Rob Burford, president of the university’s Staff Council, said staff “adamantly dispute that UNM has a poor product,” and many employees are frustrated by what Clifford said.

“Numerous staff have shared with me how upset they are with Regent Clifford’s comments, as these comments take away from all the great work that faculty and staff do here at UNM,” Burford said in an email. “Additionally, what he stated takes away from all of the hard work that students put into their degrees they are so proud to have earned.”

Clifford did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Gov. Susana Martinez appointed Clifford to the UNM board in mid-2016. The state Senate never confirmed him, but Martinez re-upped him with single-year “recess” appointments in 2017 and 2018. His current term ends Dec. 31. His is one of five UNM regent seats Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham can fill when she takes office.

Former UNM regent Jack Fortner said Clifford’s harsh words were unconstructive and disparaging. Fortner – who served 18 years on the board before resigning last year – said the role of a regent is to “fight for the university,” and that such a statement could actually make UNM’s enrollment problems worse by dissuading potential students.

“Certainly, if there’s something that you see that needs to be addressed (as a regent), it’s OK to address it publicly,” Fortner said. “But I think there’s a fine line between disparaging the university and trying to address problems.”

Clifford’s comments came as the board questioned administrators about this fall’s unexpected 7.2 percent enrollment loss. Officials have pinned the decline on a confluence of factors, from a better local economy to the state’s stagnant population growth. Wood said surveys also show fewer Americans believe a college degree is worth the cost, despite evidence of lifetime financial and health benefits.

But Clifford, at the meeting, said UNM is naive to think that’s the issue.

“We don’t have a good product,” he said. “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.”

Neither Regent President Rob Doughty nor UNM President Garnett Stokes addressed Clifford’s comments during Thursday’s meeting.

But Stokes said in a statement Friday that UNM offers “outstanding educational, social and cultural opportunities” for students.

“While we definitely strive to improve in certain areas, our success is reflected in every Lobo who graduates,” she wrote.

Doughty also provided a written statement to the Journal on Friday.

“UNM is the best product in New Mexico higher education because we are always looking for ways to improve,” he wrote, touting UNM’s rapid graduation rate gains and relatively new programs like “Aim to Achieve” that incentivize students to finish in four years.

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