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Editorial: Regent’s bitter medicine could have used sweetener

University of New Mexico Regent Tom Clifford gave members of the university community some bitter medicine last week regarding UNM’s enrollment and graduation numbers.

“We don’t have a good product,” he said during a public discussion about the university’s enrollment challenges. “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.”

Clifford, who has been a regent since 2016, was referring to UNM’s 50 percent six-year graduation rate and dramatic 7.2 percent drop in enrollment this fall. The enrollment decline has created a nearly $10 million hole in this year’s budget.

“Fifty percent of our customers get nothing of value they can show,” he said. “They get debt for coming here. That’s not a good product, folks.”

Yes, Clifford’s message could have used a spoonful of sugar when it came to delivery. Yes, UNM has made important reforms, including streamlining credit-hour requirements to 120 for undergraduate degrees and paying for students’ eighth semester if they graduate in four years. And, yes, a lot goes in to putting enrollment numbers in proper context, including economic upturns that make the workforce more attractive than higher ed to some. Ditto for graduation rates – UNM has fewer first-time, full-time freshmen that finish on schedule and more nontraditional returning-student populations who chip away at a degree.

But Clifford is right to say UNM needs to take an honest look at itself and figure out what it could be doing better. That’s an exercise that all of our state’s universities – and our government agencies and private businesses – should undertake regularly so they’re constantly improving while striving to meet their customers’ needs.

And to bolster his concerns, it bears pointing out that just down the interstate, the University of Texas-El Paso experienced yet another enrollment increase this fall, despite the booming economy that has some prospective students opting for the job market instead. It makes you wonder what UNM’s recent $1 million branding campaign did to stop the spread of cherry-red ink on the university’s ledgers.

But back to those controversial comments, which prompted several op-ed columns and letters to the editor, published in the Nov. 21 Journal. Silent following Clifford’s venting was UNM President Garnett Stokes, who did not dispute his conclusions during the meeting, although she issued a statement the following day that UNM offers “outstanding educational, social and cultural opportunities” for students.

Interim Provost Richard Wood did challenge Clifford during the meeting, noting that UNM has doubled its four-year graduation rate since 2013 and has better results than many institutions serving students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Former UNM regent Jack Fortner called Clifford’s harsh words unconstructive and disparaging. Faculty Senate President Pamela Pyle said in a written statement “it is reprehensible that a regent, a person brought on to serve the university, would characterize an enrollment dip in such a manner. This endemic disrespect is unfathomable and does not recognize all the good that is the University of New Mexico.”

Yes, Clifford overstepped in his criticism. But he has a point – UNM, for all the advances it has made, needs to find ways to improve its product. Unfortunately, Clifford’s harsh and overbroad rhetoric obscured that message.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.