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Politics distract from change needed at UNM

On June 10 the Associated Press reported that the New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) called for state and federal agencies, including the New Mexico attorney general, to investigate UNM for discriminatory hiring practices. The AP further stated this came about a day after UNM hired Assata Zerai, an African American woman and former associate provost for faculty excellence at the University of Illinois, for the position of vice president for equity and inclusion. The AP article added that LULAC Executive Director Ralph Arellanes and associates were pushing for the promotion of Lawrence Roybal, who had been serving in an interim role.

The VP for equity was one of four executive positions UNM had filled recently, including president, VP for finance and administration, and provost. To my knowledge, there was not a single Hispanic, African American or Native American finalist in the other three positions, all of which were filled by white candidates. It is thus surprising that NM LULAC leadership would take issue with UNM in the equity and inclusion case, in which a search committee made up of diverse faculty and headed by a Hispanic dean resulted in Hispanic, Native American and African American finalists, and the position was ultimately filled by an African American female. I don’t know Assata Zerai. Based on the resumes of the finalists, she seems the most qualified. NM LULAC’s position is disheartening, since it narrowly focused on the group’s particular person not getting the position. Thus, it looks like a demand for patronage. It is also politically ungenerous: Until Dr. Zerai’s appointment, there was not a single African American in any leadership role above a department chair on UNM’s main campus. The history of civil rights in our country is characterized by inclusion of others who are also marginalized. We are a better society for the effort and sacrifice of diverse individuals and groups going beyond their individual and group interests. Why not celebrate the appointment of a talented African American VP, even while continuing to push UNM toward greater diversity?

In the meantime, the risk is that real transformational diversity that goes beyond historically marginal offices and personalities will be neglected per usual. UNM is facing acute challenges, some internal and others external. Higher education, like its corporate counterpart, is underg(oing) a historical consolidation and scaling up. We are losing talented faculty to universities like Arizona State and Penn State, in part (because faculty want) to join large institutes and initiatives. When I joined UNM, we were at the same level as ASU in pretty much every measure. Thanks to a visionary leadership, ASU has grown to one of the leading universities in the country, and we can no longer say we are their peer in any sense of the word.

We live in a state of breathtaking beauty made of diverse communities, some tracing their connection to the land since the initial human occupation of this hemisphere. Our diversity and quality of life, when embraced fully and instituted in a transformative way, are assets that may help create a compelling argument as to why people should forsake much higher financial rewards and stay with us to train our children. But that requires focused internal and external leadership that has the courage to go beyond self-interest and provincial concerns. When properly invested in and led, universities have been the catalysts for the economic growth and rejuvenation of their communities.

Drama centered around provincial issues distract and make it hard to engage in the necessary institutional-scale transformation. As a result, people will keep leaving us, and UNM will continue losing ground year after year. In all of this, the real losers are mostly minority children and our communities. This is truly unfortunate.

The views expressed here are Yemane Asmerom’s and do not represent UNM.

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