ESPAÑOLA – Northern New Mexico College’s Board of Regents last week stood steadfast behind the administration amid allegations that faculty and staff feared retaliation if they didn’t fall in line with efforts to rescue the Española college from dire financial straits.
Near the end of a two-day meeting that finalized the 2014-15 budget – one that eliminated several trades programs, 16 faculty and staff positions, and the college day care center in an effort to cut costs – regent Michael Branch scoffed at the idea that college officials, with the school’s best interests at heart, would engage in retaliatory action.
“Fear of retaliation? C’mon,” he said.
James Biggs, an assistant professor who served as the school’s director of environmental sciences before being demoted after speaking out against the administration a year ago, shook his head.
A half hour earlier, the regents had declined to accept the unanimous recommendation of the college’s tenure council to grant him tenure.
“It’s just one more example of the unethical and corrupt behavior that occurs at this college,” he said.
Biggs believes he was passed over for tenure because he blew the whistle on the school, alerting the state Higher Education Department and U.S. Department of Education inspector general last fall that the school had improperly supplanted operational funds with grant money to pay his salary.
Biggs’ claims were upheld by the federal Department of Education, which notified the school last month that it must provide reimbursement for unauthorized use of funds – about $40,000, according to school officials.
The college says it can’t discuss why Biggs wasn’t granted tenure, citing it as a confidential personnel matter.
Biggs said he may have been passed over because his salary was paid for through grant funds and not institutional or operating budget money – the very thing he reported to the state and federal agencies.
Reminiscent of Highlands
Two faculty representatives say what the regents did in denying Biggs tenure – and granting tenure to a program director who failed to get the tenure council’s support – was wrong.
“It’s screwing with the system and that’s a big deal,” said David Barton, who co-chaired the tenure committee. “This is very reminiscent of what happened at Highlands University under Manny Aragon. It’s highly disturbing and I gravely suspect the college will be censured by the American Association of University Professors.”
Aragon, who previously had been a powerful state senator from Albuquerque, spent a turbulent two years as president of New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas before being forced out in 2006 following a faculty uproar over two professors being denied tenure and other controversies. He later was convicted in a scandal over state funding for an Albuquerque courthouse.
In 2006, the AAUP censured Highlands, citing the school’s actions against the two professors, one of whom, like Biggs, criticized a school official.
“This is an unbelievable violation of academic standards and shared governance,” Tim Crone, a member of the NNMC faculty senate and a union representative. “The decision was entirely political and not based on academics.”
Crone said AAUP was contacted this week about the matter and a letter will be sent to the group asking for an investigation of several items.
“There’s been a regular violation of principles and standards centered around shared governance,” he said.
Crone said there have been numerous instances of retaliation against faculty at the college and provided a list of 18 current or former faculty members he says suffered the wrath of administration, some resulting in lawsuits.
Another example, he said, was last week’s decision to cut the automotive program headed by Gilbert Sena, the outspoken faculty senate president. The administration says only five students earned degrees in automotive technology and repair in the past three years.
In a campus-wide vote last month, the faculty voted no confidence in top officials, including college President Nancy “Rusty” Barceló, vice presidents Domingo Sanchez and Ricky Serna, and Human Resources Director Bernie Padilla. The student senate also issued a no-confidence vote against administrators.
The actions caught the attention of the New Mexico Higher Education Department. HED Cabinet Secretary Jose Garcia said he’s made several trips to Española in recent weeks to speak with school officials about how the college is being run.
“I felt it appropriate to talk to them and get their views. When you get ‘no confidence,’ it’s cause for concern,” he said.
It’s not the first time the HED has been alerted to potential problems at the college. Garcia said the HED has received 15 to 20 complaints about the administration of the college in the past six months.
“Yes, that’s an unusually high number,” he said, adding that typically the HED may hear one, two, or no complaints at all about a school during that time period.
Garcia said the complaints he’s received about NNMC are wide-ranging, the most serious relating to the school’s financial situation. However, few, if any, were complaints of retaliation, he said.
Ricky Serna, vice-president for advancement, denied school officials engaged in retaliation.
“Absolutely not. There has been no form of retaliation on the part of administration against anyone,” he said. “All decisions are rooted in what’s in the best interest of the institution, primarily the students. Anytime there has been a personnel-related matter, we act consistently across the board and in compliance with institutional policy. Regardless of who, everyone is treated the same.”
Serna said the faculty may be creating fear themselves – they hear allegations and want to believe they’re true. The college is bound by law to maintain the confidentiality of employees, so it can’t respond and people see that as the college being secretive, he said.
“So I think some of that fear originated from within the (faculty) organizations. They create the fear amongst themselves reaching at straws,” he said.
Biggs forced to move
Biggs, who came to the college 4½ years ago to teach environmental science after spending 17 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said the retaliation against him is real.
It started a year ago when he spoke up at a public meeting and criticized Vice President for Finance and Administration Domingo Sanchez for showing little respect for faculty and staff.
A few weeks later, he was forced out as director of his program and reassigned from Española to the El Rito campus, taking a $10,000 pay cut from his $60,000 salary. He says he was notified that his salary would be taken off institutional funding and his new position would be supported by a grant, and was assured by Provost Anthony Sena that the switch would not affect his tenure application.
Biggs said the $1 million grant was supposed to fund a new faculty position that would allow more classes to be offered, but instead the college gave him a new title and failed to add a faculty position or additional classes.
After realizing that financing the shift of his position constituted an improper use of grant funds and that it could affect future grant submissions, Biggs said he contacted the state and federal agencies.
Serna said another faculty member in fact was hired as required under the grant, but there wasn’t a net gain in staffing because another resigned just before the beginning of the semester. He said the college is still trying to fill that position and, once it does, that person’s salary will be paid from the grant funding.
Biggs’ salary is now being paid out of institutional funds, he said.
What hasn’t changed is Biggs being denied tenure. He said he’s contemplating a whistleblower lawsuit against the college and that he has been contacted by attorneys interested in taking it on.
“My goal isn’t financially motivated,” he said. “My goal is to expose administration for what it has done to the college, students and community. The community needs this college in so many ways and the students here deserve better. The administration and board (of regents) are failing to recognize the negative impact this is having on Northern New Mexico College.”