ESPAÑOLA — Richard J. Bailey Jr. eschews the use of the titles he’s earned.
“Call me Rick,” says the retired Air Force colonel, doctor of philosophy and new president of Northern New Mexico College upon greeting a couple of visitors to his office on Wednesday.
It’s that kind of disarming approach, along with what more than one person interviewed for this story described as a “dynamic” personality, that many people think is exactly what the embattled college needs right now.
“He’s a young man with a vision,” said Rosario “Chayo” Garcia, president of NNMC’s board of regents. “His résumé is impressive. He’s got a dynamic personality. His enthusiasm is contagious and his love for northern New Mexico is amazing. He’s almost too good to be true.”
Garcia said recently she had a nightmare that Bailey had been offered another job. She felt relief when she realized it was just a dream.
But Bailey says he has no intention of going anywhere.
“This is a dream job for me,” said the 46-year-old. “I didn’t think I’d be this fortunate to have this kind of opportunity so young.”
Bailey said he made a deal with his wife Diana that because she had followed him around the world during his 24-year career in the Air Force, she got to decide where they’d go when he retired from the military.
“So we knew we were moving to New Mexico, no matter what,” he said, explaining that Diana’s mother was raised in Anton Chico, an aunt attended NNMC when it was still the Spanish-American Normal School, and they still have family living in Albuquerque, Los Alamos and Las Vegas, N.M. “Then this job opened up.”
Building a strategic plan
The job became vacant when Nancy “Rusty” Barceló stepped down a year ago after serving for five years. While she inherited a college facing financial challenges in the midst of a recession, things did not improve during her tenure. Northern was placed on “heightened cash monitoring” status by the U.S. Department of Education due to financial issues and a string of late audits.
Continuing to struggle financially, the college raised tuition by 13 percent and laid off 20 employees to help close a budget gap in 2013. More layoffs came a year later and the college cut some popular trades programs. Last year, programs at the school’s original El Rito campus, still the official college seat, were moved to Española. Enrollment declined, as did revenues.
In 2014, faculty members and students cast “no confidence” votes in the college’s leadership amid a series of whistleblower lawsuits and complaints that the college was being run by fear and intimidation.
Tensions lessened after Barceló’s departure and the resignation of three high-level administrators.
“Morale is up,” regent president Garcia said. “Everyone is working harder than ever. We’ve had a rough couple of years, but now everything is changing.”
Enrollment is on the rise again, now standing at about 1,130 students, representing a 7 percent increase from last year. Class hours are up 11 percent, she said, though Bailey, who didn’t start until mid-October, can hardly be credited with those gains.
When the NNMC president’s job was advertised, Bailey was serving as dean of students, and an associate professor of strategy and security studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, a component of Air University, the USAF’s air education and training school.
The teaching aspect of his Air Force career dates back to 1992. Since then, he’s been a pilot instructor and evaluator, and taught classes in U.S. government and international relations, public speaking to State Department foreign service officers, cyberspace and cyber power, strategy and campaign planning.
In 2015, he was awarded the Muir S. Fairchild Air Force Education Award, given annually to the individual making the greatest contributions to Air Force education.
While much of his time in the military has been as an educator, he has also gone to war. From July 2008 to June 2011, he “facilitated and managed all air forces, plans and projects related to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) mission in Afghanistan,” according to his résumé.
Earlier this year, a book he co-edited, titled “Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower,” was published.
So what’s the strategy for turning Northern New Mexico College around?
Bailey is working on that now, but he’s doing it with the help of everyone on his administrative team, faculty, students and the community.
“For me, strategic thinking comes down to two things: How we understand our environment and how we adapt to the circumstances,” he said. “First, let’s look at where we are now. Let’s also talk about the past and how we got here, but the idea now is how do we go from what we all see as our current environment to where we want to be five years in the future. That’s how you build a strategic plan.”
Bailey says he wants everyone’s input, including the janitors’.
“There are people who have been here 20, 30 years. If I’m not asking their advice, I’m failing as a college president,” he said.
Contrary to military structures, Bailey says the structure he wants at the college is flat.
“To me, a college is strongest when it leverages across the board. It doesn’t perform optimally in a hierarchical structure,” he said.
‘The right person for the job’
Bailey was hired in April, but has been on the job at Northern for only seven weeks.
David Barton, an associate professor in Humanities at the college, vice president of the Faculty Senate and a member of the president’s advisory committee, said it’s too early to evaluate him so far, “but he’s doing all the right things.”
Meeting with faculty, staff, students, government officials and members of the community is part of that. Barton said he feels good about the college’s future with Bailey in the pilot’s seat.
“He’s faced with a long rebuilding process, but my assessment is he’s the right person for the job,” Barton said. “He’s a very likeable person, and that’s important. He exudes a sense of openness and honesty, and a willingness to work with people. He has sort of a bottom-up leadership style, which is very different from the top-down, my-way-or-the-highway approach of the previous administration, which was catastrophic.”
Bailey earned praise from student Ted Koetter, a senior in Information Engineering Technology.
“His first official meeting on his first official day was with the Student Senate, which is exactly what he needed to do,” said Koetter, vice president of the senate and a part of the student advisory team. “He didn’t want to just pay lip service to students. He wanted to make sure it’s known that they’re valued.”
Asked what the most important issues for students at the college were, Koetter said it was bringing back the programs that were eliminated, and increased transparency and communication. “That had been lacking in the past,” he said.
Dormitories on the Española campus are also something students want. The state Board of Finance in 2014 declined to act on the college’s request for a $13 million revenue bond to fund the dorm project, citing the college’s financial troubles.
“I think we need more time in viewing the stability of the institution before there’s continued investment,” Gov. Susana Martinez said at the time. “There has to be some confidence on the part of us to turn around and say this is worth the investment right now.”
Bailey would like to renew the effort to build dorms, but he said “we have to be fiscally responsible in how we approach it. I’m not going to gamble with it.”
“He seems more realistic about it,” Koetter said. “He seems to want to go about making it happen in a more reasonable way.”
Students would also like to see the El Rito campus reopened. So would residents of that area.
“It’s not just restoring El Rito into a functioning part of the college, but making it an asset,” said Jake Arnold, part of a community group that was critical of the past administration’s treatment of the El Rito campus. “As we got deeper into the issues at El Rito and determined the problems at Northern New Mexico College that have led to the extremely unfortunate cancelling of programs, and began looking for ways to reverse it, we found a lot of rot.”
Arnold said the closing of programs in El Rito caused a lot of dissent among students and faculty and escalated what was already a tense situation.
“The college had assumed a bunker mentality, acting like they were in a bunker facing hostile opposition,” he said.
Arnold credited the regents for recognizing there were real problems at the college and taking action to solve them by hiring the most qualified person for the job. He and other members of his group were pleased and impressed that Bailey and his wife chose to live at the president’s residence at the El Rito campus. They’re also impressed with Bailey himself.
“He’s incredibly accomplished and a man of impeccable integrity,” Arnold said. “Since he’s come on board, he’s been a dynamo, working seven days a week from dawn to dusk and later. He welcomes all criticism and suggestions. He believes everyone should be able to speak their mind about the college, and that wasn’t the case before.”
Bailey said he moved to El Rito for two reasons. “One, to make it clear to the community we wanted to find a way to include El Rito as part of the college. The other reason is because it’s gorgeous up there.”
Bailey said he’s looking into ways to best utilize the El Rito campus. “But first, I want to make sure we have programs that serve the community, and I want to be sure we build something there thoughtfully in a way that makes it self-sustaining,” he said. “There are opportunities to use El Rito as a destination in and of itself. We should celebrate El Rito for what it is.”
Bailey gave the first of what could be many State of the College addresses last night. On the eve of the speech, he said there was a lot of work to be done, but also a lot to look forward to.
“In a nutshell, the state of the college is healthy,” he said, emphasizing that, within the past few months, the engineering, business, nursing and education programs achieved national accreditation. “That speaks to the quality of education students get here. All the pieces are in place to not only serve the students, but also serve our community. That’s what the college is here for.”
Bailey said in the interest of transparency and enhancing communication, he plans to give State of the College addresses every quarter. And he hopes to be doing it for a long time.
“As long as they’ll have me,” Bailey said when asked how long he expects to remain at the college. “This is where we want to be. There’s the best food, the best art, the best culture, the best music, the friendliest people. It’s a joy to be here.”