Dreaming Academic Freedom In Las Vegas, N.M.

Four years ago I walked away from the grind of daily journalism and applied to an MA program at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. Having taken community seminars there over the years, I was familiar with the environment. It was the conservative habitat of bright, flourishing liberal arts teachers, as opposed to frightened university politicians obsessed with grants and publication. I was not disappointed.

No class had more than a dozen students. No faculty member was inaccessible. There were no pretentious lectures, only seminars. There were no dehumanizing tests, only long papers discussed and defended in personal conferences. It was the academy of the deep Western past and, I can only hope, of the future.

One thing I noticed about the governance of this rare private college, dedicated to the study of the classics of Western and Eastern civilization, was that the academic dean and the president seemed to have equal status. There was a clear division of labor, I thought. The administration took care of fund raising, logistics, student health, safety, welfare, dealing with the board and such. The faculty took care of the teaching. One side could not dictate to the other.

It was from this background that I wrote a newspaper column in early February nominating the leader of the New Mexico Senate to be president of New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas. I was inspired by the possibilities of the St. John’s separation of powers and by my recent reading of Robert Caro’s latest Lyndon B. Johnson volume, “Master of the Senate.”

That title, writ small, fits Sen. Manny Aragon, Democrat of the Albuquerque South Valley. Like LBJ nationally in the 1950’s, Aragon here locally in the 1980’s and 90’s energized a somewhat honorary leadership position into one of overriding power. Through skillful use of the scheduling of bills and the influencing committee chairmen, through the application of intelligence and instinct in the game of legislative horse trading, Aragon, like LBJ, became master of a senate. And despite his recent demotion by his colleagues from president pro tempore to majority leader, I thought he still was.

I recalled how young Sen. John F. Kennedy chose Sen. Johnson as his running mate for president in 1960. Although Caro is saving this episode for his next volume, the choice of LBJ and his acceptance of the vice presidential nomination was a surprise, since the two senators were not compatible. What Kennedy did was remove Johnson as a potential obstacle to the new administration, as a potential gatekeeper to “Camelot” (although LBJ mistakenly thought he could continue to run the Senate as presiding officer).

I saw a parallel with Gov. Bill Richardson’s situation with Manny Aragon, who first expressed an interest in the presidency of Highlands nearly 10 years ago just after Gary Johnson was elected governor. Aragon had renewed his interest and his supporters were writing letters to editors. So I wondered if Richardson might take him up on the deal, which surely would remove him from the Senate. (There are constitutional restrictions.)

The big question was what kind of a university president Aragon would make. The two predictable objections, which apply to any politician, were that he had no credentials for the job and that he would politicize the school.

As to the first, Aragon had a law degree, equivalent to a Ph.D., from the University of New Mexico. He also had a B.A. from UNM in political science. (Reminded in 1994 that Gary Johnson had the same undergraduate degree, Aragon told me: “Thanks for mentioning that. I guess if he’s qualified to be governor, I’m qualified to be president of Highlands.”)

As to the second, you have to consider the nature of Highlands and Las Vegas.

The campus is an architectural gem by comparison with the sterility of new schools in the state and elsewhere. The town is rich in history and full of fine buildings from the railroad era. The old “Montezuma Castle” resort hotel built in the Gallinas canyon near some hot springs is a Victorian masterpiece. The old town plaza west of the river, with it’s century-old store fronts and ornate hotel, is a deserving historic district. Las Vegas is set between the great plains and the mountains. It is at the gateway to the high plateau of northern New Mexico.

You would think such a place would be a natural for a successful small college. Armand Hammer, in fact, chose it for a campus of his United World College, and the experimental international prep school has been successful there. But Highlands, insolvent and losing enrollment, is in worse shape than it was in 1994, after having been run by a series of politically weak presidents.

The current president, Sharon Caballero, in 18 months has apparently cleaned up the financial mess left by her predecessor, but she is fighting with the regents, headed by Richardson appointee Toney Anaya, a former New Mexico governor. I didn’t know what the problem was, but a good guess when politicians are involved is that it is political. So, I thought, why not try a tough politician as president?

There was no tougher politician than Manny Aragon. He was interested, he said he liked Las Vegas, and there was a symbolic connection, I recalled. A once powerful coalition in the New Mexico House, the Mama Lucy Gang of the 1970’s, took its name from the West Las Vegas Plaza Hotel restaurant run by Lucy Lopez, where local politicians had mingled with boarding Highlands students for three decades. And Aragon, who entered the Senate 29 years ago, was associated with the Mama Lucy Gang, as was a minority of other new senators then, including Jerry Apodaca (who would go on to become governor).

Aragon probably would challenge the faculty, I thought, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In 1994 he said, “I think I would go in with a different attitude and a program I’d try to sell to the faculty. There’s got to be a change in the governance situation of universities. Decisions really are made by the faculty. We’ve got to discuss how we’re going to change that.”

The powerful senator had a long record of challenging the presidents and vice presidents of UNM about the hiring of New Mexicans. After one hearing on UNM governance he suggested it was a waste of time to talk to the administrators since the faculty senate was running the university. He opposed the ostensive UNM policy of not hiring as faculty members applicant with Ph.D.’s from UNM. He proposed legislation to give scholarships to New Mexicans to attend graduate schools out of state so they would qualify for UNM jobs.

So I wrote the column. One of the reactions, from a Ph.D. educator who wished to remain anonymous, gave me pause. The letter reminded me of a crisis involving a familiar cast of characters about 20 years ago. Anaya was governor. He appointed Apodaca to the UNM board of regents. Tom Farer, a Ph.D. educator, was UNM president. Farer lasted only a year under relentless criticism by Apodaca believed to be countenanced by Anaya and often relating to jobs and hiring practices.

The writer recalled, “The constant attacks were in the newspapers. I remember a political cartoon that showed the lobo at the Stanford entrance to UNM with a bag over its head.”

Could this happen at Highlands? My thinking was that it already had because Caballero like Farer was an educator and an outsider, not a politician. It perhaps is a sad commentary on New Mexico, but a realistic one, that university presidents must have strong political skills in order to survive. The late Tom Popejoy of UNM came to mind, as did Dan Lopez, the current president of New Mexico Tech.

University people, in my perception, worry endlessly about being out of favor politically. But politically strong college presidents do not automatically start assaulting academic freedom. On the contrary, they can protect it.

Which returns us to the original inspirations: the model of a small school where the administration and faculty are equally powerful in their own separate realms and the example of a politician who was inspired to leave a legacy. Or maybe I was just dreaming. Camelot and what not.

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