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Dueling Over Diversity

July 14, 2006

As the U.S. population grows increasingly brown, it is difficult to find a college official who isn't firmly in favor of striving for a diverse faculty. But for leaders of institutions, figuring out exactly how to get the mix right -- promoting the interests of minority students and faculty members without alientating what on most campuses is the overwhelming white majority -- isn't always easy, as recent events at New Mexico Highlands University illustrate.

In 2003, the Highlands Board of Regents adopted a broad strategic plan with a priority of transforming the university into “the nation’s premier Hispanic-serving institution.” The plan called for the university to grow a “highly qualified diverse faculty;" “improve full-time/part-time faculty ratios and retain [a] high percentage of terminal degree tenure-track faculty;" and “recruit and retain faculty with demonstrated competencies for high productivity and outstanding performance.”

Demographic data from 2003–4 illustrated that the percentage of Latino faculty at Highlands was much lower than the percentage of Latinos in northern New Mexico.

The board set out to hire a president to take on that issue. From a pool of five Latino males, they selected Manny Aragon, a former New Mexico state senator. He had long been a political champion of higher education issues and was known for his familiarity and resonance with the Latino population, in particular.

Aragon’s appointment in October 2004 was supposed to mark a new era at the institution, which had faced accreditation issues, funding shortfalls and declining enrollments in recent years.

The decisions Aragon made during his brief tenure, however, have been marred by criticism -- much of it from white faculty members who’ve argued that their careers have been shortchanged in favor of a blind quest to promote diversity. Some professors, including the leadership of the university’s Faculty Senate, charged that he had made several administrative appointments that “reflect his personal and professional relationships more than the demonstrated needs of Highlands University,” according to a letter sent to the president from several faculty members. Many critics of the president could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Aragon chose not to renew the contracts or to provide tenure to two respected white professors, who have both sued the institution. The Board of Trustees has paid $250,000 to settle one of the lawsuits, according to local press reports.

The American Association of University Professors censured the institution earlier this year as a result of the faculty tenure and summary dismissal issues.

Citing the move by AAUP and other grievances against the president, the board placed Aragon on administrative leave in June. The trustees planned to have a hearing this week to determine whether he should be dismissed. However, as a result of a lawsuit filed by four Latino students who have championed the president’s leadership, a New Mexico court on Tuesday issued an order prohibiting the board from terminating the president’s contract. Another hearing on this matter is scheduled for later this month.

"The Board of Regents is disappointed to learn that a court has issued a writ restraining us from carrying out our constitutional duty to New Mexico Highlands University," the board's chairman, Javier Gonzales, said in a news release this week.

Aragon did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Another board member, Ricky Serna, who is of Latino descent, said that many Hispanic organizations in the state have rallied around Aragon. He also said that he realized Aragon has faced challenges in carrying out the board's goal of turning the university into “the nation’s premier Hispanic-serving institution.” He was not a member of the board when it endorsed that language and he said that he doesn’t think that he would have supported it.

Serna said, too, that many non-Latinos have expressed frustration with the implementation of the plan. “I think some people have felt threatened, which was not anyone’s intention, I don’t think,” he said. He believes that focusing on helping low-income students succeed will be a key effort as the university moves forward, whether or not Aragon is at the helm. 

Gumecindo Salas, vice president of government relations for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, said Thursday that students often receive the best education when diverse faculty members are on staff. He cautioned that when only so many positions are available for tenure, some people’s feelings are going to get hurt.

“When we had 100 percent male faculty in this country was that ‘too much’?” Salas asked. “People used to say no.”

But Salas believes the criteria an institution uses in determining tenure or dismissals can go too far. “If you have a policy that is not egalitarian, then maybe it needs to be reexamined,” he said.

Jonathan Knight, director of the Department of Academic Freedom and Governance at the AAUP, said that an institution’s efforts to increase diversity should begin at the recruitment stage, even if the pool of candidates is quite small. He suggested that institutions need to do a better job at networking and reaching out to prospective minority candidates.

“Enough institutions have shown that it’s not an either/or situation,” said Knight. “It’s well-demonstrated that you can find candidates from many of the groups who have in the past been excluded from academia."

He added that the board's plan may have been "laudable," but that its execution left something to be desired in terms of academic freedom. 

Knight also believes that as increasingly qualified minority applicants compete for positions with their white counterparts, it will be inevitable that the historically white demographics of academe will change.

“We just don’t see any conflict in administrative commitment to affirmative action and its commitment to educational excellence,” said Knight.

 

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