A student in Dana Levin’s class once lovingly described the College of Santa Fe as an “island of misfit toys.”
Surrounded by the more than 200 art galleries that help make Santa Fe, N.M. a cultural center, the private college draws students who are looking for something different.
“I love the school, I do. It’s a creative, odd, inspiring place,” said Levin, chair of creative writing and literature at Santa Fe. “Students [here] constantly amaze me in terms of the brilliance and weirdness of their brains.”
But some of the very things that make Santa Fe a different kind of college – specifically its 9:1 student-faculty ratio – have helped drive it into debt, according to college officials. Now under threat of closing, the college is in negotiations  with a public institution -- New Mexico Highlands University -- that is considering taking over the college, and a debt that could be as much as $35.3 million. While the potential deal is seen by many as a welcome lifeline, students and faculty say they’re unsure how the uniqueness of Santa Fe might be preserved if the college is placed in state hands.
“There is a lot of relief in it, and then there’s also a lot of trepidation,” Levin said. “What will it mean to come under Highlands? I think anybody who is level-headed will probably understand the nature of the college is going to shift.”
Santa Fe and Highlands have quite different focuses. The most popular majors at Highlands include education, clinical social work, business and management, according to U.S. News & World Report. By contrast, Santa Fe students lean toward the creative fields, with film, drama and arts making up the top majors.
Some changes already appear inevitable. The college, which enrolls about 1,300 students, will surely grow, as will student/faculty ratios, according to state and college officials.
While the state has an interest in maintaining Santa Fe’s arts-focused curriculum, there’s also likely to be less mention of the college’s adherence to the Lasallian  tradition, a Roman Catholic approach to teaching that emphasizes ethics and community service.
“Certainly part of understanding the cultural uniqueness of northern New Mexico is understanding the role Catholicism plays, just as the role of Indian spiritual traditions,” said Reed Dasenbrock, New Mexico’s cabinet secretary of higher education. “[But] this would be run in a state context as an uncompromisingly secular institution.”
But becoming “uncompromisingly secular” might not be much of a hurdle. The college was founded by -- and is still owned by -- the Catholic teaching order, and its Web site discusses Santa Fe’s Catholic roots at some length. Even so, students and faculty say those traditions are seldom overtly discussed in class.
“There is nothing that is part of this school that is uniquely Catholic,” said Stuart Kirk, Santa Fe’s president. “We certainly have a long history of Lasallian traditions, which are things like being student-centered and having community involvement, and I think if you looked at those you would assume any honorable school adheres to those traditions.”
Sarah Benford, a student at Santa Fe, said she has been encouraged to hear that Highlands officials want to keep Santa Fe focused on the arts. If she’s worried about anything, however, Benford said, it’s possible changes to the curriculum.
“My main concern would be that our requirements for graduation might change as a state institution, or our unique classes might be generalized,” Benford wrote in an e-mail. “I love that we don't just take ‘English 201’ or ‘Biology 303,’ but that our courses have interesting topics and great professors to go with them. If that does change, I will be very discouraged. I love that CSF is so quirky and different.…”
Lessons of New College
There is precedent for colleges staying “quirky” after state takeovers. New College in Florida, for instance, was rescued from financial difficulties in 1974 when it partnered with the University of South Florida, a public institution. In 2001, New College was recognized by the state as an independent college – separate from South Florida – within the State University System.
Charlene Callahan, a former provost of New College who joined as a faculty member in 1975, recalls the lengths the college went to in order to retain its identity as a small liberal arts school within the public system. Since its founding in the 1950s, one of the hallmarks of New College has been its “contract” system. Instead of earning “credit hours,” students work with a faculty advisor to develop a series of contracts, which might include goals like completing a series of courses or finishing a senior thesis. To meet the state’s requirements for transferring credits, however, the college had to “compromise” and establish that a single “contract” constituted 16 credit hours, Callahan said.
Despite pressure to conform to state norms, Callahan said it was important to New College to retain its contract system, as well as its practice of providing students narrative evaluations instead of letter grades.
“We have our own little niche and we have to keep it,” Callahan said.
New College, which has about 700 students, has retained a student/faculty ratio of about 10:1, even though it’s grown in enrollment since the 1970s. Keeping this ratio has required strictly adhering to a master plan that dictates that New College will continue to hire faculty as enrollment grows.
Asked if she had any advice for Santa Fe, Callahan said “I would tell them to take some time to get to know the state system, and not to fight against it but to work with it. My mantra was to do what we always do, and to make it understandable in the state system.”
Land Has Value
The potential deal between Highlands and Santa Fe only emerged after Laureate Education Inc., a for-profit company, scrapped plans to buy the college and assume its debt.
According to state estimates, running the College of Santa Fe could cost about $7 million a year in operational costs and debt services. But there’s clearly an upside for Highlands. A recent land value assessment, conducted by Laureate, placed the value of the land and buildings at $52 million, according to Dasenbrock, the state’s higher education secretary.
“I don’t think [the deal is] altruistic,” Dasenbrock said. “Altruism and self-interest sometimes go hand in hand.”
Dasenbrock said he had only been told about the land value estimate, and had not actually seen the document. Santa Fe officials refused to release it, and – in response to a public records request -- Highlands officials said they had viewed copies but didn’t have any copies of their own.
So how could the state of New Mexico or Highlands be prepared to buy a college without any written documentation of its value? Dasenbrock assured no deal would go forward until the state had conducted its own assessment.
“We will need to see an up-to-date appraisal, and the value of that will need to be greater than the debt they are taking on,” Dasenbrock said.
Santa Fe’s Form 990 for the fiscal year ending in July of 2006, which is the most recent form available on guidestar.com, placed the value of its land, buildings and equipment at $40.8 million.
“Even $41 [million] is well north of what the debt transaction is likely to be,” Dasenbrock said.
State law also serves to sweeten the deal. New Mexico’s anti-donation clause doesn’t allow the state to give money to a private entity, so Highlands wouldn’t be in a position to do any more than take on the debt of the college.
“The College of Santa Fe cannot sell itself to the state,” Dasenbrock said. “It can only give itself to the state.”
Dasenbrock said he supports the purchase of the college in principle, because Santa Fe – the second-most populated city in the state – needs to provide greater access to higher education. Dasenbrock conceded that adding a few thousand students won’t do much to move the needle on access in the state, but argues that it’s an important step.
“There are arguments for and against this,” he said. “I feel the arguments for [the deal] are more compelling to me than arguments against.”
The arguments against the deal are obvious. New Mexico was insulated from some of the economic woes experienced in other parts of the country, because its economy is bolstered when energy costs rise. But the state is now facing budget shortfalls of several hundred million by some estimates, and some question whether buying a college in that environment is wise. Even so, Gov. Bill Richardson has given his support to the deal.
Richardson has accepted the nomination to become commerce secretary in President-elect Barack Obama’s administration, but Dasenbrock said he is “aware of no daylight between” Richardson and Diane Denish, the lieutenant governor who will succeed him.
Faculty in Dark on Salaries, Jobs
If Highlands were to buy the college, which would still require legislative approval, tuition rates are sure to decrease. Currently, College of Santa Fe students pay $27,000 a year, as opposed to the approximately $3,000 annual tuition at Highlands.
James Fries, president of Highlands and a former Santa Fe president, said in a news release last week that tuition levels hadn’t been determined, but that they would be higher than Highlands’ rates and still “significantly lower” than Santa Fe’s current rates. Officials at both institutions said Santa Fe would likely retain its name -- with a possible addition to note Highlands' ownership -- and operate much as a branch campus of the university.
There has been little if any public discussion, however, about how all of these changes will affect faculty pay, workloads or positions. Faculty have been largely kept in the dark about the details that have the most potential to affect them, according to Deborah Fort, chair of the college’s faculty council.
“There hasn’t been any discussion that’s been open,” said Fort, a professor in the moving image arts department. “I have a sense that there has been discussion, and I’m the chair of the faculty council, and I’ve been asking to be included in any discussions that involve faculty, but as of yet I haven’t been [included].
“My guess is, yeah that there will be positions cut and there will be some re-arrangement of programs,” she added. “Salaries? I don’t know. Highlands has some of the worst salaries in the area.”
Average full professors at Highlands make $55,800, compared with $71,800 at Santa Fe, according to the American Association of University Professors.
Kirk, president of Santa Fe, said he’s equally in the dark about the future of faculty salaries, or even his own status if the deal were to go through.
“Those kinds of issues will be discussed later,” he said. “We haven’t talked about me, either.”
“This is a sweet deal for me,” he added. “There’s a lot of talk about saving the College of Santa Fe. The fact is what we want to save is the educational opportunity for students, the existence of faculty jobs and staff jobs.”
There is also a lot of talk about how Santa Fe found itself in this position in the first place. Kirk, who has only been president for about a year, said there were systemic problems with the college, including its high faculty numbers compared with dwindling enrollments. Santa Fe’s problems, he said, were not the byproduct of recent economic downturns; they were the result of a failed model of low enrollments and high faculty numbers.
For faculty like Fort, however, there’s a sense that someone in a position of authority should have noticed Santa Fe’s model was failing earlier, and acted accordingly.
“It seems like that’s part of the board’s purview to oversee [finances],” she said. “They have a fiduciary responsibility to the college. It seems like it shouldn’t have gotten this far.”