Monday, December 17, 2012

NMSU Presidential Search

The Relevance of Agriculture
NMSU Presidential Search
Seek regional solutions
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            At one juncture of our ongoing border conflict, a newspaper correspondent asked our rancher group what we were going to give up to satisfy the environmental claim for our ranchlands.  The insinuation, of course, was the erroneously implied absence of shared benefaction accrued to wilderness proponents during rancher tenure on federal lands.
            The image today of that exchange remains similar to the exchange between the farmer and his pig. “What are you going to give up this morning for your upkeep around here?” the farmer asked the pig. “Is it going to be a ham or a side of bacon?”
            Our plight has been very similar to that of the pig. The vast majority of federal land ranchers have never been able to create enough wealth to develop parallel enterprises to add to a robust existence. The reality is either to take us out completely or recognize we can’t exist with part of our meager box of options excised from our ranching units.
            It is that simple.
            The Search
            New Mexico State University (NMSU) is seeking a new president. The most recent dismissal among a revolving gaggle of chief administrators was done without disclosing the reason. All New Mexicans got out of the deal was a bill of nearly a half million dollars for the golden parachute.
            The Board of Regents has embarked on a new search with listening sessions around the state. They have assured the public the input they derive from all the talking will help identify the right candidate.
Actually, the headline used for the press release could have been taken from any of the last four similar searches that have failed to land an enduring leader. Such is the world today … or is it?
            Back to the beginning
            NMSU was once one of the great land grant universities.
The whole concept of land grant schools was started when a Vermont congressman, Jonathan Morrill, introduced the idea that Congress should foster the opportunity for rural Americans, the common folks, to seek a higher education. These were citizens who would otherwise not likely get such an opportunity. The education would extend to commoners a practical education that had relevance to their lives. The methodology was to grant lands from which to capitalize the investment. The year was 1857.
            In 1862, the legislation was passed and signed into law by President Lincoln. From a historical perspective, it might appear that one of the pillars of the concept, agricultural science, was being elevated into higher importance. The truth, though, was the Union needed to accelerate the training of military officers, and one of the other two pillars, military science, was the most pressing issue.
            Mechanics, or, more appropriately engineering, was the other priority. In the case of NMSU, this pillar has always remained an important emphasis. It is agriculture and military science that have become near step children in the university’s priorities.
            The legislative history of the land grant system expanded with a second Morrill Act in 1890 that replaced initial funding of land with cash. There were not enough federal lands in the South to capitalize the schools!
Along the way, complimentary legislation took place to establish extension services, create experiment stations, and develop programs to specifically study soil mineral and plant growth relationship.  This process grew to envelop all of agriculture. It was extremely effective in developing scientists and agriculturists. Those graduates fueled the modern agricultural revolution.
It can be argued the best of times at the school came from about 1960 to the end of the tenure of the presidency of Dr. Gerald Thomas. During that 30 plus year period, the university enrollment quadrupled. The helm was solidly overseen by only three university presidents. They each complimented and promoted land grant ideals.
Since the Thomas retirement, NMSU has fielded administrators who have come through Las Cruces seemingly with open, but prepurchased tickets out of town. Tenure has changed from nearly a dozen years to just over three.
How has that worked out?
A short list of negative press has included being elevated to the second most dangerous campus in the nation, the loss of certification of the nursing program, the graduation of more social workers than agriculturists, and the void of securing any permanence in the school’s athletic affiliation. Forbes now lists the school at 422nd in the country. Finishing the football season at 1-11 is indicative of the dangerously fragile allure the school now projects.
With the exception of the school’s engineering program, the focus has taken all the appearances of seeking any and all grant tasks except the land grant heritage. This Board of Regents must remember this school is not a sea grant, not an urban grant, and not a sun grant university.  It remains a land grant university, and, until the legislature and the vote of the Congress deem it otherwise, it is imperative it remain so.
Matter of Relevance
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently told a gathering that rural America is becoming less and less relevant. His words certainly sparked anger amongst many who view the trends in political clout contrary to their very existence.
“How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming if you don’t have a proactive message?” He asked. “Because you are now competing against the world.”
After withstanding the initial outrage from the comments, the Secretary is at least partially correct. Agriculture has become less politically potent. It has lost critical mass at the ballot box, but, more worrisome, it has lost critical mass in its home grown national leadership. It is in danger of accidental death simply because it is on the verge of being incapable of withstanding the growing Tsunami of competing factional programs. It is in danger of the growing onslaught of emerging antagonists who are much more attuned to a Harry Potter world than they are to the natural one.
During one of the recent NMSU search listening sessions, a crowd gathered on the campus in Las Cruces with several of the Regents. The crowd was fairly sizeable. In that crowd was one recognizable agriculturist. Of more than 80 participants, there was one actual farmer or rancher.
The vast majority of those who spoke were in one way or another affiliated with the school itself. There were staff members, professors, program directors, campus groups, and retirees in abundance. A number spoke of the land grant model, but they also spoke about their programs, their implied need for funding and recognition, and the importance of their endeavors. To an outsider looking in, the realization that self preservation was very much a priority. Isn’t that the same dilemma that tax payers observe in the staggering growth of all government?
This university, like government, has grown tentacles that are reaching in all directions without a defined course. The course is being set by the imagination of the behemoth itself …not regional needs.   
The current course
New Mexico has huge constraints, but equally intriguing relative advantages.
A veterans’ group spoke about the need to make the school a friendly destination for veterans. That is a legitimate demand. After all, military science is a pillar of the land grant concept and it should be elevated in importance and intent.
The engineering school with its solid partnerships with industry is and can maintain its world class status. Engineering remains a pillar of the land grant concept and it must continue that importance.
It is agriculture that is worrisome. It is agriculture and its marriage with the state and the school that has some of the brightest potential though untested ventures.
For adherence to the original principles, NMSU must revert to foundational intent and discard the tendency to ignore relationships within its boundaries. That is appropriate for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the enabling legislation.
Perhaps a problem contributing to the revolving magazine of chief administrators is the Board of Regents itself. Why isn’t there perpetual leadership framing the original pillars of the land grant system? Doesn’t it make sense to have leadership from agriculture, from engineering, and from the military on that board?
When that occurs, board oversight should then necessarily measure appropriateness of resource application based not on the benefit of some foreign country, but to the state of New Mexico … the northwest quadrant, the northeast quadrant, the southwest quadrant, and the southeast quadrant, equally!
A bona fide leader will then emerge.     

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Thirty five years ago New Mexico State agricultural students were viewed in places like California with a certain intrigue. Those young people were not necessarily the most gifted, but their work ethic became legend. The state produced a product that was shaped by native constraints. It must be remembered the greatest insight comes from constraints not abundance. That remains at heart in our relative advantage.”

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