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Town & Gown... 1
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Town & Gown...    1

The tenure of John Counts as president of WNMU has been marked by almost every segment of the community for its extreme insularity.  This was a primary subject of discussion in the recent Town & Gown meeting at the Silco Theater - intended as a town hall style meeting to begin to bridge the now acknowledged gulf between WNMU and the larger community.

But given WNMU's penchant for circling the wagons, this new charm offensive appears to have been triggered in large part by critical public input in the AQIP / Academic Quality Improvement Program evaluations of WNMU this past spring and deficiencies in community relations that are expected to be noted in their report due this fall.  In short, in his 13 year tenure, citizen complaints have rolled off Counts like water off a duck's back but the looming report upon which WNMU rests much of its credibility has prompted some quick hoop jumping.

A panel was presented with Silver City Mayor James Marshall (Town) and John Counts (Gown) as co-chairs.  Other panelists were employees or associates of WNMU, government officials, or representatives of the business community.  The lack of student, faculty or staff representation on the panel, or "the general public" was noted in public input and will hopefully be corrected soon. Opening remarks by Marshall and Counts were followed by brief statements from the other panelists and then a power point presentation with voice over by Counts extolling the virtues of WNMU as a "world class university" along with other self-congratulatory marketing hyperbole.

Interspersed with this was WNMU's response to the oft noted disconnect between WNMU ("an island" according to Mayor Marshall) and the community. WNMU has not been able to recognize this as a fact on the ground or an issue that needs to be addressed until now.  Their response?  "Show the WNMU colors!"  "Let's have WNMU Fridays and fly flags!"

Then came public input in which a dose of reality brought things back into perspective - most eloquently stated by Simon Ortiz regarding transparency, labor relations, hiring and the oppressive atmosphere of threats of retribution that seem to silence even tenured faculty.

John Counts administration is a tightly drawn inner circle that is now subject to investigation by the New Mexico Department of Higher Education regarding its hiring practices pursuant to NM House Memorial 82 introduced by Representative Manny Herrera and passed in the recent session of the New Mexico legislature.  Representative Herrera has made multiple formal requests for details of hiring decisions on a long list of positions filled under questionable circumstances such as no public notice, tailoring job descriptions to match the preferred candidate, appointment as acting job holder with no subsequent candidates being considered and the acting job holder then becoming the permanent selection without competitive review.  This list is further shadowed in that WNMU is a federally designated Hispanic serving institution receiving additional federal funds for that purpose, Grant County has a majority Hispanic population, and yet no Hispanics are on the list of questionable hires.  The attentive observer will recognize the appearance of classic insider cronyism and outright racism.

Mayor Marshall is to be commended for having initiated this dialogue via a proposed series of such Town & Gowns and the WNMU administration now has an opportunity to get a breath of fresh air as they exit their bunker.  Counts may yet be forced to overcome his reticence to appear in public forums where residents can inquire candidly and critically on his policies.  But his continuing refusal to respond when queried critically other than in the most scripted - or perfunctory and dismissive - manner, if at all, may yet prove to be his undoing rather than defense.

This barren beginning may yet bear fruit if the pressures brought to bear by the community, the assessments of AQIP and other independent examiners and the NMDHE hiring practices inquiry produce enough sunshine to illuminate the dark corners of Counts regime.

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