Is morale an issue at NM Tech?

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When Richard Aster, a leading professor at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, handed in his resignation last year, he described the university as “the little institution that ‘can’t.’ ”

Usually known by the abbreviation New Mexico Tech – or simply Tech – the Socorro institute has consistently ranked among the top science and engineering colleges in the country.

However, faculty morale appears to have slipped, according to a survey of professors.

And in his letter of resignation – after 22 years a professor of geophysics in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science – Aster noted what he called “the steady corrosion of collegiality between the faculty and administration” that he said developed over the past five years or so. The faculty, he continued, has been “increasingly subjected to erratic, disjointed, and unsupportive communications and actions, particularly by the office of Academic Affairs,” a turn of events that has “decimated future prospects for Earth Science at this historically Earth-oriented institution.”

New Mexico Tech President Daniel López, who has been at the university’s helm for 20 years, acknowledges there are morale issues and cites state budget cuts as a major culprit.

But he doesn’t blame the Legislature or Gov. Susana Martinez, whose hands, he said, are tied. “They have to submit a balanced budget, just like we do.”

He also said he has taken steps to give faculty more voice.

In his resignation letter, Aster pointed out that his departure was not alone – that other faculty members are leaving as well.

“Recently we have seen a number of carefully and sedulously mentored young EES faculty leave without even bothering to negotiate,” Aster said, a point the president does not contest.

López said the school has seen cuts of about $2.9 million from a base of about $26 million in state funding, starting soon after the nation plunged into economic recession in 2008.

Moreover, at the same time the faculty was constricting by more than 20 percent, enrollment expanded by 220 to more than 2,000 students, placing additional burdens on the remaining faculty members.

The number of tenured or tenure-track professors declined from 121 in 2008 to 95 a few years later.

The 2 percent pay raises the university has been able to give faculty during each of the past two years means they are “only breaking even, if that,” López said. “I fully understand why they’re frustrated.”

Rich history

Tech was founded in 1889 as the New Mexico School of Mines. Much of its traditional reputation stems from work done at its Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, but in recent years a shift in student preference has favored engineering programs. Just about all of the full-time faculty have doctoral degrees. The name of the state-funded research university was changed in 1951 to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

Tech is based in Socorro, about 120 miles south of Santa Fe and 70 miles from Albuquerque, geographically removed from centers of commerce, art, industry and government.

Regarding morale, Dave Johnson, who recently retired as dean of the EES graduate school, backed up many of Aster’s criticisms and placed the blame for much of the low morale in the administration’s lap. But he also pointed to the recession as a big part of the problem, during which the number of EES professors dropped 29 percent, from 21 to 15.

In an interview, Johnson called Aster’s departure an enormous loss. While at Tech, Aster – known for his knowledge and study of earthquakes and Antarctica – built a solid grants program with the National Science Foundation, national labs and other sources that had grown to about $4 million annually by the time he left.

Aster now chairs the Department of Geosciences at Colorado State University.

López described Aster as an “excellent researcher and faculty member” with whom he had a good working relationship. It was, he added, “really unfortunate that we were unable to meet his requests.”

Aster said in an email that he left partly because of Vice President of Academic Affairs Peter Gerity, who “had alienated the faculty, was ineffective, erratic, dissembling, and disorganized (and sometimes simply hostile). He remained in his position for year after year and was not asked to leave until this year, after I submitted my resignation letter.”

López said Gerity was not asked to leave but decided on his own that “this was the time to retire.”

A campus spokesman said Gerity would have no comment, in light of his retirement at the end of this month. Gerity has been vice president since July 2000.

The unwritten covenant of collaboration between faculty and administration that usually prevails at a university has fallen by the wayside, Johnson and Aster said.

“These days, (Tech’s) administration is totally top-down,” Johnson said.

In response, López said, “We simply don’t agree that all decisions are made in a vacuum.” For example, he said, a council that represents all departments meets periodically with the vice president of academic affairs and the Faculty Senate meets monthly, usually with the president and the vice president of academic affairs attending. In addition, López has established an Advisory Council made up of faculty members to provide input on issues of concern.

“We respectfully disagree that our administration makes all decisions and then dictates results,” he said. “We think we are participatory. Unfortunately, we have to say ‘No’ sometimes to requests from faculty. Those decisions often are based on availability of funding.”

Aster, however, accused the administration of becoming “remarkably estranged from the faculty and vice versa.”

“When I told (Gerity) that I and faculty like me were being driven to consider employment elsewhere, his response was that he did not care if I stayed or left,” Aster said.

López described Gerity as a “very direct, maybe even blunt” administrator. He added, were he in Gerity’s “boots-on-the-ground” position, he would have used different language when talking with Aster.

Professor Bill Stone, known as “honorary dean of Arts and Sciences,” agreed that administrators have sometimes not paid much heed to advice from the faculty, or even sought that advice. However, he pointed to the new faculty panel López has formed and said, “Now, we’ll just have to wait and see how it works.”

‘Decrease of trust’

Last spring, a survey with responses from 58 faculty members recorded a steep decline in morale. In the report’s executive summary, Professor Barbara Bonnekessen wrote that since a poll two years earlier, “respondents report a decrease of trust in (Tech’s) administration, based most strongly on what they perceive to be a lack of transparency and faculty retention efforts.” Also, she said, “a substantial number of faculty members are actively seeking employment elsewhere.”

One question asked whether the administration is responsive to faculty concerns. More than half, 55 percent, answered “no,” and another 33 percent said “barely.” In response to the statement “morale is high,” 69 percent said “no” and another 15 percent answering “barely.”

Bonnekessen, who prepared the report, cautioned that the responses should not be generalized to all faculty, but could be used as an indicator of how respondents perceive the campus climate. Math Professor Stone, however, noted that 58 respondents is a significant sampling of Tech’s faculty.

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal