New Mexico lawmakers ask questions about spending by university president and his wife

Dec 13, 2023, 2:45 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Western New Mexico University President Joseph Shepard was peppered with questions about spending on overseas trips and his wife’s use of a university credit card during a hearing Wednesday before a group of powerful lawmakers.

The Legislative Finance Committee — the state’s lead budget-writing panel — was hearing presentations from higher education officials on budget priorities when the focus shifted to Shepard and recent reports detailing tens of thousands of dollars in spending on international travel and high-end furniture.

The questions come as higher education leaders press lawmakers to funnel more money to state-run colleges and universities, citing inflation and the need to boost faculty compensation to meet growing demands. Nationally, some universities are considering cutting programs as budget shortfalls grow and calls for greater accountability mount.

Shepard told lawmakers during the hearing in Santa Fe that regents vet his spending requests and that he is familiar with policies and procedures that govern the spending of public money.

State Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, a Democrat who represents the district that includes the university, brought up the allegations of lavish spending at Western New Mexico. An alumnus, she said the university should be considering how spending best serves students and taxpayers.

“Our job is to ensure there is no misuse of taxpayer money on behalf of students and their families, especially when they’re experiencing a 3% increase in tuition,” she said, adding that she cautioned regents earlier this year against raising rates to ensure New Mexico’s scholarship programs are sustainable.

Correa Hemphill’s concerns are shared by top officials at the state Department of Higher Education. The agency set a Friday deadline for Shepard to provide justification and documentation for the expenses racked up in recent years by himself and his wife, former CIA operative and activist Valerie Plame.

Aside from travel to South Africa and Europe for student recruiting purposes, the agency wanted to know more about whether public funds were used for Plame’s related travel expenses and whether university employees were tapped for cleaning and cooking duties at the president’s residence.

Correa Hemphill asked if a cost-benefit analysis had been done on the international trips. Shepard reiterated that the travel was meant to build relationships that would net more international students for Western New Mexico University and that trying to quantify that would be an impossible task.

University officials in a statement said WNMU takes its fiduciary responsibility seriously.

“The university adheres to rigorous fiscal standards to ensure that all dollars are maximized for the benefit of its students, faculty, staff, community and the citizens of New Mexico,” the university stated. “This oversight includes not only its internal procedures, but also its board of regents and is independently audited every year.”

School officials also noted that Shepard has requested an independent audit that will include addressing the spending that has been questioned.

Julia Morales, the vice president for compliance and communications at the university, noted that enrollment is up 6%, including a 36% increase in freshman class admissions this fall, and that the university is fiscally sound with no major findings on audits over the last 12 years.

Although its name has changed multiple times over the years, Western New Mexico’s history dates back to the 1890s, before statehood.

Shepard was appointed president in 2011, following a 16-year career at Florida Gulf State University that included several administrative roles. He earned an undergraduate degree at Northern Arizona University, a business degree from the University of North Texas, and a Ph.D. in public administration from Florida International University.

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New Mexico lawmakers ask questions about spending by university president and his wife