Western New Mexico University president defends spending as regents encourage more work abroad

Jan 19, 2024, 6:01 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Regents at Western New Mexico University threw their support behind President Joseph Shepard on Friday as he faces scrutiny over spending on overseas trips and his wife’s use of a university credit card.

At a regular meeting of regents held on campus in Silver City, faculty members and foreign students also packed the audience to show their support for Shepard, who is starting his 13th year at the helm of the school.

Speaking to the gathering, Shepard said he welcomes a financial review by the state auditor and his staff has been working on a review of university policies and procedures in the wake of questions being raised about spending over the last five years.

He reiterated to regents that trips to Zambia and elsewhere have helped put Western New Mexico on the map and attract more foreign students. Other members of his leadership team ticked off statistics on enrollment, graduation rates among foreign students and fundraising that has boosted university programs.

“What happens is when you go to these places and start to interact with other cultures and other ideologies and so forth, you yourself gain tremendous knowledge and you yourself begin to do research,” Shepard said.

Participation in international conferences by WNMU faculty projects the school as “a real player” and creates opportunities for networking, he added.

Regents approved a motion Friday backing up that position, affirming the importance of WNMU’s international partnerships and pointing to existing agreements and new negotiations with academic institutions from elsewhere in the Southwestern U.S. to Mexico and Brazil.

Regents declined to stop international travel, in a direct response to a recommendation by the state Higher Education Department calling for the university to suspend it pending the completion of a cost-benefit analysis.

In a letter to WNMU in early January, the department expressed concerns about such spending and asked whether it was necessary for regents to attend some of the international trips.

The letter also referenced spending by Shepard’s wife, former CIA operative and activist Valerie Plame. It said non-state employees should not be issued or authorized to use state procurement cards.

New Mexico lawmakers also have been asking questions about Shepard’s expenditures, noting that tuition around the state has been increasing and that they have a duty to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently.

Regents agreed Friday to conduct a broad review that will include their handbook, travel policies and other procedures in the coming months. They also agreed to a proposal by Shepard to create an ad hoc committee that can work on updating policies.

Shepard acknowledged at the gathering that it can be difficult to quantify the benefits of building relationships with institutions overseas, as some of those benefits are tangential.

“How do you quantify it?” he asked. “It’s a system. It’s bigger than just simply saying, ‘Well, we got X amount of dollars from this particular student who came from that particular place.’ It’s bigger than that.”

The university known today as WNMU has a history that dates back to its founding in the 1890s, before New Mexico became a state.

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Western New Mexico University president defends spending as regents encourage more work abroad