In June, I reported on a conversation with Dr. Stuart Kirk, president of the College of Santa Fe, regarding the school's merger with Laureate Education, Inc. The board of trustees had voted in May, 2008 to pursue a relationship with Laureate and Kirk was upbeat, brushing aside skepticism and boldly suggesting we meet again in a year's time and consider the progress that had been made.
One wonders if that's an appointment he'll want to keep.
It is another moment of that June conversation that now seems more relevant. I asked Kirk what would happen if the Laureate deal fell through. His smile dropped, his eyes cast down onto his desk. "It would be a hard scramble," he said. "It would be very difficult."
That hard scramble is here. In a short message addressed to faculty, staff and students, and ironically delivered the day before Thanksgiving, Kirk announced, "Because of their own financial realities, Laureate will not be able to assume the debt required to retire our bonds and fund the college."
In an effort presumably aimed at avoiding mass Thanksgiving panic ("Mom? Dad? You know that school you've been paying $27,000 a year to? Well, it might close before I can graduate. Pass the gravy?"), Kirk asserted that Gov. Bill Richardson is pushing for a state merger with Highlands University or University of New Mexico. The governor confirms as much with an official press release.
A Santa Fe campus is an attractive proposition for both schools, but a $30 million bailout for a private Santa Fe school is not likely to impress state legislators who are already looking for ways to scale back spending during the January 2009 session, in which an approximately $300 million shortfall is anticipated.
A state merger is a good idea, but it's one the college should have been pursuing at least 18 months ago. CSF, like the banking and auto industries, got itself into its current predicament and, despite an excellent faculty and several successful programs, has consistently expressed a depressing lack of vision at the administrative level. Add to that its cloistered machinations and apparent disregard for the input of the community within which it is situated, and the picture that emerges is of an almost childlike refusal to ask for help, while becoming increasingly mired by its own mess.
Gov. Richardson has long held the door open for the college to work with the state but, claiming that it needed to act faster than government could accommodate, CSF gambled on going forward with Laureate.
Despite a situation in which the independent school would become one in a network of educational automatons serving the 339th largest private corporation in the country, it went forward. Despite the fact that professors would not have the safety of tenure but would be held on short-term, short-leash contracts, it went forward. Despite the meddlesome snag that becoming a for-profit institution poses to accreditation, it went forward. Despite being pushed into developing a farce of a sports program, it went forward.
And now CSF needs a government bailout.
In addition to legislators, representatives from other state schools are likely to cry foul. Spread already precious resources even thinner for the benefit of that stuffy pack of elitists up in the capital?
We'd better hope so. If the city and county are not already lobbying for state intervention, they'd best get off their hands and do so. Aside from the direct economic impact the closure of a major employer would have, the ripple effect would be disastrous. The city's economic development department, spurred by layoffs at Thornburg among other things, already has an unofficial task force dedicated to keeping creative, ambitious professionals in town during Depression 2.0, but trying to make room in Santa Fe's job market for CSF's 80 full-time faculty and slew of adjunct professors would be a pipe dream.
In an online poll maintained at sfreporter.com, 45 percent of respondents have cited professors leaving town to seek work elsewhere as the worst outcome should CSF close its doors. The resulting drop in youth population was pegged by 13 percent as the chief concern. Beyond the economy, however, these two groups are integral to the fabric and identity of the community.
And who wants to be the town that let its college die?
If a state rescue can be managed it should—like other bailouts—be done according to set terms and performance expectations. In exchange for a $30 million recognition of value, the state, the city and all the other stakeholders need to have a clear sense of how the college will be reborn, who it will serve and what its benchmarks are going to be.
All said, stakeholders, including current CSF students and faculty, and the public, need to have a seat at the table during a visioning process that ensures taxpayer dollars are in line with mutual, shared values.