In a promotional video for the College of Santa Fe produced in 2006, the school’s storied history is detailed, from its use of a small room off the San Miguel chapel (popularly called the Oldest Church) to its renovation of the old army hospital where it sits today.
The video (see below) admirably acknowledges the Christian Brothers’ founding and shepherding of the college but is wincingly funny for two reasons. First, it is narrated with the kind of affected, embarrassed enthusiasm one might find in a ’50s sex-ed video. Second, after a tour de force recap of continual expansion, growth and success, the film ends with the appointment of Dr. Mark Lombardi as president. “What does Dr. Lombardi have in store for the College of Santa Fe?” the narrator asks with unbridled glee, before answering his own question: “Only time will tell.”
Time has told us Lombardi jumped ship at the first hint of another job. No doubt it was clear from the view at the helm that the school was headed straight for an iceberg, and the rudder was good and stuck. Lombardi did nothing to discourage the softball press coverage at Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo., the ship to which he jumped, but he must have been wracked with conflicting sensations of guilt and relief.
“During Lombardi’s first 18 months in his former position, as president and CEO at the College of Santa Fe, he was responsible for raising $14.7 million,” St. Louis Commerce Magazine writes. “During his tenure [at CSF], he engineered a complete revision of the core curriculum, greatly improved the retention rate of students, and oversaw significant upgrades to its physical plant, as well as its information technology infrastructure,” the article continues.
Cough. Bullshit. Cough.
OK, some of those things might be true, but Lombardi never did anything about that stuck rudder. It also is clear the school was in crisis during the terms of Lombardi’s predecessors, including Linda Hanson and James Fries. This history is instructive as the school tries to make a deal with the state of New Mexico for Highlands University or the University of New Mexico to assume control of CSF. Highlands’ current president is the same James Fries. Instinct would suggest staying away from previous administrators at this point, would it not?
Richard Bank, a professor of politics and faculty representative to the CSF board of regents, says Fries was consistently honest about the school’s finances. “The school has never been very financially stable,” Bank says. Under the Christian Brothers, he explains, there was essentially no faculty overhead. But as the expenses of a secular faculty continued to grow, no endowment or strategy was ever put into place. During the Hanson and Lombardi presidencies, the deepening crisis was downplayed and the school’s mounting debt hidden.
Bank also recalls Fries took control of CSF at a time when students were being drawn away by the successful rise of Santa Fe Community College. Fries pushed the school toward its current arts focus and proved to be “an effective crisis manager,” Bank says.
Fries also has worked for SFCC, the city’s economic development department, the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce and he co-chaired Gov. Bill Richardson’s higher education transition team after the 2002 gubernatorial election. Clearly he has a sense of all the factors involved. (Fries did not return a phone call requesting comment by press time.)
A more pressing issue than which entity, specifically, takes control of CSF is determining if the school’s administration is attempting to negotiate the deal that is best for its community. Bank says faculty would have welcomed a relationship with the state had it been given that option before CSF entered into negotiations with Laureate Education, Inc.
“I think the secrecy in President Kirk’s administration is about style,” Bank says. “His experience is in corporate board rooms where negotiations and decision making are done in private with folks who share a set of values about how decisions should be made and who should make them. There’s nothing intentionally malicious, but I don’t think there’s a very good understanding of how academic institutions work.”
In the midst of negotiations with Laureate, a for-profit educational organization, the administration hardballed faculty into accepting a new employment handbook and surrendering tenure, claiming it was necessary to grease the deal. When the Laureate deal fell apart, the faculty requested the previous conditions be reinstated and tenure restored. In response, the board formed a subcommittee with no schedule to consider the matter.
“Obviously we will need to accept whatever employment terms are offered by any institution that we merger with,” Bank says, “but in the meantime, I’m frankly puzzled as to why the board would not warmly embrace this as a gesture of respect and goodwill.”
The shakiness of future employment is even worse for staff than for faculty, Bank concedes, and students are kept consistently in the dark. Asked if many of the faculty, like students, are sending out applications elsewhere, Bank says, “absolutely.”
But, he adds, the failed Laureate merger instilled excitement in many faculty members. “If we can work out something with the state, I think you’ll see many more faculty willing to return next fall than would have under Laureate.”