Western New Mexico University (WNMU), a small institution in Silver City, has come under scrutiny for extravagant spending by its administrators, revealed in a financial review by Searchlight New Mexico. The university, with around 3,500 students, has been spending substantial amounts on international trips and high-end furniture. Since 2018, WNMU President Joseph Shepard has embarked on trips to Zambia, Spain, and Greece in an effort to attract international students and their out-of-state tuition dollars. These trips, costing nearly $100,000 over the last five years, have involved other university executives, members of the WNMU Board of Regents, and Shepard’s wife, former CIA operations officer and Congressional candidate Valerie Plame, all funded by the university.
Locally, Shepard has utilized university funds, around $27,740, to furnish his on-campus residence at Seret and Sons, a Santa Fe retailer known for its luxurious offerings. Shepard defended the expense, emphasizing the need to entertain potential donors with an environment fitting their expectations. Despite the considerable costs incurred in travel, lodging, and furnishing, the university has not conducted a cost-benefit analysis on these expenditures. Only 64 of the current 3,500 students, less than 2% of the total student body, are international students, and more than a third of them come from Mexico.
Shepard justifies these expenses as long-term investments, contributing to a strategic plan to increase the school’s international population. He also emphasizes the importance of the president’s residence looking presidential for fundraising events. However, former university leaders and critics argue that this perceived opulence contradicts the region’s blue-collar history and economic reality, with nearly 30% of the town living below the poverty line.
In addition to international travel expenses, financial records reveal reservations at high-end hotels in the United States, including stays at La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe, a $12,000 expenditure to lease a 5,400-square-foot home in Santa Fe for two months, and a one-night stay at a Scottsdale, Arizona, resort accompanied by a $119 breakfast totaling over $1,000.
The university, founded in 1893, is located between the Gila National Forest and historic mines, emphasizing its mission to represent the diverse population of southwest New Mexico as a Hispanic-Serving Institution.
Shepard, who assumed the role of president in 2011, oversees a nearly $75 million budget and receives a $365,000 salary. Despite increased international relationships, particularly with Mexico, critics question the value of these expenditures, especially given the university’s 31% graduation rate. Concerns are also raised about the impact on local low-income students as tuition increases, and they argue that the budget could be more responsibly managed.
Shepard’s spending history faced legal challenges in 2018 when Brenda Findley, the university’s former vice president of business affairs, filed a lawsuit against the WNMU Board of Regents, alleging improprieties in the expenditure of public funds. The whistleblower suit was settled this summer with a payout exceeding $160,000 to Findley. Despite record levels of inflation and state-mandated employee raises, WNMU raised tuition by 3% the same month, further raising concerns about funding priorities and the impact on local students. Critics argue that Western New Mexico University, though potentially great, needs to focus on serving its local students rather than spending exorbitantly to attract students from other regions.