A small state university spends tens of thousands on international travel, high-end furniture

Western New Mexico University President Joseph Shepherd says all the spending is necessary, even if he hasn’t done the math to back it up.

This story was published by Searchlight New Mexico.

Administrators at Western New Mexico University, a small institution of about 3,500 students in Silver City, routinely spend tens of thousands of dollars on international travel and overpriced furniture from a dealer whose pieces can be found on the real estate pages of the New York Times and newsstands at Walt Disney World.

A review of the university’s financial records by Searchlight New Mexico shows that since 2018, WNMU President Joseph Shepherd has made extensive trips to Zambia, Spain and Greece in the name of courting international students and, by extension, their tuition dollars out of state. On several such trips, which have cost nearly $100,000 over the past five years, Shepherd has been accompanied by other university leaders as well as members of the WNMU Board of Regents and his wife, a former CIA operative turned author and congressional candidate Valerie Plame. All traveled on the university’s dime.

Closer to home, Shepherd spent at least $27,740 of university money at Serret & Sons, a Santa Fe treasure house known for hand-carved doors, Indian dhurri rugs and antique Tibetan chests, to furnish his campus house. It was a necessary expense, he told Searchlight, so he could effectively entertain potential donors in his home.

“You’re entertaining a group of people who are used to, shall I say, the finer things in life,” Shepherd said in a phone interview. Having more affordable furniture won’t work, he explained. “Let’s say we went out and bought furniture from IKEA. First, we’re going to replace it every year.”

Despite the high prices for travel, lodging and furnishings for these employees, the university has never once conducted a cost-benefit analysis to review such costs, Shepherd acknowledged. And for all the tens of thousands of dollars spent on international student recruitment, only 64 of the university’s current 3,500 students have come from other countries, Shepherd said, representing less than 2 percent of the total student body. In fact, more than a third of these international students come from Mexico.

Asked about the costs, Shepherd told Searchlight to think of them as investments. Overseas travel is a “long game” factor in increasing the school’s international population. As for the furniture, he said, it plays a critical unspoken role when he hosts fundraising events.

“The president’s house should look presidential,” he said. “People expect it.”

“Adult Playtime”

But according to two former university leaders, the perceived level of affluence doesn’t match the area’s blue-collar history and current economic reality: Nearly 30 percent of the city lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For the school’s former director of financial aid, the problem was grounds for him to resign.

“As a director of financial aid who could go to jail for the stupid things the school does … it’s not worth the risk to me,” said Cheryl Hein, who resigned in 2019. “Our taxpayers fund adult playtime. “

In addition to senior officials spending university money on international travel, financial records show several reservations at high-end hotels in the United States. There are routine stays at La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe during legislative sessions, spending $12,000 to rent 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 that adds up to more than $1,000.

The university, founded in 1893, is nestled between the Gila National Forest and a series of historic mines where Spanish, Mexican and American workers mined silver, copper and turquoise for more than a century. The university’s self-proclaimed mission is to represent “every segment of the diverse population of southwestern New Mexico” as a “Hispanic-speaking institution.”

Shepherd assumed the presidency in 2011 after working for more than 15 years at Florida Gulf Coast University in a number of roles, including chief financial officer, chief business officer and student affairs officer. He holds a BA from Northern Arizona University, an MA from the University of North Texas, and a Ph.D. from Florida International University. Shepherd grew up in Buckeye, Arizona, a once-sleepy farming town on the outskirts of Phoenix that has been making headlines for years for its newfound status as the nation’s fastest-growing city.

As WNMU president, Shepherd manages a budget of nearly $75 million and earns a salary of $365,000 — an increase of about $87,000 from 2020. He has prioritized, he said, increasing WNMU’s international ties. In particular, he touted his administration’s success with Mexico, but acknowledged that other endeavors had been “failures.”

“Is it successful? We got good students out of it,” he said, demurring when asked if his international travel strategy was worth the cost. “What is the equivalent income from these students relative to the amount of money spent? The game is long. This is a long term proposition. If we continue to get students for the next 10 years, it would be nice if it pays off. It probably already is.

Beyond dollars and cents, there are benefits to overseas travel that one “can’t calculate,” he continued. “A kid comes from Zambia, ends up here, makes friends. A kid from Silver City would never even know where Zambia was. Your university becomes more globally accessible, your child who has grown up in Silver City all his life realizes that the world is much bigger.’

Shepard’s lifestyle far surpasses those Silver City kids. For example, one shopping spree — a nearly $28,000 outing at Seret and Sons — is more than many Silver City residents make in an entire year.

The median income for individuals in Silver City is about $21,000, according to U.S. Census data. The amount spent on furnishings was also worth more than two years of in-state undergraduate tuition at WNMU.

Recently, Shepherd said, he hosted a dinner for about 30 people, including a handful of potential donors. By the end of the evening, he said guests had pledged a quarter of a million dollars in donations.

“I can’t say specifically that having the Serret couch is what caused that donor to end up generating $250,000 for us,” Shepherd said. “But I can say that the president’s house has such entertainment value. That $250,000 then goes to the students, who are now educated and hopefully out of a $21,000 median income home.

However, many of these students will not receive a degree. The university has a 31 percent graduation rate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which ranks it behind Eastern New Mexico University, New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico.

Valerie Plame, Shepherd’s wife — who holds the title of WNMU’s First Lady — has also won big. She has a spending account and regularly files for reimbursements, according to financial documents, including a $4,073 purchase in 2022 from Woodland Direct (a fireplace company); a charge of $1,488.27 for an “oriental sofa” on Etsy; and some Amazon fees.

History of financial charges

Shepard’s expenses and household have been litigated before. In 2018, the university’s former vice president for business affairs, Brenda Findley, filed a lawsuit against the WNMU Board of Regents, alleging “impropriety regarding Dr. Shepherd’s expenditure of public funds.”

According to the lawsuit, Sheppard instructed Findlay to raise the salary of an employee who lived rent-free in a bungalow near his house. He also ordered janitors at the university to clean his house, run his errands, cook for him and do his laundry, she claimed.

The lawsuit, which reported wrongdoing, was settled this summer with more than $160,000 being paid to Findley.

That same month, decrying record levels of inflation and raises for state employees, WNMU raised tuition by 3 percent. Sheppard led the push for the increase, telling the University Board of Regents, “I cannot in good conscience allow the University to find itself in a position where it loses its ability to provide a world-class education and the resources necessary to ensure the success of our students due to lack of funding.”

The increase in tuition fees has highlighted critics’ concerns that the high standard of living is coming at the expense of low-income local students. Between travel and furniture, they see a lot of fat to cut the budget.

“Western is a potentially great school,” said Hein, the former director of financial aid. “But they’re neglecting their local students … they’ve been spending incredible amounts of money all over the country and everywhere to try and attract other students. If you treat your students right, if you provide good service, you don’t have to do this. They are coming.”

Joshua Bowling, Searchlight’s criminal justice reporter, spent nearly six years covering local government, environmental and other issues in The Arizona Republic. His accountability reports revealed unsustainable growth, water scarcity, costly forest management, and injustice in a historically black community that was overwhelmed by industrialization. Raised in the Southwest, he graduated from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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