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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  May 2011


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Man on a Mission

For outgoing WNMU President John Counts, his 18 years leading the university have been about "living in a world of solutions."

An exclusive Desert Exposure interview.

 

by Richard Mahler

 

 

A painting of cadets on a West Point parade ground hangs next to the Western New Mexico University president's desk, next to a picture of playful polar bears. A shovel and hard-hat — painted gold, an official WNMU color — are strapped to the wall above a bookcase. Shelves overflow with framed photos of smiling colleagues, friends and family members.

counts
John Counts in his office at Western New Mexico University, where he's served as president for the past 18 years
. (Photo by Richard Mahler)

"I like the flag," says John Counts, when asked to choose the backdrop for the photograph of him that accompanies this story. "I'll sit at the desk in front of it." The Stars and Stripes drapes from a pole topped by an ornamental eagle. Clad in casual slacks and a short-sleeve shirt that's purple — the other WNMU color — Counts settles behind a surface strewn with charts, memos and other paperwork. WNMU's senior executive chooses this over a more corporate-looking desk dominated by a computer, keyboard and telephone.

"I'm a ‘power-down' president," Counts volunteers, within the first five minutes. "I get good people and I support them. I don't micromanage." The trim, silver-haired university president projects boundless take-charge energy, yet insists it is the vice presidents and other administrators below him who really get the job done: "I facilitate the success of people here by providing the resources — and sometimes the direction — they need."

Such statements and office décor, one might assume, reflect the character and values of the person whose 18-year WNMU presidency is scheduled to end June 30. From the firm handshake to the commanding voice, the steady eye contact and the upright posture, Counts projects purpose, discipline and confidence. The recipient of both effusive praise and sharp criticism, he gives the impression of someone quietly comfortable with his decisions. And in contrast to some university presidents, cultivating a public image — good or bad — has not been a priority. On the contrary, WNMU's top man rarely grants interviews. "I do not wear out my welcome with reporters," he concedes, adding that he only agreed to sit down with Desert Exposure at the insistence of his assistant, Julie Morales.

 

During a 90-minute conversation, however, the president is friendly and welcoming. Like the good soldier he has been for much of his life, Counts even answers questions about his personal life while tracing the arc of public service that brought him to Silver City nearly two decades ago.

Picking a New President

 

On April 27, the Western New Mexico University Board of Regents selected Dr. Joseph Shepard as WNMU¹s next president. Shepard is currently vice president for Administrative Services and Finance at Florida Gulf Coast University. Shepard has also served as a faculty member at Lutgert College of Business and at Colegio Americano de Torreon in Mexico. He earned an undergraduate degree at Northern Arizona University, an MBA from the University of North Texas and a PhD in public administration from Florida International University. Shepard will lead Western New Mexico University as its 15th president effective July 1, 2011. He will have a four-year contract.

"My family did not have a lot of money," he explains, when asked about his own college education. "Getting a scholarship was important. I had appointments to both [the US Army's] West Point and [the US Navy's] Annapolis" military academies, both renowned for academic excellence as well as leadership training.

Growing up in Denver, he had never seen an ocean — or a waterway as big as the Hudson River. The Army trumped the Navy. "I chose West Point," Counts recalls, "and went off there right out of high school in July 1959."

For the next 33 years — until his early fifties — Counts was a military man, first serving combat tours in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, then eight years in Germany. Various high-level assignments in the US followed. Along the way Counts married, had four children, and earned three post-graduate degrees as well as college-level teaching experience. During his last posting he was Chief of Staff at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. The trajectory of this man in uniform shifted dramatically when he and wife Barbara were invited to move to Silver City in 1992.

Overseeing the Army War College "got me interested in higher education," Counts explains, referring to his several years at the prestigious institution, a picture of which also adorns his office wall. The academic world responded with interest, too. "I got some calls to put my hat in the ring for some jobs at various universities."

While a finalist in competition for two other assignments, Counts made a first-time, one-day visit to interview for WNMU's newly created position as director of the Division of Business, Math and Computer Science and as a professor of management. "I was very impressed with the setting," he recalls, conceding that "a huge part" of his immediate attraction to the position was the university's physical location, nearly straddling the Continental Divide and surrounded by millions of acres of scenic public land. "My wife and I are of the West and we had not lived there since [high school]," he notes. "So I went home and talked to Barb about it and she said, ‘Sounds like a great little place.' I turned the other searches off and I have not regretted doing so for one day.... A lot of the decision to come here had to do with living in an environment we love. New Mexico was very attractive to us."

The family arrived in Silver City during late summer of 1992 and settled in. But for the head of household, opportunity kept knocking. "We were contemplating leaving after one year," Counts remembers, explaining that an attractive job elsewhere beckoned. "But then, all of a sudden, I was asked to be president."

 

WNMU was at a critical juncture, in urgent need of oversight and stability. During the preceding decade the university had gone through eight or nine presidents, depending on how they are tallied. "There was a desperate financial situation and a desperate academic situation," Counts declares. The school was essentially broke and its employees were unhappy. "There wasn't any kind of search." He shrugs, explaining, "I was asked to take the job and said, ‘If it will help, of course I'll do it. I'll step in temporarily.' A month later [officials] asked if I'd be willing to be president full time. I said, ‘I will.' Did I think I was going to be here 18 years later? Of course not."

Such tenure is unusual not only at WNMU, but in academia overall. Five or six years is the typical length of time a university president holds his or her position. For Counts, only the 14th chief since Western's 1893 founding, it's been long enough to see services to an expanding enrollment grow significantly, including a big push into online instruction via the Internet and the growth of satellite campuses outside Grant County. At the same time, the university has constructed, torn down or remodeled a number of buildings while bolstering its degree-granting programs. Each of these developments come up during our interview, but economic issues receive repeated emphasis.

"A president has got to master fiscal responsibilities," he stresses. "You can't delegate understanding a budget to somebody else.... When you're building that budget, you don't have to be too far off the mark to really get yourself in trouble." It is the "one thing" you cannot ignore. "Fortunately," says Counts, "I came into this job knowing things financial." Underscoring this message, he insists "the very first priority of the new chief executive is going to have to be mastery of the budget, particularly on the [physical] plant side."

Upgrades have continued even through the Great Recession has effectively reduced WNMU's budget by 20% during a period when enrollment has grown by 25%. As Counts is poised to leave the university, three more buildings face drastic overhauls.

"Our campus looks a lot better," Counts contends. "We've put $50-to-$60-million into construction. "We live and die in terms of keeping the place going on infrastructure."

 

The building spree doesn't sit well with some members of a faculty whose salaries are among the lowest for public university professors not only in the state, but the entire country. High turnover and unfilled positions are said to be an ongoing problem. But Counts, whose own annual salary tops $200,000 and whose benefits include a College Avenue home and $42,000 in annual deferred compensation, says not to expect any staff raises in the near future: "The answer to the question [of when to expect them] is ‘not right now.'... It's kind of a toughie, but I'm hopeful that next year we'll finally be able to give our people pay raises again."

 

 

 

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