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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."

On the positive side, according to Counts, during the economic downtown WNMU has not laid off or furloughed any employees nor cut any pay rates.

"As of this moment," he says, "there isn't any [additional] compensation in our next budget. It will be a pretty tight budget but it will get us through next year in good shape.... I just want to protect the jobs of the people we have right now."

Amid controversy, WNMU employees voted in 2006 in favor of union representation. Those who choose to do so are now represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). A portion of the Maintenance Department staff comprises the collective bargaining unit.

For students, meanwhile, Counts says he strives to keep costs manageable. "There are 79 public four-year institutions of higher education in the Southwest," he observes, "and our tuition and fees are second-to-lowest of all of them. I have fought to keep the burden off of our students in what they have to pay."

Nevertheless, effective this summer WNMU is raising its tuition and fees by about 6%. Resident, undergraduate, full-time student costs will increase from about $1,905 to $2,020 per semester. Still, says Counts, "when you take a look at what we're charging and take a look at the quality of our faculty and our programs, I think we represent one of the best educational values in the US." He feels at least a half-dozen academic programs at Western are comparable in quality to those found anywhere: "When I look at what we mean to our students, I feel very motivated every single day."

 

It's worth noting that WNMU plays a role unlike that of many public universities. "Western," Counts points out, "isn't like any other state school.... We are stewards of place, truly an asset to our community." Founded as a training center for teachers — a "normal school" in the parlance of the day — it has an open-enrollment policy and serves as the equivalent of a two-year community college for the state's southwestern corner. Western offers bachelor's and master's degrees in nationally accredited programs while simultaneously providing GED instruction for those interested in obtaining the equivalent of high-school diplomas.

It houses a small-business development center and an adult education program, and helps unemployed workers develop new job skills. Counts himself was a co-founder of WNMU's internationally accredited Basic Economic Development Course and has been actively involved with the annual NAFTA Institute, extending education south of the border. Presently, he is working to develop new partnerships with universities in Mexico, China and South America.

But it is on behalf of folks living within its primary service area that Counts says he sets his highest priorities. "Without this university," he declares, "a lot of people here wouldn't have the opportunity they have for education. We are a hub and a multiplier in terms of enriching the lives of those in this community."

Yet one of the ongoing criticisms of WNMU is its relationship to Silver City, the town that surrounds it. Some local residents and area leaders have expressed disappointment that the university is not involved more in downtown revitalization, projects to benefit the environment, or low-cost admittance to its classes for retirees.

Asked about Western's "town-and-gown" relationship, Counts agrees that "it has to be cultivated constantly — and I think we do a pretty good job of that." He describes positive dealings with the area's elected officials, bureaucrats and business leaders, ranging from superintendents of schools to municipal mayors, from merchants to manufacturers. Easily accessible to the public, Counts says, are WNMU's library, auditoriums, museum, art gallery, athletic events and the Western Institute for Lifelong Learning. The latter provides, free of charge or for a modest fee, 100 or more specialized classes a year to area residents. "WILL is just incredible," says Counts, while citing his own interest in the arts, including theater, ballet and music.

"There is a huge array of assets and benefits that this community enjoys because this university is here," he reiterates. "I don't ever take that — our this wonderful place to live — for granted. I can't. It's something that motivates me tremendously."

Looking ahead, the WNMU president dismisses the notion of retirement. "I don't like the word," he maintains, preferring to say, "I'm moving into the next phase." Although he doubts it will happen, he is even willing to stay on at Western if a new executive isn't in place before his scheduled June 30 departure. Beyond that, he says, "I've already had some inquiries about different work opportunities, but I'm not rushing to judgment on anything. We're gonna see what happens."

Don't expect John Counts to sit idle. "There will be some travel," he says, particularly as it relates to the 11 grandchildren he and his wife expect to visit, from California to New England.

"Both Barb and I really like sports," Counts adds, with a prediction that next fall's WNMU Mustang football team "will have the best record it's had in years."

Among the lesser-known facts about the president are his own accomplishments as an athlete. "I've lost track of the number of road races I've been in," says the lifelong runner, who underwent recent surgery to replace both knees, "from two-milers to marathons and beyond. I've competed in probably 120 or 130 triathlons and biathlons. I've completed the Mt. Taylor Quadrathlon five times as a soloist." The quadrathlon is a 42-mile race up and down the highest peak in northwestern New Mexico that demands skill at cycling, running, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

"I like to hike, to fly-fish, to go whitewater rafting," ticks off Counts, who early in his Army career completed over 90 jumps as a Ranger paratrooper. "I've been in ski races and bicycle races," he notes, including Grant County's Signal Peak Challenge, in which Counts placed second in his age group. During his years stationed in Germany, he was a champion cross-country skier in various military competitions.

Another little-known fact about Counts is that he was Chief of Staff for the US Command in Berlin when President Ronald Reagan delivered his famous "tear down this wall" speech in June 1987. Counts, whose decorations include three Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart, was still there when the wall fell two years later. He speaks about this and earlier assignments with obvious pride.

"My first job out of college [with a BS degree in 1963] was to be a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division," Counts recalls, adding his conviction that "West Point is a national treasure. It truly is. It is also very arduous, very demanding." From there Counts attended jump school and Airborne Ranger school in Fort Benning, Ga. "After that I spent a lot of time in combat zones — 15 months in the Dominican Republic, well over two years in Vietnam, the whole time with the Vietnamese as an advisor. My last time there I was a senior Ranger advisor for I-Corps."

In conversation with Counts about WNMU, one hears strong echoes of military precision and teamwork in his pragmatic approach to management. "I live in a world of solutions," he says. "When you talk to me, the second you tell me what the problem is I am going to be asking you what your solution is. What do you want to do about it? I live in the future, trying to anticipate what's going to happen."

In dealing with such matters, say Counts, "there's not going to be a lot of rhetoric. You've got to get right to what's going on. And so your world is kind of bifurcated into two things: accomplish the mission and, it used to be mission and men, now it's mission and people. You have get the job done; this is the mission. You're going to get it done with your people. Those are the things that you constantly remain focused on: who you are, who you're serving, and who's going to get the work done." As a self-described "power-down" administrator, Counts speaks often of this reliance on a team approach and "can-do" philosophy. "My number-one priority," he adds, "is to take care of people."

Counts relates an anecdote that illustrates this point. He recalls the shutdown by Phelps-Dodge of its Playas smelter in 1999. Almost overnight, 500 workers were on the streets. "It was a really tough situation," he remembers with a heavy sigh. "We didn't know how we were going to do it, but Western set up instruction for heavy-equipment operators and truck drivers. We set up modules on computer education for these folks."

Less than three years later, "I got a call from the CEO of Phelps-Dodge saying they were cutting even more jobs. They went from 2,400 down to 600 over a five-year period. Then the [Stream International] call center here, with 1,100 employees, gave us a six-month notice and shut down [in late 2003]. But nobody had to come and ask Western, ‘What are you gonna do?' We got set up our displaced workers assistance team and began to register people over the Christmas holidays."

Counts doesn't think WNMU neglected anybody during that downturn who asked for help. For the first time during our 90-minute interview he raises his voice for emphasis. "People asked me why we did that," he booms, leaning forward in his chair. "I said, ‘Because it's my job, for God's sake. I'm not going to sit here and watch people suffer who have no place to go. We're gonna go out and we're gonna help.' We did that then, and we've done that since."

Looking back on his long association with the only institution of its kind for hundreds of square miles — tucked off the beaten path in a low-income, rural region — Counts concludes by returning to perhaps his favorite theme: empowerment through education. "I would like to think," he muses, in a rare moment of self-reflection, "that for a lot of people who would otherwise have had no place to go in terms of their professional lives, that we've really made a huge difference.... I regard this particular job as a gift. Having this opportunity has been uniquely wonderful.

 

 

Southwest Storylines columnist Richard Mahler is a freelance writer and
tour guide in Silver City. Learn more at www.richardmahler.com.

 

 

 

 




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