Commentary: Unm Must Improve Its Record

University Plagued By Poor Priorities And Privilege

August March
6 min read
UNM Must Improve Its Record
On campus at the University of New Mexico (UNM)
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A recent op-ed in the local daily uses a laserlike focus to call the university out for a continuing lack of diversity among the people who inhabit its hallowed halls.

Although professor Yemane Asmerom concludes that “the risk is that real transformational diversity that goes beyond historically marginal offices and personalities will be neglected per usual,” his conflation of
LULAC’s call for an investigation into discriminatory hiring practices at the University with a demand for patronage and a salute to provincialism is off the mark and out of step with our community.

Asmerom’s argument is based on the issues surrounding the hiring of Assata Zerai to an executive position at UNM, a situation that LULAC questioned due to the fact that in-state Latinx candidates were not hired.
Weekly Alibi is grateful that the hire reflects forward movement at the University, but reckon that the institution cannot continue to make progress at the expense of Albuquerque’s Latinx community.

As a local Latinx man with a degree from the University of New Mexico, I do indeed agree with Asmerom’s belief that we should “celebrate the appointment of a talented African American VP, even while continuing to push UNM toward greater diversity.” But I am troubled that the professor does not even acknowledge (or seem to have any historical knowledge of) the battle that local Latinxs have faced over the past 40 years as they sought equality and fair treatment at UNM.

Of course this very problematic position appears to LULAC as yet another instance when local Latinx talent was brushed aside in the pursuit of greater causes. How could it be otherwise when local Latinxs are willing to go on the record about the institutional racism, hostile hiring practices and white privilege they tragically, continuously encountered as undergraduates, staff members and later as job seekers at UNM in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond?

For those without the benefit of historical recollection on their side, such protestations may indeed seem a distraction from the business at hand. Asmerom writes that “provincial issues” have led to UNM’s decline, to the long line of academics, students and community members fleeing the flagship. But the truth is that UNM cannot rebuilt itself, financially or otherwise, without the inclusion and cooperation of a local Hispanic community that has been marginalized and ostracized for decades.

A quick look back at my own experiences at the University reveals this tendency toward institutional racism, white privilege and hostility toward the local Hispanic community, a serious problem that I ignored as a youth because I was idealistic and couldn’t quite understand how a place of higher learning could be bent so badly, so broadly and so apparently permanently.

As an undergraduate in the Department of Art and Art History, I watched year after year as faculty provided better access to resources and advancement opportunities to already economically and socially privileged European-American students rather than to underrepresented people of color.

One painting professor wondered out loud in class (where I was the only Mexican-American kid) what I was doing in art school. Another painting instructor entirely dismissed my work because it incorporated the graffiti and spray paint I grew up using to express myself.

In my senior year, I watched as a wealthy lad from back East received an important scholarship while I starved. My advisor in the College of Fine Arts was generally hostile to me when I complained about that and suggested I work harder to make ends meet. I graduated with a 3.89 GPA and am still actively engaged in this city’s arts community. The scholarship winner, meanwhile, manages his father’s lucrative business back East and has not been a part of the art world here for at least 30 years.

After graduating from the University, I worked on the staff of the College of Fine Arts. Though I met a handful of kindred spirits, I also encountered persistent and sometimes righteously expressed racism among the faculty and administration.

The fellow who’d held my position previously, a Mexicano with resident status, had been persistent in making similar claims to the college and when I was hired, some sort of settlement agreement was in effect and he had been transferred to another department in the CFA. Nonetheless, I was often treated as if I was merely an novice (rather than a skilled technician) by a group of university-allied individuals who clearly and demonstrably felt they were of a better class than me.

One time, after I had successfully pitched agents of the 14th Dalai Lama to have His Holiness spend time relaxing in a CFA facility before his Centennial Speakers gig at Popejoy Hall, my supervisor, a department chair, called me into his office and asked me point blank and in an angry eastern New Mexican drawl, “Why should we let some ‘Dolly’ Lama use our precious facilities?”

And that’s not all. UNM is the only place in the world where I have had to face hostile job interviews. On three occasions, between 1994 and 2011—in meetings supervised by faculty administrators who had obviously determined pre-interview, despite my qualifications and experience, that I was “not worthy” of their attention—I was subjected to uncomfortable, disrespectful encounters.

In one case, an about-to-retire administrative assistant disputed my essential work on a departmental database—with prosecutorial vigor during my finalist interview—though I had plenty of anecdotal and physical evidence to suggest otherwise. Not being believed is a hallmark of institutional racism and white privilege that I and other Latinx community members have been subjected to in our dealings with the very institution that educated us and helped to form our world view.

All of that really happened. Though progress has been made, LULAC is right to call for an investigation, given the changing nature of UNM culture. We are certain that the hiring of a new African American VP at UNM will do much to ameliorate the institution’s egregious history. After decades of struggle,
nearly half of UNM’s undergraduate population is Hispanic, but only about 20 percent of graduate students identify as such. Similarly, only slightly more than a quarter of UNM faculty are Latinxs. And only about 10 percent of active faculty at the Department of Art and Art History are Latinxs. We are certain that those in charge, including professor Asmerom, must take the issues raised by LULAC seriously in their latest entreaty to UNM—not because Latinxs want special treatment, but because we deserve equal treatment.

Woof woof.
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