‘The finer things in life’: A small state university is spending tens of thousands on international travel and high-end furniture

by Joshua Bowling/ Searchlight New Mexico

Administrators at Western New Mexico University, a small institution of some 3,500 students in Silver City, routinely spend tens of thousands of dollars on international trips and exorbitantly priced furniture from a retailer whose pieces can be found in the real estate pages of the New York Times and the pavilions of Walt Disney World.

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

Shepard’s wife, former CIA operations officer and Congressional candidate Valerie Plame. Courtesy of Valerie Plame’s website.

Close to home, Shepard has spent at least $27,740 of university money at Seret and Sons, a Santa Fe treasure trove known for hand-carved doors, Indian dhurrie rugs and antique Tibetan chests, to furnish his on-campus house. It was a necessary expense, he told Searchlight, so that he could effectively entertain potential donors at his home.

“You’re entertaining a class of people who are accustomed to, shall I say, the finer things in life,” Shepard said in a phone interview. Having more affordable furniture wouldn’t work, he explained. “Let’s say we would have gone out and bought IKEA furniture. First of all, we’ll be replacing that every year.”

Despite the steep price tags on travel, lodging and furnishing for these officials, the university has never once conducted a cost-benefit analysis to review such spending, Shepard conceded. And for all the tens of thousands of dollars spent on recruiting international students, just 64 of the university’s current 3,500 students have come from other countries, Shepard said, accounting for less than 2 percent of the total student body. In fact, more than one-third of those international students come from Mexico.

When asked about the expenses, Shepard told Searchlight to think of them as investments. The overseas trips factor into a “long game” to boost 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 has to look presidential,” he said. “People expect it.”

‘Playtime for adults’

But to two former university leaders, the perceived level of opulence does not square with the area’s blue-collar history and current economic reality: Nearly 30 percent of the town lives beneath the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For the school’s former financial aid director, the issue was grounds to resign.

“As a director of financial aid who can go to jail for the shit the school is doing…this is not worth the risk to me,” said Cheryl Hain, who resigned in 2019. “Our taxpayers are funding playtime for adults.”

In addition to senior officials spending university money on international travel, the 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, 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 that totaled more than $1,000. 

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

Shepard took over as president 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 has an undergraduate degree from Northern Arizona University, a master’s degree from the University of North Texas and a Ph.D. from Florida International University. Shepard grew up in Buckeye, Arizona, a once-sleepy farm town on the outskirts of Phoenix that has for years made headlines for its newfound status as the fastest-growing city in the nation.

As president of WNMU, Shepard steers a nearly $75 million budget and collects a $365,000 salary — an increase of some $87,000 since 2020. He has prioritized, he said, increasing WNMU’s international relationships. In particular, he touts his administration’s success with Mexico, but admits that other ventures have been “a bust.”

“Has it been successful? We’ve got some good students out of it,” he said, demurring when asked if his international travel strategy is worth the cost. “What’s the equivalent revenue from those students versus the amount of money expended? It’s a long game. It’s a long-term proposition. If we continue to get students over the next 10 years, it would be nice if it pays for itself. It probably already has.”

Beyond dollars and cents, there are benefits to the overseas trips that one “can’t calculate,” he continued. “A kid comes from Zambia, ends up here, forms friendships. A kid from Silver City would never even understand where Zambia was located. Your university becomes more globally accessible, your kid who grew up in Silver City all their life realizes the world’s a lot bigger.”

Shepard’s lifestyle far outpaces those kids from Silver City. For instance, one shopping spree — the nearly $28,000 outing at Seret and Sons — is more than what many Silver City residents earn in an entire year. 

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

Recently, Shepard said, he hosted a dinner party of about 30 people, including a handful of potential donors. By the end of the night, he said guests had pledged to donate a quarter of a million dollars.

“I can’t tangibly say that having the couch from Seret caused this donor to ultimately generate $250,000 for us,” Shepard said. “But I can say that the president’s house is of that entertainment value. That $250,000 then goes to the students, who are now educated and hopefully break out of a $21,000 median income home.”

Many of those students, however, will not earn a degree. The university has a 31 percent graduation rate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, placing it behind Eastern New Mexico University, New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico.

Valerie Plame, Shepard’s wife — who bears the title of “First Lady” of WNMU — also has profited handsomely. She has an expense account and regularly files for reimbursements, according to financial records, including a $4,073 purchase in 2022 from Woodland Direct (a fireplace company); a $1,488.27 charge for an “oriental sofa” on Etsy; and a smattering of Amazon charges.

A history of financial accusations

Shepard’s spending and homemaking have been litigated before. In 2018, the university’s former vice president of business affairs, Brenda Findley, filed a lawsuit against the WNMU Board of Regents, alleging “improprieties with regard to the expenditure of public funds by Dr. Shepard.”

According to the lawsuit, Shepard instructed Findley to increase the salary of an employee who had been living rent-free in a bungalow near his house. He also ordered the university’s janitors to clean his house, run his errands, cook his meals and do his laundry, she claimed.

The whistleblower suit settled this summer with a more than $160,000 payout to Findley.

That same month, decrying record levels of inflation and state-mandated employee raises, WNMU raised tuition by 3 percent. Shepard 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 the ability to provide the world-class education and resources needed to ensure the success of our students because of funding shortfalls.”

The tuition hike underscored critics’ concerns that the high standard of living is coming at the expense of local low-income students. Between the travel and the furniture, they see plenty of fat to cut in the budget.

“Western is a potentially great school,” said Hain, the former director of financial aid. “But they are ignoring their local students…they were spending incredible amounts of money all over the country and all over other places to try to attract other students. If you’re treating your students right, if you’re providing a good service, you don’t have to do that. They come.”

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

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.