Albuquerque and UNM: Losing Their Sense of Purpose and Identity
What’s going on at UNM? What’s happened to Albuquerque’s mayor? Why is the athletic department’s request to have a nearly $5 million debt “forgiven” being supported by a UNM Regent appointed by Governor Susana Martinez when the rest of the university is in penury? Why is Tim Keller seeming more and more like the former mayor — invisible and uninspiring, despite his flurry of good moves following his election victory? Who’s leading the substance and image of both the “town and the gown” these days?
The question that disturbs many of us is why have we had no leaders arising out of our population to help UNM and the city galvanize a definition of our future that both want to strive for? Recent presidencies at UNM have been as flat and unctuous as a bad musical that closed on opening night. The same could be said for the city’s leadership. Both places have been kept alive by the superior efforts of their personnel infrastructures. Absence and vacancy, combined with negativity, have infected our leadership elite, becoming impediments to novelty, to experimentation, and the drive to question and to innovate.
Is it possible that the troubles at UNM, once a great cultural and civilizing force in our region, have become a dominating metaphor for the city as a whole?
It seems a good bet. On the face of it, gutting the subsidy at UNM Press, let’s say, one of the school’s and the state’s most visible and acclaimed cultural treasures, and forcing it to cut its book production in half, while almost simultaneously considering “forgiving” the horrendously bad management practices in a non-academic failing enterprise like the athletic department, is a slap in the face to tens of thousands of alumni and all those who value higher learning. It has the same feeling of fiasco and scamming as the Albuquerque Rapid Transit’s (ART) virtual demolition of sensible traffic patterns on Central Avenue.
These alarming goings on have a tinge of the mysterious to them. The echoing silence generated by City Hall seems inextricable. Is something bad happening to Albuquerque’s heart and soul? “Are we finally losing what makes Albuquerque an empowering and inspiring place to live?”
It seems pretty clear that this stagnant moment in our history is not the fault of politics alone, not trickle down Trumpism, or the Montezuma’s revenge of eight nihilistic years of Susana Martinez as governor. Something else is going on. It’s looking bad for us. The wind has gone out of our sails. Poverty will do that to you. But that’s not the sole source, either.
Both UNM and Albuquerque have lost their sense of identity and their sense of purpose, two virtues that drove both town and gown to excellence from WWII through the 1990s, despite New Mexico’s chronic financial enfeeblement. When you lose your sense of purpose and identity, everything becomes flat, numbingly chaotic and dead in the water. You lose your way. UNM can’t really say what it wants to be in a public and accessible way. It can’t be that it strives to become a mediocre jock shop at the expense of its academic and cultural enterprises, can it? It can’t be that Albuquerque wants to give up on itself as becoming a great New Mexican city and finally succumb to those who co-opted so-called “progress” as a disguise for old fashioned land speculation and exploitation, can it?
But how do you take such mysteries apart? Can you use reductionist methods, dissect the problems and find out what’s really wrong? Chances are you can’t. If you are a Gestalt theorist, or a follower of 19th century American philosopher and psychologist William James, everything — from cities to people — is made up not only of parts but of something else that is more than the parts together.
Taking things apart won’t tell you about their essence. The troubles at UNM and in the city of Albuquerque are the same way.
The gestalt, the whole that is “more” than the sum of its parts, has become an essential part of complexity theory, ecology and systems thinking. When you study groups or individuals, that “more” might be called character or personality, or even “soul” or “heart.” In a person, that “more” is what is lost at death. In a city, that “more” is what resists dissolution even in times of rapid grown, demoralization and senseless change.
In Albuquerque, for instance, we sense our status as one of the crime capitals in the country with more auto thefts, burglaries, other property crimes and homicides per capita than almost anyplace else in the country is wrecking not only our image but our self-respect. We are aware, some of us at least, of the desperate plight of our homeless population, aware of our busted economy, our zombie sprawl. And yet, if we’re as bad off as the major media tells us, why would so many of us never imagine living anywhere else but Albuquerque and environs?
At UNM we know that cantankerous and even obnoxious presidents, with non-existent social graces, terrible tempers and no feel or sympathy for the mission of a major research institution have left the school adrift. We know that money woes and penny pinching across campus have threatened the faculty and made learning more difficult. But, still, all of this has not diminished the general affection we feel for the institution, or at least some of us still feel.
One of the reasons you don’t give up on a city or a university in hard times is that they are much more than their bad parts, and much more than their goods parts and their bad parts combined. We love Albuquerque and remain loyal to UNM because of their whole natures. The feeling that we wouldn’t live anywhere else is not accounted for by our weather, our museums, our cultural diversity, our mountains or even New Mexican culture. The “more” is best seen, I think, in an expression one hears from almost all true New Mexicans. Ask someone in passing how they are doing and if they have a New Mexican soul they’ll probably say, “fine, and you?” And they’ll mean it. The “more” in our city is the undeniable though intangible cordiality and gentility of our people, and the sense of community that they create and maintain over the generations. As we grow, that spirit may be harder to find, but it’s always there.
Part of the secret of not allowing your inner strength and identity to wither is taking the responsibility to maintain your own definition of yourself and persistently and forcefully resisting all outside efforts to weaken and demoralize that inner core of strength. What worries me about UNM and the city is that it seems sometimes as if there’s a mood of bafflement that leads to despair and the desire to just throw up our hands and walk away. But giving up on ourselves is the ultimate cop out. Our Gestaltic sense, our sense of the whole, tells most of us that our heart and soul are still intact. And William James shows us, in practical ways, that a person, or a group of people, can save themselves from the dissolution of despair and apathy by accepting they’re in trouble and asserting their free will and ingenuity to find a way back to the road of a purposeful and positive life. This is what the “pragmatism” of William James is all about: acceptance and innovation, finding ways that work — pragmatic ways — to get back on the path of true identity and potential.
I wonder what would work for the city and the university, separately and together, nowadays? We do have models for both, models from the past. In Albuquerque during a twenty-five year stretch from the 1970s through the 1980s, citizens and elected leaders, as well as experts from the university and rural parts of the state, came together in what I remember as vigorous and intellectually rewarding working groups that explored goals for the future. It is out of these groups that the foundations for a culturally and environmentally rich city were laid: open space acquisition and preservation, fine public museums and library systems, a commitment to honoring cultural diversity, an amazing music infrastructure, historic preservation, ongoing comprehensive planning, Bosque restoration and the maintenance of local agriculture, the creation of “urban forests” in parking lots and medians, and the proliferation of volunteers and NGOs who give of themselves for the sake of all of us.
The university, for decades under inspiring early leadership and the influence of design professionals and architects who valued regional culture along with with a clear-headed, responsible faculty, formed not only an image of the university as a uniquely Southwestern place, but also worked to help fulfill two paradoxical goals — one, to be a national-caliber research institution that served the educational needs of a richly diverse local population in one of the poorest states in America; and two, to embrace local and regional culture, realizing that by doing so the university would not become “provincial” but rather a pioneer in diversity and the values of inclusion.
If we were to create thinking groups and goals commissions in the city and the university today, I wonder if they could overcome the polarization of current politics that makes every difference an act of war and the fear of confrontation that comes with trying to do good thinking in a battle zone. I wonder if they could actually explore differences and find some consensus about our vision of the future, what kind of city and university we want to strive for, what sacrifices to make and what opportunities to embrace in the spirit of dynamic progress and self-respect.
Right now it feels as if both the city and the university are little better than flotsam and jetsam, rudderless and without the sense of purpose that individuals and groups need to thrive. This sorry state must not be allowed go on much longer, or both institutions will lose their spirit and allow temporary mediocrity to become a permanent given never again, perhaps, to be transcended.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it