Across the country, state governments have been slashing and burning funding to higher education in a trend that has only been accelerating in recent years. When shifting the funding model for higher education from a greater share of state support to one funded by higher tuition and student fees, governors and legislative leaders often point to what they see as questionable spending practices at colleges and universities in their respective states. Presently, administrators at the University of New Mexico are on the hot seat for just such a decision. And while the saying goes that “There is no such thing as bad publicity,” don’t tell that to UNM’s President Robert G. Frank today!
He and his institution are under fire for an expenditure that likely makes up no more than approximately .000001% of the budget for the state’s flagship school that serves 36,000 students and does all sorts of good works in his diverse, economically-challenged state. His university has become a trending topic on Facebook and a leading story on national news sites simply because of one headline-grabbing word—Bigfoot!
The basics of the recent story are perhaps more unbelievable than anyone reporting that they had seen Sasquatch themselves. It seems that Dr. Christopher Dyer, the head of the largest branch campus in the UNM system, the University of New Mexico-Gallup, has a unique area of study that consumes his time when not overseeing the campus. However, his specialty is uncommon, in that if you want a Bigfoot expert, he’s your man! And so when UNM-Gallup held a Bigfoot Conference on campus—with the university expending over $7,000 on the event—an event which by the way, no local students or faculty attended—the proverbial Sasquatch droppings hit the fan for University of New Mexico President Robert G. Frank. When interviewed on the matter, Dr. Frank stated that he knew nothing about the event or the expenditures—including an expedition for conference attendees to travel at university expense to “hunt” for Bigfoot in the Sandia Mountains.
So, what is the lesson to be learned for public executives from this matter that likely made you chuckle? The sad truth is that it is often the smallest of matters that can bring down the reputation of any agency and the credibility—and careers—of its leaders. This is the reality today not just in the college or university environment, but at all levels of government. Is a $7,000 outlay one that should be of high concern in the 10-figure budgets for individual institutions and entire higher systems? Is it one that top executives should know of and focus upon without the glare of the local I-team’s cameras?
One thing is for certain in that this case shows the tension between the “accounting brain” and “the public relations brain” that is vitally necessary to be present not just in the mind of public executives, but instilled throughout the entire organization. And so however you label it—the “smell” test, the “how would this look as a headline in the local paper,” test, etc.—agency leaders must encourage a degree of responsibility in spending. This is especially true when it comes to outlays that may seem perfectly logical within an office or even an entire organization, but lead both overseers and outside interests to ask—smiling or not-so-politely as in most non-”Bigfoot research” related cases—just “what the blank” were they thinking!
So the next time you encounter a case of questionable spending in your agency, simply apply the “Bigfoot Test” (hopefully before the fact), and you will likely not come out nearly as smelly—or in trouble—as one does when you might encounter Sasquatch!