The latest candidate for the dean of the newly organized College of Arts and Sciences at Western New Mexico University was in Silver City on Monday and Tuesday, April 1 and 2.
José Herrera received his bachelor's degree, with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry, and a master's degree in biology from Northern Illinois University. He continued and finished his doctorate in microbiology from Kansas State University in 1996.
That same year, he started working in the Department of Biology at Truman State University, where he served as chairman of the department from 2009-2011. During his tenure at Truman State, he collaborated with many undergraduate students to co-author articles. Most of the projects were undertaken at or near Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. At present, Herrera is program director at the National Science Foundation in the Division of Undergraduate Education.
He is the grandson of migrant Mexican farmworkers in California, but his mother immigrated to work manufacturing jobs in Chicago, where he was raised in the Hispanic area of Little Village on the southwest side of the city.
"Most of what I want to say today is about my vision for Western," Herrera said. "I want it fairly informal. I value interactions as faculty members with individual students.
"We must always put the focus on the students and allow them to interact with faculty," Herrera continued. "During the next five to 10 years, depending on how President Shepard does it, along with the deans, we will propagate the university outside of Silver City. The field station at Sevilleta, in 1991, was one trailer. Today it is a huge complex."
He said when he spoke to people in El Paso, they didn't know about Western New Mexico University. "It's a marketing issue. It's where students learn in the arts, music and the sciences. My job would be to gather resources and write grants. I want to hear your concerns and let you hear my opinions."
The first audience member to ask a question inquired how Herrera sees collaboration between the College of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences.
"It has to be integral," Herrera answered. "The College of Arts and Sciences must have a dean be accountable to build a relationship between the two colleges."
Another questioner asked how Herrera would deal with the College of Arts and Sciences, as the largest college, as it is presently organized.
"It will be a challenge," Herrera said. "I would have to build relationships with the department chairs, and I would have to be transparent on how much money is available for each department. The intention is to build trust amongst each other, especially to be transparent with the budget."
A member of the search committee asked him what community means to him and how he would be a part of it.
"The community is larger than interacting among department chairs," Herrera said. "Community is larger than Silver City, and we have to think about outside the town. All individual units have to contribute. A community member must trust you, and you have to trust the community members. When I was at Truman State, when I was chair, it took a couple of years to make connections among the faculty, administration and students. It takes time."
Another audience member asked a follow up to the previous question. She said community service is a part of the curriculum and asked how Herrera would deal with it.
"If I am hired, I would need to do a needs assessment," Herrera said. "I don't know yet what activities are available."
The search committee member said the area has limited resources and asked him how he would make sure the resources are allocated to benefit the students.
"Part of my job is to bring in resources," Herrera said. "It has to be based on data, and proposals have to have data to support them."
An audience member asked Herrera about when he was department chair, what he found most rewarding, most frustrating and most challenging.
"Interacting with faculty was very rewarding, as well as becoming a resource for students. The most challenging is when dealing with resources and how to allocate them even with the rationale for the allocation. Frustrating? There are some faculty, no matter how transparent you are, who will disagree with what you do. You have to come up with the answer why the decision was made. You must make a convincing argument."
A questioner asked the candidate how long he had been at the National Science Foundation and why he wanted to quit.
"I've been there two years," Herrera said. "I've been coming to New Mexico since 1991. I spent three weeks at Sevilleta and I got bit. I've been coming back at least once a year. I would also see it as a way to interact with Hispanic students. I see it as a wonderful opportunity for myself."
A questioner said Truman State is a leader in assessment. She asked how he would get assessments at Western.
"Assessment is a two-edged sword," Herrera said. "It is difficult to come to consensus. Ninety percent of it is how to come up with the rubric that everyone can use and will work. I don't claim to be an assessment expert. We needs folks from educational psychology to come up with the assessment for each department and discipline. I would have to rely on department chairs and communal group brains to inform the decisions."
A student asked what Herrera would want to accomplish in his first year.
"I would learn the landscape," Herrera said, "the geographical, political, budgetary and the university's satellite system. You have a unique mission to serve not only four-year students, but also two-year students. I would have to do a needs assessment in every department and build trust."
A questioner asked what his personal goals were, how he would achieve his mission and his chief weaknesses.
"I would build relationships with the faculty and other schools," Herrera said. "I have no specifics, because I am ignorant of the intricacies here. There has to be collaborative buy in from the faculty and buy in from the students. My weaknesses are a lack of neurons to make a decision. I need people much brighter than I to help me make decisions."
A student asked about technology at Western.
"I need to understand what you have," Herrera said. "The president told me you are behind in technology, and it would take a little bit to leapfrog other competitors. Any public institution has tech challenges." While he was at Truman State, he said the state formula funding flipped from 70 percent state funding and 30 percent tuition to 30 percent state and 70 percent from tuition. "That gives students a larger voice. Part of my job, as I see it, would be to get resources, by using a needs assessment."
Another asked how comfortable Herrera would be moving to a rural community with specific challenges.
Herrera said the area has similarities to Truman State, where the town had 17,000 people and the county, 25,000. The next largest town was 100 miles down the road. "I spent 16 years in Kirksville, Missouri. The difference with here is demographic. That is one thing that attracts me. Working at the National Science Foundation is giving me a perspective I would never have had. You have to work with the resources given to you, and take data strings to make decisions. You can't worry about decisions made above you."
An audience member asked if he had any ideas for international development.
"There is an open opportunity, but I don't understand the details of the opportunity," Herrera said. "It would offer me the chance to use my language skills to work along the border. I talk to Mexican nationals, and they don't understand how small schools offer relationships and what they can build. I think they would be hooked by smaller schools. That pipeline could be used to benefit Western."
A questioner asked his experience with faculty providing English as a Second Language.
"I volunteered for years with migrant workers at a meat-packing plant," Herrera said. "ESL was a need."
Herrera said, in answer to a question, that students need a voice in what is happening on campus. "We need to reach out to alumni to find out what worked for them and what didn't work. That can help current students, even though students may disagree on the need for a course."
He was asked about his approach to conflict resolution.
"Every conflict is individual," Herrera said. "You have to take into account every individual in the conflict. You have to be good at social skills. Sometimes, let's talk it out; sometimes, it is better to separate them; and sometimes, it's best to do nothing."
"How does individuality get nourished in Chicago?" an audience member asked.
"Where we come from makes a difference," Herrera said. "Individuals have to be considered. I had to leave Chicago to understand that not everyone was brown. The school I went to was predominantly African-American or Hispanic. When I left, I discovered individuals are where they come from."
As for his outside-the-university interests, Herrera said he was interested in birding and hiking. "It's hard to find in D.C. I'm also an amateur historian. I love to read history. Work is also my hobby, and I find it exciting."
To a question about service learning being a requirement for graduation, Herrera said service learning is place-based and has to take advantage of what is available, by understanding where the needs are.
"What kind of ligatures would the dean have with the community," an audience member asked.
"We would have to open up communications between the university and the community," Herrera said. "I think Dr. Shepard understands this. The dean has to rely on trust. Open the doors and give community members tours of the facilities, the labs and the classrooms.
"Thank you for wonderful questions," Herrera concluded. "I hope whoever you hire that you can trust that dean."