Did ranchers fire a university president?

 

When New Mexico State University's president, J. Michael Orenduff, was fired last month, the university's Board of Regents said it was because he had pushed the school's athletic program $1 million in the red. Now it appears his removal may have been punishment for offending the state's traditional ranching interests.

The story is rooted in media mogul (and ranch owner) Ted Turner's April comments to NMSU journalism students. Turner, who runs 1,000 head of buffalo on 200,000 acres near Truth or Consequences, N.M., called cattle ranching "a foolish thing to do, a mistake." He added, "Bison don't really belong here either." The remarks drew heavy criticism from New Mexico's ranching community, including the president of the university's Board of Regents, Larry Sheffield, himself a rancher and the president of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.

Sheffield did not return phone calls, but Orenduff said that a few days after Turner's speech, Sheffield told him that the remarks would "cause the university a lot of trouble." Sheffield sent a letter to his board of regents demanding that the university repudiate Turner's remarks. Similar letters followed from ranchers around the state, including the head of the state Cattle Growers' Association, Bill Humphries, a former member of the board of regents.

But Orenduff, a Texas native who grew up around ranching, refused to comply. "Larry was very upset about the speech and I tried to explain to him about the University's role as a forum for free speech," Orenduff said. But the regents voted to put him on administrative leave May 16, and to fire him on June 3. William Conroy, the university's former executive vice president, was named to replace him. John Owens, former dean of the Department of Agriculture and Home Economics, and a popular figure with ranchers, has taken over Conroy's old job.

None of the regents returned phone calls, including Carl Faubion, who is also a rancher.

Orenduff, a philosophy professor and former chancellor of the University of Maine system, does not specifically blame his firing on ranching interests, but he says his removal was strange. He called the shortfall in the school's athletic budget routine, and attributed it to the firing of a football coach whose contract had to be bought out.

"The regents never discussed with me any shortcomings in my performance," Orenduff said in a phone interview. "I had regular lunches with (Sheffield) as recently as three weeks before this happened and he was telling me what a good job I was doing."

Clyde Eastman, a professor of rural sociology and president of the university's faculty senate, called the events surrounding Orenduff's removal "bizarre." Asked about the regents' claims about the athletic department budget, Eastman said, "No one believes those. From 1954 to 1994, this institution had three presidents. We have been a bastion of stability and now we fire our president after two years in town? That's not the way we do business here."

* Peter Chilson, HCN associate editor