You're picking on ranchers

  Dear HCN,


I read in stunned amazement your story June 23 that was not only totally off-base on the premise but factually incorrect as well. When the reporter called me, I told him for the record that if he wrote a story based on the false premise that big, bad ranchers were behind the firing of New Mexico State University president Michael Orenduff, the story would be incorrect.


The NMSU board of regents met June 28 and released a large file full of serious charges that resulted in the firing of Orenduff, and it included not one mention of farmers or ranchers upset with Ted Turner's visit to NMSU.


The reporter also got it completely wrong when he wrote that Regent Larry Sheffield, president of the board, was a rancher and president of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau. I've known Larry a long time. He is not in the ranching business or president of this organization. He is a local businessman here in Las Cruces. Our president is John Van Sweden of Raton, N.M., and we're happy to report that he is a rancher.


Yes, we were upset with Ted Turner's ignorant comments about our industry when he was on our campus, and said so in a statewide news release, but the NMSU board of regents had many more serious concerns about the leadership at our land- grant institution.


Orenduff, according to the regents, got fired for a long list of things, including: negotiating important, long-term contracts without informing the regents; failing to advise the regents of a serious budget deficit in a major department; missing the last critical days of the state legislative session to go to Reno, Nev., for a basketball game; putting the university's federal contract and grant funds at risk; failing to inform the regents of major issues facing the school; errors in expense reimbursements, and on and on. That's the real story and there is more to come.


Finally, as a graduate of NMSU journalism department, I was concerned, as was our board of directors, about a possible grant from the Turner Foundation to the department. The strings attached would have had students "producing written and broadcast reports about the activities of Southwestern environmental groups." Paying for one-sided news stories is totally unethical - maybe even by your standards.





Erik Ness


Las Cruces, New Mexico





The writer is head of public relations at the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.





PETER CHILSON RESPONDS:


I stand by the story's point captured in the headline, "Did ranchers fire a university president?" I spoke with J. Michael Orenduff and faculty senate president Clyde Eastman, who both felt the regents were unforthcoming about all the reasons for Orenduff's dismissal. Moreover, Orenduff said that three weeks before his firing, Van Sweden had told him he was doing a fine job and never raised the allegations that Erik Ness discusses in his letter. In fact, the Board of Regents chose not to explain itself until after the firing. It's curious, as well, that I left messages with every board member, and not one returned my calls. Erik Ness, although he writes as if he were intimate with the regents' thoughts, has no official connections to NMSU, and HCN has yet to hear from the university itself.


But I incorrectly reported the respective positions of Larry Sheffield and John Van Sweden on New Mexico State University's Board of Regents (HCN, 6/23/97). Van Sweden is a rancher and president of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, not Sheffield. I apologize for the mistake.


Finally, HCN is not the only newspaper to report the ranching angle of Orenduff's dismissal. In its June 19-25 edition, a local paper, The Bulletin of Las Cruces, N.M., published essentially the same story under the subheadline, "Orenduff says he fell victim to ranchers, "meddling" regents."