May 1, 2007

NMMI AT WAR; Battle Brewing at Roswell Military Academy As Alums Seek to Oust Leadership

By Story by MARTIN SALAZAR Photographs by RICHARD PIPES Of the Journal 2007 Albuquerque Journal

ROSWELL -- It has produced Pulitzer Prize winners, captains of industry and a movie star or two during its 116-year history. Now, the storied New Mexico Military Institute is at the center of an ugly battle between the school's administration and some alumni.

A number of the institute's graduates from across the country want the ouster of the school's top man, Rear Adm. David R. Ellison, and of Commandant Richard Geraci.

Among their gripes:

The school's enrollment has dropped by nearly a third. In fall 2004, shortly after Ellison came on board, the school had 964 students. It now stands at 671.

The institute's composite ACT score has dropped from 24 in 2005 to 21.8 in 2006. This after the regents had asked that the score go up two points -- to 26.

Critics contend that the school's disciplinary standards have slipped.

They say punishment is inconsistent, that some students caught with liquor aren't thrown out while others are.

"The misinformation is extravagant," counters Ellison, dismissing many of the allegations as sour grapes from people who simply don't want their school -- or any of its traditions -- to change.

"We understand that we have some number -- we think it's a very small number -- of people who are making a lot of noise, trying to overtly and explicitly trash our school," he said in a recent interview.

Geraci, who came to the school in 2005, said he is an alumnus of the institute and has many supporters.

But, in May 2006, the school's official alumni association adopted a list of recommendations, based on concerns about lack of discipline, lack of military bearing and decrease in pride about uniforms and personal appearance.

Lead detractor John Keating is blunt about what he thinks must be done.

"The bottom line is there needs to be a change in leadership," said Keating, a Grapevine, Texas, resident who graduated from NMMI's high school in 1961. "The superintendent must go, and the commandant must go. They've got to be replaced with people that are more into the traditional military values instead of off-the-wall new leadership theories."

Alumni and parents of former students who want Ellison out have sent letters to the governor and to members of the Legislature.

Rooted in tradition

Founded in 1891, the institute is a state military high school and junior college that enrolls students from around the world. All students live on campus. Women have been attending since 1977. The student body, or corps of cadets, begins the day with reveille at 6 a.m. and ends it at 10 p.m. with taps.

Alums include Conrad Hilton, founder of Hilton Hotels; Roger Staubach, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback; Sam Donaldson, ABC News; Chuck Roberts, CNN; actor Owen Wilson, and three Pulitzer Prize winners.

Unlike other colleges, the school is not heavily dependent on enrollment for funding. When state trust lands were divvied up nearly a century ago, NMMI was made a beneficiary of lands rich in oil and gas. It receives the same amount regardless of the number of students.

Income from those trust lands coupled with tuition -- $8,465 for New Mexico residents and $11,705 for outof-state students -- totals about $18.4 million annually and covers the school's operating costs.

Nevertheless, Ellison said that he and everyone associated with the school is concerned about enrollment. But he said neither he nor his staff is to blame for the declines, pointing out that fall enrollment has been going down since 1999.

However, the biggest drop has occurred under Ellison's watch. "Young folks today are not prepared for schools like ours," he said. "They're not prepared for the academic standards that we have here." He said the state's other schools also contend with high attrition rates.

He said many factors cause it: the end of the period when the baby boomers' children were going to college; the fact that enrollment goes down when the economy is doing well; fewer international students attending after 9/11; students who are unprepared or unable to meet standards; and in NMMI's case, the Iraq war.

"What adds to our (enrollment) problem is the fact that we're a military school, which gets hit harder by the Iraq war ...," Ellison said. He said the enrollment drop is in line with what's happening at military schools across the country.

The Association of Military Colleges and Schools didn't have data to confirm that.

The Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo., has had steady enrollment, with growth at its high school. Enrollment at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania dropped yearly from 2002 through 2005. In 2006, it went up.

David Metz, an alumnus and former recruiter for NMMI, says some of Ellison's reasons for having fewer students aren't credible. He said the types of students who attend -- high schoolers and junior college students -- aren't likely to choose a job over school because of a good economy.

High standards

Despite the enrollment drop, the institute refuses to lower its standards, Ellison said.

Last fall, 40 students were placed on academic suspension while another 35 failed to meet disciplinary standards, he said.

"We're holding the line on our standards," he said. "We don't accept the fact that you can come here and just do academics or just be a football player or just be a nice guy."

But J. Penrod Toles, a Roswell attorney whose family has been affiliated with NMMI for nearly a century, disagrees.

"I think most people closer to the situation think that's exactly opposite -- that standards are not being maintained. That's one of the major problems at the school. Rather than maintaining high standards, I think they're not maintaining standards in many areas."

Toles, who is married to the daughter of a man who was NMMI commandant for 30 years, graduated from the school, as did his three sons. He was a regent for 12 years, was on NMMI's foundation board and has a campus building -- the Penrod Toles Learning Center -- named after him.

Toles said that some of the problems were likely occurring before Ellison's arrival but that "they certainly have not gotten better in the last three years, and I've seen evidence that the situation is worse."

On the right path

Ellison's administration has its supporters, including the school's governing board.

"All the board of regents are 100 percent behind what he's doing and what he's trying to accomplish," said Regent Phill Ingram, who graduated from the institute's high school in 1967.

Regents President Bill Armstrong Jr. called Ellison a forward thinker.

"He has made a lot of progress with issues that needed to be addressed, including leadership and discipline," said Armstrong, an alum of the institute. "He's made physical development a primary pillar.

"Any time you do progressive things, you're going to get some push back at all levels."

Armstrong said the only issue regents are concerned about is the enrollment decline. The institute has seen similar numbers in the past during unpopular wars, he said, adding that enrollment recovered then and will again.

Alumni association board of directors president Robert Baker and 18 other current and former leaders of the alumni associations, regents and foundation have signed a letter throwing their support behind Ellison and his team.

"The current efforts by some dissatisfied alumni to discredit the administration and to criticize current programs at NMMI by e-mail campaigns and by contacting various media representatives and state officials are considered misguided and are unquestionably causing undeserved damage to NMMI's reputation," the April 25 letter states.

Wagon Mound resident Brad Christmas, who graduated from the high school in 1970 and whose two sons also attended, said there were some problems a year ago.

"I think they've done a lot to rectify the problems," he said.

Jarod Wagoner, this year's top-ranking cadet, said most of his fellow cadets are happy. He said alumni speaking out against the school are causing morale problems. The few cadets who aren't happy tend to be the most vocal, added Jeremy Smith, another highranking cadet.

Throw out the book

Over the years, NMMI has affectionately been called the West Point of the West.

Now some say it has evolved into not much more than a boarding school that requires uniforms.

"For years, I have been a huge supporter of NMMI. I'm proud I went there, but the NMMI I went to is not the NMMI there now," said Bob Brown, an Oregon resident.

For example, when his daughter arrived on campus in fall 2005, the long-standing rule book that outlined regulations and discipline had been thrown out. Instead, students were told to read an incomplete code posted on the Internet.

He also said the order that had characterized schedules and everything else has disappeared. "As my daughter said, 'They seemed like they made things up as they went along.' ''

He said that, as an alum, he has recruited 24 students. But when neighbors recently approached him about sending their child to NMMI, he advised against it.

"I lay in bed at night and almost cry about this," he said.

Ellison said when he came, the school was leaning more toward being a prep school than a military school. It was more focused on academics than leadership and physical fitness.

He said he was getting complaints from the Army and naval academies that NMMI's students weren't physically fit.

He said there were also problems with cadets being placed into leadership positions and abusing their power.

"My definition of a military school is one that develops the whole person," he said. "It's not a boot camp and it's not a prep school; it's a balance."

Ellison and Geraci said they have moved to a system of progressive discipline, in which cadets are given an initial warning before they are punished.

But that has prompted the complaints about unequal discipline. In one case, students caught with alcohol weren't suspended, even though any use of alcohol on campus is supposed to result in automatic suspension.

Geraci said adult cadets had brought in the alcohol. Younger cadets weren't suspended because they probably felt pressured to drink, he said.

Ellison said punishment officials consider such factors as whether the cadet has been in trouble in the past, just like a judge does when someone gets a speeding ticket.

Cyberspace debate

At about the same time the official alumni association made its recommendations, a separate group, the Alumni Council, said it surveyed 87 students on the Internet. The unscientific results painted a dreary picture. Of those who responded, only three answered yes when asked whether they believed that one standard applied to all. Threefourths said they wouldn't recommend the institute to a prospective cadet.

Discussions about NMMI have also raged on a MySpace message board, where people identifying themselves as current and former cadets have complained about the school's direction and discussed the idea of an outright revolt against the commandant.

NMMI officials say it's not unusual that some students would have animosity toward the commandant, given that he's the school's disciplinarian. They say the survey is not scientific, asked leading questions and lacked safeguards to ensure that only students responded.

Commandant Geraci said many of the recommendations from the alumni association were already in the works.

During a 2005 retreat, regents set goals for the 2005/2006 academic year. Among them: reducing the attrition rate; improving the composite ACT score by two points by fall 2006; enrolling a minimum of 1,000 students for the 2006-07 academic year.

Ellison's administration failed to meet any of those goals.

Addressing the criticism of the dropped ACT score, Donald Beard, principal of the high school, said it's not unusual for the overall score to fluctuate from class to class.

Ellison -- a graduate of the Naval Academy who previously served as superintendent of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. -- said he can't be expected to turn the school around overnight.

Ellison earns $160,000 and is employed on a year-to-year contract.

"I think I'm succeeding in moving the school in the direction it needs to go," he said.

(c) 2007 Albuquerque Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.