The Latin American and Iberian Institute is losing a reluctant director and professor because he feels UNM simply isn't paying him enough.
At the end of this semester, Gilbert Merkx will clean out his desk and bid farewell to the office he has occupied for 20 years. He said it has everything to do with money.
"I probably never would have thought about leaving UNM if not for the finances," Merkx said.
He said a full professor at UNM might earn anywhere from $50,000-$55,000 annually, but an assistant professor with fewer qualifications could earn $65,000 at many other institutions.
"Because UNM's salary structure has fallen so far behind other institutions, people know we can be recruited because we're making 20 to 30 percent less than professors at other institutions," Merkx said. "Chronic underfunding of UNM has put us at risk for losing a lot of faculty, and I guess my wife and I are evidence of that."
Merkx completed his undergraduate education at Harvard University, studied anthropology in Peru for one year and then earned his master's and doctorate degrees in sociology at Yale University. He taught general sociology at Yale and then came to UNM in 1968. But after 33 years of service to UNM, Merkx is calling it quits.
Merkx said he and his wife, a political science professor, will be relocating to North Carolina to begin careers at Duke University. Merkx has accepted a position as vice provost for International Affairs and Development and will oversee all of Duke's numerous international programs.
"Duke University recruited us very aggressively, and they've made major investments in Latin American research," Merkx said as he straightened his tie that displayed scattered UNM logos.
He added that 35 percent of Duke students study abroad during their undergraduate studies, whereas only 2 or 3 percent of UNM's students study abroad.
Merkx said when he came to UNM in the 1960s, he thought it was poised for success. He said the University could attract professionals from outside of New Mexico at the time, but not anymore. Despite a 6.5 percent salary increase, Merkx said the only way UNM will get back into a competitive position is to sustain that increase for several years.
Even though Merkx said UNM is more competitive in many areas than other universities that receive higher funding, he admitted that a major factor in his decision was UNM's poor funding during the past 20 years.
"I'd like to go to a university where I feel I can make a difference and there are enough resources," Merkx said. "You can do a lot on a shoestring, but only for so long. At some point you've done all you can do. At some point you run out of steam."
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Merkx said he is concerned about the future of UNM. Unless UNM can become competitive in terms of salary, he said, it will never again be competitive in attracting experts to join the faculty. Although Merkx said he has worked for nine provosts and six presidents that have all been supportive of the Latin American program, he said the lack of funding scares away good faculty.
"You can spend 20 years building a great program here and then lose it because of lost faculty," he said.
UNM President William Gordon said that, though he is sorry to see Merkx go, the frustrations Merkx voiced are echoes of what UNM has been telling the Legislature for the last several years.
"Salary and compensation are our number one priority," Gordon said. "The strategy that we've taken over the last few years is to really emphasize a gradual plan that would enable us over a period of a few years to reach the compensation levels of other institutions."
Gordon added that he thinks UNM has made substantial progress this year.
"There won't be many other public institutions that will see a 6 to 7 percent salary increase like we have," he said.
In spite of the salary increase, Merkx said the Legislature has not quite figured it out.
"What they don't understand, and I doubt the governor understands, is that there is a market for education," Merkx said. "We may be well paid by New Mexico's standard, but we are still underpaid in the market overall."
Gordon added that "if the Legislature wants New Mexico to compete as a state, then certainly UNM has to be able to compete with its peer institutions."
Merkx said no replacement has been found for him at this point, but the provost will conduct an internal search and fill the position with an interim director for one or two years. In the meantime, Merkx will need to shop for a new tie.