Was UNM van used for political protest or education?

Jessica Dyer
Albuquerque Journal
A rendering of what Holtec International's interim nuclear waste repository would look like if completed.

ALBUQUERQUE – Complaints that a University of New Mexico instructor and her students traveled in a university van to speak against a proposed nuclear waste storage facility have prompted new questions on campus about how to govern community engagement.

Eileen Shaughnessy, a lecturer in UNM's sustainability studies program, last month drove a group of students to southern New Mexico to attend public hearings on Holtec International's application to build a nuclear waste storage facility between Carlsbad and Hobbs.

She said she did not consider it an inappropriate use of the UNM vehicle but rather a relevant educational exercise.

"My personal pedagogy and approach to education is the classroom extends beyond a traditional four walls, and because this topic is one that is deeply connected to sustainability, I saw it as a great opportunity to continue the learning," Shaughnessy said in an interview.

But supporters of the Holtec project viewed it as problematic – especially since Shaughnessy and some of her students voiced opposition to the Holtec plan at the meetings.

State Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, said he contacted the state higher education secretary after someone sent him pictures of the UNM van at the events, and the secretary told him she would forward his message to UNM.

"My question was whether that UNM van ferrying (Shaughnessy) and those students to protest the Holtec interim storage application was an appropriate use of state resources," said Scott, who said he supports the interim storage facility project.
Scott said he has since spoken directly to UNM President Garnett Stokes, who told him the provost's office would follow up with him this week.

On their trip to southern New Mexico last month, Shaughnessy's group attended public hearings in Hobbs and Carslbad about Holtec International's application. The group also visited the site of the proposed Holtec facility during what turned out to be a closed meeting of people connected to the proposal.

Shaughnessy, who said she had originally thought the meeting was open, said there were also some sign-wielding opponents at the site, and some of her students may have voiced dissent while there, though she stopped short of calling it a protest.

"That's within their right (to speak against it)," she said. "But ... I didn't encourage anybody, and we left pretty shortly after it was clear the meeting was closed."

She said her group departed within a half-hour of arriving, but someone there did question her about driving the UNM van in what she described as a "somewhat" confrontational exchange.

Richard Wood, the UNM administrator who handles faculty discipline, said UNM fielded a couple of complaints about the UNM field trip.

He has since had a "coaching session" with Shaughnessy, in which they discussed how using the van for this purpose was "at least right on the boundary of violating (university) policy" that prohibits using university resources for political activity.

But Wood said a public hearing is a legitimate educational setting, students have a right to express their views and there was no evidence Shaughnessy coerced them to oppose the project.

He said he determined she was "operating in good faith" on the trip and attempting to follow policy.

But questions about the trip have prompted UNM to begin drafting new guidelines to supplement and clarify its existing policy on political activity.

Originally written more than 20 years ago, Wood said it does not reflect the trend toward a more community-minded higher education experience.

While the policy obviously would ban reproducing political candidate petitions on UNM copy machines, for instance, he said it should be clearer on matters like appropriate behavior at public hearings.

"Helping expose students to the democratic process is an important part of higher education," he said. "We just have to do it right."