Senator questions politics’ role in higher education

A veteran New Mexico lawmaker says he’s troubled by what he sees as politics’ increasingly significant role in public university governance.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said Wednesday that the governor-appointed and state senate-approved regent boards making major decisions at universities and colleges should feel more responsibility toward their institutions than to the elected officials who put them in place. Smith, a senate member for 29 years, said his concern spans multiple administrations and political parties.

“What I have found in the last few years (is) a lot of the board of regents are loyal to the governor because of the appointment, and that’s happened under a couple, three different governors since I’ve been here,” Smith said during a higher education town hall forum hosted by the Journal, KANW-FM and the New Mexico Council of University Presidents.

That was just one comment on a wide range of issues brought up during the forum; the Journal will have a comprehensive look at the event in Sunday’s paper.

Regent appointments became a hot-button issue during the past legislative session when the senate failed to conduct confirmation hearings on many of Gov. Susana Martinez’s regent nominees.

Smith said the boards should place more stock in the on-site leaders at their respective institutions.

“We’ve got some very, very bright people, administrators overseeing higher education in the state of New Mexico, and I appreciate their efforts,” he said. “I fully expect when they have to make the tough decisions, they’ve always briefed the board of regents, but I think the board of regents needs to support their administration rather than the people that are appointing them.”

Wednesday’s discussion also covered the funding challenges the schools face due to state budget cuts, what they’ve done to respond, and the innovations happening at the statewide and institutional level. Smith, like Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, joined by phone from Farmington. Also participating were New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron and the leaders of the University of New Mexico, Chaouki Abdallah; New Mexico State University, Garrey Carruthers; Central New Mexico Community College, Kathie Winograd; and Western New Mexico University, Joseph Shepard; as well as NMSU faculty President Chris Brown.

The panelists also weighed in on whether New Mexico’s 31 public post-secondary institutions were too many – there was no consensus. But there was agreement about the value of higher education.

“I do believe our challenges are great, but we face the possibility of a much larger catastrophe if we forget how important higher education is to our economy and the social health of our state,” Winograd said.

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