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Editorial: Strong leaders are crucial as higher ed transitions

The evolution of higher education, wrought by changing demographics, technologies and economics, is forcing colleges and universities to re-evaluate who, where and how they will educate students in coming decades. The institutions that embrace the changes needed to keep them relevant will succeed, as will the students they teach.

To New Mexico’s credit, its Department of Higher Education and key leaders at its universities and colleges recognize those changes and are at work planning how to address them. Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron has enlisted about 100 university administrators, faculty, lawmakers, business leaders, public school educators and others statewide to discuss the best structure for the state’s system, which now consists of 31 colleges and universities with multiple branches and even “twigs” of those branches. The groups hope to present recommendations to the Legislature and governor by the end of the year.

Two important players in that process are, not surprisingly, the presidents of the state’s largest universities – New Mexico State University Chancellor Garrey Carruthers and the University of New Mexico’s interim President Chaouki Abdallah. Both recognized early on that New Mexico’s current model for higher education will not be sustainable in the decades ahead.

College and university enrollments have declined nationwide. In New Mexico, enrollment has fallen from 155,065 in 2010 to 133,830 in 2016. Student populations are changing too, with far more “nontraditional” students – those entering college well after high school and upgrading their education to better compete in the job market. And those students are increasingly taking courses online, calling into question the necessity of having 77 different “entry points” to higher education.

In New Mexico, higher education funding is still overly dependent on government and oil/gas industry revenues, leading to repeated cuts in higher education funding. And scholarships funded by the New Mexico Lottery have fallen from 100 percent of tuition to 60 percent beginning in the fall semester. That model is also failing.

Carruthers has recognized, and met, many of those challenges at NMSU by trimming the university’s budget by $38 million and eliminating more than 700 positions. Abdallah and his predecessor, Bob Frank, have also trimmed UNM’s budget by millions while ensuring the least negative impact on students. And Abdallah has done his part while dealing with a financially out-of-control athletics department that has cost the university millions.

Carruthers has announced he will retire next summer when his current contract runs out, but he’s also said he may be willing to stay on beyond that if it would benefit the university. Abdallah has repeatedly said he does not want the UNM job on a permanent basis, but is willing to stay at the helm until a new president is hired.

It has been suggested by a few that Carruthers’ leave-taking may be driven by politics, a suggestion roundly rejected by the Governor’s Office. And certainly, politics should not be part of the equation.

Given Carruthers’ and Abdallah’s familiarity with the storm heading toward higher education – and their willingness to work across constituencies to prepare for them – it’s an inopportune time to lose either of them. Both universities – and New Mexico – would benefit if they stayed at their helms. But the first step would be for one or both to step up quickly and announce they want to lead their university forward – and not for just one year.

Barring that, the universities are smart to move toward finding NMSU and UNM’s next leaders. We are at a tipping point for our state’s institutes of higher learning, and it’s crucial that the best leaders are in place to oversee the state’s two largest universities as they transition into the future.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.