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Editorial: Another episode in NM’s painful higher ed soap opera

The soap opera that is higher education governance in New Mexico continues to play out in serial fashion, with one painful episode after another.

NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers

NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers

The latest development: On Wednesday, New Mexico State University Chancellor Garrey Carruthers issued a statement in which he said his public announcement earlier this month that he intended to retire next year was in response to a private conversation in which NMSU regents said they appreciated his “strong leadership” over the past four years but didn’t intend to renew his contract.

In other words, the decision to retire was made for him. That must be tough for a former governor and successful business executive to say publicly.

But before exploring the latest installment, it’s helpful to have some historical context.

Here in New Mexico we have a long, bipartisan tradition where, as the joke goes, regents aren’t just “in the weeds” of running the state’s universities, they are “in the roots.” Where politicians of both parties – from governors to legislators – have been all too willing to weigh in on issues big and small – from who should be president or athletic director to how much of a raise a certain faculty member should get.

Where regent appointments are considered among the most prestigious in the state – perhaps that’s what happens when you have an economy based so heavily on the public sector. And where confirmations in the past couple years have been held hostage by Senate Democrats, allowing them to get around constitutional provisions that wisely set up a system of staggered terms – along with requiring bipartisan membership on boards of regents.

This hasn’t been a case of holding hearings and then voting on nominees like former Hispano Chamber of Commerce CEO Alex Romero. The Senate Rules Committee under the direction of Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, has simply refused to carry out its constitutional duty and hold hearings at all.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D in nuclear physics to figure out that this legislative movida regarding the appointments of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will give a new governor – which the senators hope will be a Democrat – a bunch of regent appointments to fill, making it easier to carry out their agenda.

But back to the latest installment:

Carruthers’ latest public statement follows the dustup created by a pair of op-ed pieces submitted to the Journal by four New Mexico legislators – three Democrats and one Republican – who urged that Carruthers be kept on for “stability.”

One of them, Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, suggested in his op-ed that the decision not to renew Carruthers’ contract was a political move by Martinez. That certainly did nothing to tamp down rumors that perhaps the governor would be interested in being NMSU president when her term ends Dec. 31, 2018.

On Thursday, Journal reporter Dan Boyd asked the governor’s office if there was any truth to that. The response: “No, the governor is not interested in being a chancellor or president of any university. The governor remains focused on leading New Mexico and fighting to make our state stronger.”

As for Carruthers, his latest announcement, in which he said he would be willing to stay on if the regents changed their minds, forces the NMSU regents to make public whether they want Carruthers to stay or go. NMSU Regents Chairwoman Deborah Hicks said the board will now decide whether to extend or decline to extend and start a search for a new president. That decision could come as early as next week.

Whatever they do, let’s hope they don’t resort to the shameful scorched-earth tactics UNM regents used to force former president Bob Frank to resign and move to a position at Health Sciences. It apparently wasn’t enough to seek his ouster; they seemingly did all they could to make him radioactive in seeking another university president’s job.

Meanwhile, uncertainty continues to surround how long Chaouki Abdallah will continue as interim president at UNM. Like Carruthers, he has strong community and faculty support but has on occasion ruffled regent feathers.

Both Carruthers and Abdallah have done exceptional work leading their respective schools through difficult budget challenges.

That’s more than can be said of many others who have, or have had, roles in this long-running New Mexico soap opera.

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.

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