Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
One of the country’s most decentralized higher education systems will likely stay that way for now.
A committee convened by the state Higher Education Department to study potential changes to university and college governance in New Mexico is recommending no changes to the current model – one that features 21 governing boards overseeing 31 public institutions.
HED Secretary Barbara Damron called the result “a bit of a disappointment,” if not a surprise, and remains unconvinced the status quo is ideal. In fact, she is advocating for additional research into possible consolidation among the state’s two-year institutions.
“There was not a silver bullet, magic answer to how we as a state should be governed,” Damron said. “(But) I do not feel keeping our 21 governing boards is the way to go. I feel it needs further study.”
The committee looked at every other state’s higher education structure and did not identify a perfect solution for New Mexico – at least not anything that would save money, Damron said. New Mexico today devotes 12.3 percent of its general appropriations to higher education – $745 million this fiscal year.
The distance problem
The committee considered various scenarios, such as consolidating all institutions’ governance into one “super-board,” which it determined would not cut costs and could create new problems by distancing decision makers from the schools themselves. It also dismissed a pair of two-board models; one model featured a board for all four-year institutions and another board for the two-year schools; the other model would create a University of New Mexico-headed system with all the state’s northern schools, and a southern system headed by New Mexico State University. But Damron said grouping institutions with such different missions made those less attractive.
Committee co-chair and Western New Mexico University President Joe Shepard said the group’s study of other states found no consolidated model compelling enough to recommend any major change in New Mexico, particularly given concerns about ceding what are now institution-level decisions to what could be a distant governing body.
“We don’t want to lose the local control,” he said.
Change HED instead?
However, he said the committee does seek improved coordination among institutions – something it thought could be achieved by changing the Higher Education Department. It suggested replacing what is now a cabinet-level agency led by a governor appointee to a council with representatives from various constituencies and increased authority to determine direction and over-arching policy. It could also promote consistency amid changing governors, Shepard said.
New Mexico previously had a higher education commission, but the Legislature in 2005 voted to replace it with a cabinet department.
Damron said sitting in the governor’s cabinet enhances collaboration with other executive agencies, like the Public Education Department, but that having a council – rather than the governor – appoint the state’s higher education chief could lend stability across administrations.
But like university governance, she said there is “no one answer.”
The study began last summer as part of a larger master-planning process Damron’s department had begun in 2016 and in response to growing statewide interest in possible consolidation.
Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, and Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, sponsored a joint memorial during last year’s Legislature requesting that the Higher Education Department study the costs and benefits of New Mexico’s system “in comparison with other systems, including unitary systems and their variations.”
Damron convened three subcommittees – one focused on alternative governance structures around the country to identify any possible changes in New Mexico. Its recommendations would filter to the other subcommittees to study the financial implications and possible legal or constitutional amendments necessary to accommodate them.
More than half of the 19 governance subcommittee members came from the institutions themselves, including several presidents; Central New Mexico Community College President Kathie Winograd served as co-chair with Shepard. Among the others were Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Terri Cole; Department of Workforce Solutions Secretary Celina Bussey; and New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey.
While the study did not yield a perfect solution for New Mexico, Damron said it at least ruled out some alternatives, such as having one board.
“I’m sad we don’t have the one answer,” she said. “I’m not surprised where it landed, (but) there’s some analysis overall that answers some questions for us – that (way) we don’t have to keep wondering.”
She said she would like to further consider grouping the state’s community colleges and branch campuses under the same umbrella, whether that is a governing or “coordinating” board. All would still maintain at least a local advisory board, but Damron said she thinks efficiencies are possible and is already in conversations with many institutions.
“I don’t see one board for universities doing much for us here in our state,” she said. “But I do recommend we look very carefully at the possibility of one over-arching governing board for the independent (community colleges) and the branches.”