Editor’s Note: This story has been edited with the correct language from Sen. Papen’s letter.
SANTA FE – Frustration over allegations of political interference at New Mexico’s colleges and universities boiled over Wednesday on the Senate floor.
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, ignited the debate by calling for regents at New Mexico State University to resign – centering on their decision, she said, to strip power from outgoing Chancellor Garrey Carruthers, who sometimes has been at odds with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
Then other senators chimed in with broad complaints about politics at the University of New Mexico, too.
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, told his colleagues that they should share in the blame because they have often failed even to hold hearings to confirm regents appointed by Gov. Martinez. In some cases, that means the regents can’t serve.
“I’m very frustrated by the politics on all sides,” Candelaria said.
Papen, in turn, invited her fellow senators to sign on to her letter, which was addressed to the chief of staff for the NMSU regents. It asks the regents to resign, calling their latest action “drastic and questionable.”
NMSU Regent Chairwoman Debra Hicks said Wednesday afternoon that she has no plans to step down. She said the board was trying to ensure a smooth leadership transition when it passed a resolution this week that limited Carruthers’ hiring authority. With a new chancellor expected this summer, Carruthers is no longer allowed to permanently fill certain higher-level positions that might come open, and even some coaching jobs.
“You don’t want to go and hire those key positions right before you put a new (chancellor) in,” Hicks said.
She said the decision was “not at all” directed by the Martinez administration.
Neither Hicks nor Carruthers could say exactly how many positions the regents’ new resolution covered, but Carruthers said the final version encompassed more than he expected based on his previous conversations with regents about their plan.
“It’s a whole lot of people,” he said.
Carruthers last year announced his plans to retire July 1, but later acknowledged regents had previously told him they did not plan to extend his contract. Even after he publicly declared his willingness to stay longer, the board voted in August to start searching for his replacement.
Asked Wednesday about his relationship with the board, he said, “I love my regents. It’s just been one big, happy time right after another.”
On the Senate floor, Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, said he would sign Papen’s letter. He said regents over the past seven years haven’t always made decisions in the best interest of their institutions.
“My sense is we continue to be lied to,” Sapien said.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said outside political forces are telling regents what to do.
“The fact is, we have regents who have very deep financial ties to the administration, ” Cervantes said, without identifying anyone in particular.
The dust-up comes after Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed funding for higher education during a budget standoff last year. Critics said it led to uncertainty that damaged university operations.
Martinez said the removal of higher education funding was just temporary – a move to ensure the budget would be balanced if she and lawmakers didn’t reach agreement on a full spending plan for state government. The funding was restored before the start of the fiscal year.
The Senate this year didn’t hold confirmation hearings on any of Martinez’s three appointees to the UNM Board of Regents.
Journal Staff Writer Jessica Dyer contributed to this report.