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Summit explores higher education governance models

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico has 31 public colleges and universities, and 21 governing boards to go with them – a setup that has prompted many around the state to question its efficiency.

It has also apparently made the state something of a national curiosity.

Jamie Merisotis

“This is a novel arrangement; I think we can go ahead and admit that,” Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said of New Mexico. “From outside the state, I think we are intrigued by it.”

Krause – whose own state has just eight higher education governing boards, including one overseeing all community colleges – is among a dozen higher education officials and national experts who spoke Thursday at the New Mexico Higher Education Department’s Governance Summit.

Secretary Barbara Damron convened the summit in Albuquerque to expand the ongoing dialogue about possible changes to New Mexico’s structure. A statewide committee Damron organized last year to study potential governance alternatives ultimately recommended maintaining the existing structure, a result she said did not satisfy lawmakers or the governor. In opening the summit Thursday, Damron said the discussions and feedback it generates will inform a governance recommendation she plans to make to the legislature and Gov. Susana Martinez in the coming months.

Many summit speakers noted that governance structures vary tremendously across states and that a perfect model has not revealed itself.

David Tandberg, vice president of policy research and strategic initiatives for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said he recommends states do what New Mexico is doing now – take stock of its own system, demographics and culture, and make decisions that best suit it.

“While you’ll never have a unanimous decision – we’re not going to skip out of this room singing ‘Pollyanna’; there’s going to be disagreement – accomplishing some shared vision and as much agreement around your approach as possible is probably the best recipe for success you can have in approaching governance,” he said.

Keynote speaker Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the higher education-focused Lumina Foundation, offered several pieces of advice as New Mexico continues to evaluate, and potentially modify, its system. Most important, he said, is recognizing and accounting for the modern student population. More than 40 percent of full-time students today are over 25, he said. Forty percent of students work at least 20 hours per week, while 13 percent of students attend school exclusively online.

“You need to make sure this state’s higher education system is designed first, foremost and always to serve today’s students. You must keep their needs – not the needs of the institutions or the employers or state policy makers or anyone else – at the center and top of the agenda,” he said.