Editor’s Note: University president and former Gov. Garrey Carruthers sat down with Journal senior editor Kent Walz to talk about the accomplishments – and frustrations – in his decades of politics, business and public service.
As New Mexico State University Chancellor Garrey Carruthers wraps up this stage of a public life that has included four years as governor, a stint as an assistant secretary of Interior and succeeding where many have failed with a start-up health insurance business, he’s looking forward to some down time after “64 years with 30 days off.”
But Carruthers, 78, a farm kid turned college professor from Aztec, who is known for his humor, affable ways and references to the “Cowboy Code of Ethics,” is still “Riding for the Brand.”
He is fully engaged and clear-eyed about the state he loves, the challenges it faces and what he sees as the path forward.
“When I was in my mid-40s and early 50s in public life, I probably had 100 different solutions to New Mexico’s problems,” he said. “Now I’m down to about one. And that is, we need to have a better prepared labor force.”
Translation: There really are no silver bullets for problems like a perennially anemic economy and dismal education outcomes.
“I remember as governor (1987-90) I was told the secret to success was interstate banking, because Arizona had it. So I signed the interstate banking bill. Guess what? The small banks that had opposed it gleefully sold to the big banks, so that didn’t help the capital flow at all. It wasn’t the silver bullet it was supposed to be.”
A graduate of NMSU, longtime professor and former dean of its business school, Carruthers has been president of the university since June 2013. His contract expires next month, and the school’s regents have announced five finalists to succeed him.
Carruthers has shepherded NMSU through tough budget times that have challenged all of the state’s colleges and universities, overseeing a downsizing there of about 800 employees.
“We have changed,” he said. “We had to.”
But he remains convinced that education is the path forward, albeit with changes.
“We’ve misidentified higher education,” he said. “It needs to be defined more broadly to include things like welding, HVAC operators and mechanics. We need more two-year college and technical degrees, and we need to spend more to have an internationally competitive workforce.”
And that workforce needs to be a combination of hard skills and soft skills, with continuous training.
“As you get older, you simplify,” he said. “And that’s my simplification.”
“We also need to emphasize crossing the finish line, with scholarships not aimed just at first- and second-year students, but more on the back end to help juniors and seniors graduate, rather than not finish, but still having to deal with student debt and no diploma.
“And we need to talk about this message of higher education earlier … sixth or seventh grade, and get kids on campus when they are young.”
Class of 1964
Carruthers graduated from NMSU in 1964 with a degree in agriculture and followed it with a master’s in agricultural economics, also from NMSU, and a Ph.D. in economics from Iowa State University.
He met his wife, Kathy, at NMSU, where she was a student. They’ve been married 56 years and have three adult children.
But Carruthers wasn’t just an academic. He had the political bug.
He served as assistant secretary of Interior from 1981 through 1984. His boss was the controversial James Watt, one of the heroes of the Sagebrush Rebellion – a movement pushed by western states that felt the federal government had too much control over land in the West, stifling economic development.
He grew up as a Republican and still is, but says “quite frankly, I would be considered by almost anybody to be a moderate Republican. I think there is an important role for government, but also think there are limits to what government ought to do.”
Carruthers points out that as governor he raised taxes to give teachers more money “because it was the right thing to do.”
He laments the “poisonous” political atmosphere in Washington, and says the government “isn’t giving direction.” Just tweets.
His political hero was Ronald Reagan – in style and substance.
“He always talked about that shining city on the hill. He was a guy who gave us hope, and I always admired how he was positive when he talked about the hope of America.
“He had a focus of what he wanted his presidency to be, with four or five major goals. For example, he wanted to break up the ‘Commie’ empire. But he also delegated to his Cabinet. He would tell them, ‘Here’s what I want you to go do’ … and let you do it.”
Carruthers says he tells students that “one of the things you have to have to be a great leader is to be a visionary; to paint that picture people can see and then follow you … to achieve that shining city on the hill.”
He’s also a Harry S. Truman fan.
“I like his style, which was clearly different than Reagan. He called a spade a GD shovel and went on.”
‘After the divorce’
Carruthers was the state’s last governor who served under a law that did not allow for a second consecutive term. He finished his four years in 1990, and, with some associates, launched Cimarron Health Plan, which had its ups and downs before selling in 2003 for a reported $70 million.
“We started a company and almost lost it several times, and finally made it profitable to the point another company wanted to buy it,” he said. “I don’t think you’ve really had a religious experience until you’ve tried to start a company from scratch and get right up to the brink of losing it two or three times.”
Carruthers contemplated a second run for governor in the early 1990s.
“I was at dinner with a couple friends two years out and said I was thinking about running for governor again. My wife looked at me and said, ‘You can do anything you want. After the divorce.’
“So I tell my students I put her in the ‘undecided’ column.
“She was of the view that I had spent my time in public service and I should continue on to something else. She won the day, and it was good advice.”
NMSU regents rejected Carruthers’ offer to extend his presidency by two years and later took the unusual step of limiting what he could do administratively during the remainder of his tenure.
Both moves drew stinging criticism from key legislators of both political parties, including Sen. President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, a Las Cruces Democrat.
Following the style he generally had as governor, Carruthers has avoided a public fight with the board and quips that he tells people, “I love my regents.”
But on a broader policy point that has application to higher education beyond NMSU, he says there is “a little too much regent intervention with what should be executive management.”
He said that, when he was governor and had the opportunity to fill a regent position, he would often call the university’s president and ask what he needed on the board.
In one case, the answer was a “scientist,” so Carruthers reached out to former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Sig Hecker, who accepted an appointment to the University of New Mexico regents.
He cites other instances in which he told regents at one school to quit meddling in the hiring of staff, and another in which a high-profile coach who was on the hot seat made an appointment and asked him to intervene. Carruthers said that instead he called the president of that university’s board of regents and told him this was an issue for the regents – not the governor.
As for New Mexico’s system of higher education that has 32 institutions in a sparsely populated state, Carruthers has said we have simply lacked the “political will” to allocate resources in a more effective way. The various schools are just too important to their local communities and politicians.
If there is to be change, he said, it will have to come from the schools themselves – perhaps led by the Council of University Presidents.
“The government can’t solve this. Universities are going to have to be aggressive and cohesive in addressing challenges. It’s not going to happen legislatively.”
Or, as he put it, “No man holding four aces ever howls for a new deal.”
As governor, Carruthers says he went out of his way not to criticize legislators publicly.
But a couple of legendary dustups with Rep. Max Coll of Santa Fe – including the observation that Coll’s hair curlers were on too tight – were the exception.
“If a legislator says Carruthers is a communist, it’s a one-day story, and everybody knows he’s not. But then Carruthers says he’s not a commie and that the senator is an idiot. … Now it’s a two-day story. Then, the senator says Carruthers is not only a commie but an SOB … and so on.”
He said there is a valuable lesson to be learned from such exchanges: “You’re gonna multiply stories, and it’s not gonna be pretty.”
He added, “Max Coll, by the way, called me about 10 years later and said, ‘You know, I never thought I’d see the day when I’d call the Carruthers administration the good old days.’ ”
Carruthers says he would have drinks with Democratic kingpin Manny Aragon, despite being a target of Aragon’s barbs, and said senators sometimes invited him to come down and walk on the floor when things were testy.
“You always greet everybody, and it calms down,” he recalls one Democratic senator telling him.
Carruthers grew up in Aztec, where his dad was a farmer and his mother a nurse.
“We lived about eight miles out in the country and had the same bus driver for all 12 years. Tom Heard. Dependable as the day was long, but we had bad roads and got stuck a lot.”
The family still owns the farm, which produces mostly alfalfa and feed hay.
A devotee of Louis L’Amour and old Western movies, Carruthers often cites the “Cowboy Code of Ethics,” which he says was written by James Owens after a calamity on Wall Street.
“It really reflects a simpler time when a handshake was a handshake and a deal was a deal,” he said. “There are eight to 10 admonitions, like ‘Live Each Day With Courage’ and ‘You Ride for the Brand.’ ”
It’s “Riding for the Brand” that translates into taking pride in your work.
“There is a story about this young cowboy who was supposed to be building a fence but didn’t want to be doing it and wasn’t doing a very good job. An old cowboy tells him that someday, when you ride across this land, you’ll be able to look down and say, ‘That’s the fence that me and Shorty built.’ ”
Carruthers says he doesn’t have a lot of plans for what he will do after leaving NMSU, but that he would be happy to continue working on Aggie fundraising or helping with legislation – if his successor wants him to.
He serves on several corporate boards and plans to work with retired Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman and others to advocate for an ethics commission that is on the November ballot as a constitutional amendment.
He also plans to look for a 1955 Ford Crown Victoria to add to his vintage car collection.
“I have three 1967 Ford Mustangs, a 1964 T-Bird, a 2002 T-Bird and a Buick Riviera. But the Crown Vic was the first car I owned, and I’m looking for one.”
He will continue to be involved in the Domenici Institute, where he will have an office, and during the interview he took time to reflect on the senator, a fellow Republican.
“He was a legendary leader who always had a fascination with the betterment of New Mexico. I admired him a lot, because he was a political leader who walked among the people. He didn’t think of himself as being better. That’s something we shared.
“Even when we disagreed, in the last analysis, we always worked together to get things done for New Mexico.”
Which brings him back to his state and his university – where he still holds the title of professor of economics.
“What is it that occupies your heart and soul? It’s really about the people in this state. I love the multicultural environment, the leadership people, and just the average guy doing the average job. I tremendously enjoy interacting with young people … and that’s why NMSU is my happy place.”
And that’s why Garrey Carruthers is still “Riding for the Brand.”