Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The University of New Mexico’s Board of Regents will undergo a sea change next year regardless of who is elected governor.
Whether Democrat Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham or Republican Rep. Steve Pearce wins, the state’s next executive will have an immediate opportunity to fill five of seven UNM regent seats due to expiring terms.
But will the next governor attempt to make it a clean sweep?
Lujan Grisham, who has already vowed that UNM would reinstate men’s soccer if she’s elected, is blasting the board for its overall performance and leaving open the possibility that, if elected, she would seek resignations from regents whose terms do not expire this year.
Her opponent, Steve Pearce, has concerns about the board, too, and is not saying yet if he would request resignations from Rob Doughty and Marron Lee, fellow Republicans and the only two UNM regents whose terms extend beyond this year.
Doughty and Lee, meanwhile, are defending their records and offering no signal they would step down.
New Mexico’s governor nominates university regents, who are then subject to state Senate confirmation, but a new governor typically does not typically have so many UNM seats to fill.
The current situation is the result of a political standoff between Gov. Susana Martinez and some lawmakers.
The Senate Rules Committee has not held confirmation hearings for any of the governor’s UNM nominees for the past two years. That has forced Martinez to fill recent vacancies with temporary placements, disrupting the constitutionally established pattern of staggered, six-year appointments.
That leaves only regent President Doughty and Vice President Lee, Republicans with connections to Martinez, on duty past this year. Their terms run through 2020.
The two play prominent roles at UNM. While some regents sit on only one of four regent committees, Lee chairs two of them, including the powerful Finance and Facilities panel. She also chairs the Lobo Development Corp. board and sits on the UNM Foundation board.
Doughty also serves on Finance and Facilities, and chairs the Academic/Student Affairs and Research Committee. He is also on the UNM Alumni Association board.
Doughty also chaired UNM’s most recent search committees for president, athletic director and chief legal counsel. Lee served on all three with him.
Lujan Grisham critical
Lujan Grisham said in a recent interview with the Santa Fe Reporter, “It’s time that we have an all-new set of regents” and that she’s “not satisfied with the work of any of the regents.”
UNM’s Board of Regents oversees a $3 billion enterprise that encompasses the main campus, four branches and a Health Sciences Center operation with two hospitals.
But the board has frequently attracted controversy, with many questioning some members’ political motivations and decisions. That includes a 2016 split vote to reorganize the Health Sciences Center committee, which eliminated community member participation, and the board’s recent unanimous decision to cut men’s soccer, both ski teams, and women’s beach volleyball amid budget and Title IX compliance concerns.
One board member, Tom Clifford, also recently clashed publicly with the Faculty Senate president.
And the board itself has shown signs of internal strife. Members have complained about their marginalization and the board’s internal tension; one member, Alex Romero, resigned earlier this year saying he could not get along with the board’s leadership.
“The (regents) don’t have a good working relationship with university faculty and staff, health sciences, students, or the athletics department,” Lujan Grisham’s campaign spokesman James Hallinan said in an emailed statement to the Journal. “These regents aren’t being transparent and aren’t doing as Michelle (has said) – they are not holding the university accountable or helping the university to succeed.”
Pearce’s spokesman, Kevin Sheridan, said in an email that Pearce “believes the regents need to do a better job of oversight and management.
“If elected, he will establish a board of regents that will build the university up.”
Only the state Supreme Court can remove regents, and only on the grounds of incompetence, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office. But a governor could at least ask them to leave.
If elected, Hallinan said, Lujan Grisham would meet with Doughty and Lee to discuss their vision and whether they want to stay. Asked if Lujan Grisham would seek their resignations if such meetings prove unsatisfying, Hallinan would not say either way.
“That’s not something I can speculate on ahead of their potential meetings,” he wrote.
But he said the Democratic candidate would not pursue “blanket resignations” because she “understands that isn’t the right path forward.”
Pearce’s spokesman also did not give a definitive answer when asked if Pearce would request that Doughty and Lee resign if he’s elected.
“He’ll take a close look at the board’s effectiveness and make decisions based on what’s best for UNM,” Sheridan wrote.
Neither Doughty nor Lee directly answered a Journal question about whether they would resign if asked by the next governor. But in separate written statements to the Journal, each described their regent service as an “honor” and expressed a desire to continue.
“I am very proud of what this Board has accomplished and look forward to working with whomever becomes our next governor,” Doughty wrote. “I find no need to speculate on what may or may not occur, as my top priority continues to be what we are presently doing to ensure that UNM is successful now and in the future.”
Martinez nominated Doughty to the board in December 2014. His term runs through Dec. 31, 2020.
Lee wrote that her service is driven by her “love for our State and its Flagship University” and that she is “a public servant and not a politician, and do not feel it is appropriate to enter into a debate while voters are still deciding who will become our next Governor. I will, however, look forward to working with anyone who shares my commitment to moving the University of New Mexico forward.”
Martinez appointed Lee to the board in spring 2015. Her term also runs through 2020.
Regents defend record
Regent Suzanne Quillen, whose term expires Dec. 31, acknowledged the Board of Regents has sometimes fallen short, writing in a statement to the Journal that if Lujan Grisham becomes governor, “I would encourage (her) to be thoughtful and reflective in assuring capable leaders are appointed who will honor the position of being a regent over political influences from any party.
“Our students, faculty, staff and administration deserve appropriate governance (regents) who are about the greater good that Higher Education provides the State versus individual agendas. In my opinion, our current Board has not upheld these standards to the extent we could have.”
Quillen did not elaborate on which political agendas she had in mind.
When former Gov. Bill Richardson took office, he requested the resignations of university regents from around the state so he could fill the boards himself. He also asked for undated letters of resignation from his own regent appointees that he could invoke at any time, a practice then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid said was unconstitutional.
Some regents whose terms don’t extend beyond this year disagreed with Lujan Grisham’s grim characterization of their performance.
“I reject the general tone of the comments,” Clifford wrote in a statement. “Our Board has an outstanding record of working with campus personnel to improve performance and accountability at UNM.”
Brad Hosmer, the longest-serving board member, said lumping all regents together neglects the nuances of a sometimes divided panel, something he said Lujan Grisham might not see based on what she hears and reads but would likely understand if she becomes governor and “examines the facts” at UNM.
“Media accounts consistently refer to actions by the Regents instead of by a majority of Regents. They overlook the fact the Board of Regents is currently operated as a miniature version of a polarized legislature,” Hosmer said in a statement, adding that the majority typically ignores those “who often have different views.”