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Editorial: Next governor should honor NM Constitution on regents

New Mexico universities play vital roles for the entire state.

They’re huge employers, providing jobs for thousands of New Mexicans throughout the Land of Enchantment. They’re economic engines, bringing hundreds of millions of research dollars into the state economy. They’re problem solvers, figuring out such things as the cause of a mystery illness that was killing New Mexicans in the early 1990s; coming up with better medications to treat health issues like high cholesterol; and even dreaming up such things as nicotine patches to help people who are trying to quit smoking.

And, most important, they’re centers of knowledge, training generations to be teachers and doctors, business leaders and social workers, artists, lawyers and much in between.

Perhaps envisioning the vital role New Mexico universities would play some day, the framers of our state Constitution went to great lengths to insulate them from partisan politics and the whims of any one governor.

Sadly, many of those constitutional safeguards have been stomped on as some leaders have chosen to play politics rather than carry out their sworn duty of upholding the Constitution. The shenanigans have included everything from former Gov. Bill Richardson asking sitting regents to resign after he was elected and his own regent appointees for undated letters of resignations he could invoke at any time, to Senate Rules Committee chair Linda Lopez refusing to hold confirmation hearings for many of Gov. Susana Martinez’s regent appointees, a move that will allow the next governor to appoint five of seven regents at the University of New Mexico.

This nonsense has been an assault on the Constitution, hurt our universities and weakened our state.

Worse yet, it might continue. Both gubernatorial candidates have been highly critical of UNM’s regents. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Democratic nominee for governor, is leaving open the possibility that, if elected, she would seek resignations from regents whose terms do not expire this year. Rep. Steve Pearce, her Republican opponent, has not said if he would ask Regents Rob Doughty and Marron Lee to resign.

Whichever candidate emerges as the winner next week, that individual should respect the system laid out by the Constitution and not demand resignations from Doughty or Lee, who have been confirmed by the Senate, or dismiss without confirmation hearing those appointees who have been waiting for the Senate, its Rules Committee and Lopez to set aside their pettiness and carry out their constitutionally mandated duty of voting regent nominees up or down.

Our state’s founders spelled out that:

• State universities would be managed by boards of regents – rather than a single Cabinet secretary controlled by the governor. UNM is managed by a seven-member board; all other New Mexico universities are managed by five-member boards.

• No more than four members of the UNM regents can be from the same political party at the time of appointment, eliminating the possibility of a political party having a supermajority on the board. For all other universities, no more than three regents can be members of the same party when appointed.

• Regents are to serve six-year terms, except for the student regent, who serves two years. The six-year terms are staggered to have experienced regents at all times and minimize the possibility that short-term interests drive university agendas.

• Regents are not to be removed “except for incompetence, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office.” And if proceedings are ever launched to remove a regent, the state Supreme Court has final say on whether the regent is ousted.

• And, while they gave the governor the power to appoint regents, they bestowed on the Senate the right of “consent,” the right to hold confirmation hearings and reject regents deemed unqualified or objectionable.

The framers of our state Constitution rightly wanted boards of regents looking out for the best interests of our universities, not sycophants trying to score political points by giving into the whims of the powerful. It’s up to us, as citizens and voters, to demand those we elect adhere to the constitutional safeguards for boards of regents and not use their positions to try to control the affairs of our universities.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.