ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — News late Tuesday that New Mexico State University President Barbara Couture was on a leave of absence stunned the university community, with details still a mystery more than a day later.
Regents and school officials confirmed Tuesday that she was on leave, but refused to provide details, or even whether it was a forced or voluntary leave.
Couture, the former senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was hired at NMSU in 2009 after a national search.
Regents chairman Mike Cheney declined to discuss any details and said more information will be available at a public meeting on Monday.
“I really want to try to adhere to the (New Mexico) Open Meetings Act and try to be as transparent as possible … and make an effort to be honest,” Cheney said.
Faculty Senate chairman Tim Ketelaar said he was surprised to learn of Couture’s leave after seeing it on the news Tuesday evening, and is puzzled over the reason. He said she had a positive relationship with faculty.
Couture, 64, replaced former president Michael Martin, who left for a post in Louisiana. Two interim presidents served in the year between Martin and Couture.
Couture did not return calls seeking comment. Her leave began Monday, two days after regents met in a closed-session on Saturday.
In a statement released Wednesday, NMSU’s senior vice president for external relations, Ben Woods, said Provost Wendy Wilkins will assume Couture’s administrative duties.
He said regents plan a special closed session on Monday from 1 to 3 p.m., to be followed by a public meeting. Cheney said that public meeting will be to address the situation.
“The Board of Regents remains committed to the students and stakeholders of NMSU and will provide additional information as it becomes available,” Woods said in a statement.
Regents cannot legally take action regarding Couture’s status without publicly approving it first.
Ketelaar, an associate professor in the psychology department who has served on the Senate for six years, said he was not aware of any issues between Couture and faculty. Several other faculty members and employees told the Journal they were surprised to hear the news and had no inkling it was coming.
“Every president has a unique relationship with the faculty and our relationship (with Couture) has been positive,” Ketelaar said.
Information was still scarce Wednesday morning when Ketelaar spoke with Wilkins. Ketelaar said in an email distributed to faculty that Wilkins told him she knew no details regarding Couture’s leave.
“The Provost assured me that she (Wilkins) is committed to staying at NMSU and working with Faculty Senate,” Ketelaar wrote.
At least in public, Couture’s relationship with university leaders appears to have been positive.
However, there have been a few controversies during her tenure.
For example, the Doña Ana Community College nursing program lost its accreditation this summer. The community college is a branch of NMSU. According to the Las Cruces Sun-News, the accreditation was lost because of a “lack of faculty with the right qualifications.” The program lost a majority of its students following the loss of accreditation. Their NMSU tuition was covered by the university, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.
Also, an editorial in the Las Cruces Sun-News faulted Couture for not acting on the anticipated demise of the Western Athletic Conference as a football league, which will leave NMSU’s football team without a conference next season. — This article appeared on page A2 of the Albuquerque Journal