LAS CRUCES — New Mexico State University President Barbara Couture will remain on paid administrative leave through the end of the year and then step down, receiving a lump sum payment of $453,093 by Jan. 15.
The five-member NMSU board of regents remained tight-lipped Monday regarding the circumstances, but formally accepted Couture’s resignation and approved a four-page separation agreement, including the payment, less than one week after news that the president had taken annual leave became public.
NMSU general counsel Bruce Kite told reporters at a news conference that Couture was taking a job as a senior adviser with the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. Couture was not present during the meeting and was said to be out of state.
While officials said Couture initiated the process of taking leave herself, they declined to say whether her resignation was requested.
Couture has been at NMSU less than three years, taking the reins in January 2010. At an annual salary of $392,700, she will be paid roughly $100,000 for the next three months leave, on top of the lump sum.
Couture’s contract, which runs through the end of 2014, had offered a $500,000 bonus if she stayed five years.
According to her contract, regents could have fired her as president for “just cause” or simply at their request for the “best interests of the University.”
If Couture was fired as president at the regents’ request, the board could assign her to a tenured position in the College of Arts and Sciences and she would be entitled to her full salary until the end of 2014.
The settlement agreement, which was emailed to the media after the news conference, makes no mention of the circumstances for her leaving. The four-page document, titled a “settlement agreement and release of liability,” spells out the amount of the lump sum payment Couture is to receive, states that she can continue to use the president’s official residence and a university vehicle until Dec. 31, and releases NMSU officials from “any and all” legal claims which “have been or could be asserted.”
The document does not explain the basis for the lump-sum payment, which the regents did not mention during their news conference.
Board chairman Mike Cheney, vice chairman Isaac Pino and regent Javier Gonzales then could not be reached to answer why the board decided to pay Couture $450,000 after her employment ends.
During the 12-minute public meeting when they accepted her resignation, the only regents who addressed Couture’s resignation were Cheney and Gonzales, and both said they were legally obligated to protect the confidentiality of personnel issues under state law. During the brief news conference after the meeting, Cheney was the only regent to respond to questions.
“Personnel issues are exempt from public discussion … so we will not discuss the specifics behind this decision,” Cheney said. He added, “I want to make clear that this university is doing very well financially, and our alumni and donors are more supportive than ever. … We want to wish Dr. Couture the best in her continuing career and education.”
Couture was senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when she was hired in late 2009 to become NMSU’s fifth permanent president since 1995.
In a statement issued late Monday by university communications, Couture said she had “great respect” for NMSU and said her experience “during the last three years convinced me of the importance of affecting policy at the national level so that colleges and universities can do a better job of assisting students through scholarship and loan programs.”
“I’m just sorry we weren’t able to have her here longer,” said state Sen. Mark Kay Papen, who attended the regents meeting. “I hope the next president that we get we will be able to have a longer tenure with them. For the stability of the university and for the consistency of programs and projects, where we’re going and goals, it would be a good thing.”
Gonzales noted that Couture’s resignation comes at a time when NMSU must confront major challenges and setbacks, including the Aggies’ decision to play as a football independent in 2013 after the departure of football programs from the Western Athletic Conference; the loss of accreditation by the nursing program at Doña Ana Community College; declining enrollment and research dollars; and what Gonzales called “unreliable and inconsistent state funding.”
Despite those challenges, Gonzales said the board has “no doubt we can overcome the challenges that we all face with all that is great about this university.”
Gonzales later said he had experienced no pressure “from any university constituency” calling for Couture’s departure.
Asked if Couture’s departure was a positive development for NMSU given recent setbacks, Gonzales said, “Today is really about moving forward and recognizing that the board does have the responsibility to address many challenges facing the university.”
Asked if he was pleased or disappointed with Couture’s tenure as president overall, board vice chairman Pino replied, “I’ll just say this. I just want to thank her for the service that she gave to New Mexico State University while she was here.”
Several students said they were largely unaware of the change in the president’s office, or even Couture’s leave of absence. Finance undergrad Mark Kimpel said that students had been kept in the dark about the reasons behind the transition, but he said he had not been impressed by Couture.
“You don’t just up and have a president leave if everything’s going good,” Kimpel said.
In Couture’s absence, her administrative duties will be assumed by executive vice president and provost Wendy Wilkins until an interim president is appointed. Cheney said regents are working toward appointing an interim president by Oct. 15, while the search for a permanent president will begin immediately.
“We are looking for leadership in terms of the ability to connect with our donors, connect with our alumni, connect with our students, faculty, staff, all of the stakeholders,” Cheney said. “We need someone strong to represent this university because it’s a fantastic university that has a story to tell.”
Asked if Couture possessed those abilities, Cheney continued the forward-looking theme: “I’m not going to comment on what we did or didn’t have, or any strengths or shortcomings. I will tell you that Dr. Couture contributed to this university. … We are focused on the future and our leadership that we are going to be needing now.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal