SANTA FE, N.M. — Constitutional changes proposed Wednesday would revamp the way university regents are selected, lessening the governor’s control and – at New Mexico’s two largest schools – putting elected regents and faculty members on the boards.
Bipartisan backers of the measures said the public is demanding more accountability and connection to local communities than is provided by the current system, under which the governor appoints all university regents who are then subject to confirmation by the Senate.
“The fact of the matter is, in many cases our regents positions are treated as political plums,” going to big donors and friends, said Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, a sponsor of the two measures.
If both proposals were to pass the Legislature and win voter approval in a statewide election, lawmakers would set qualifications for regents, and a nominating committee would recommend candidates to the governor.
At the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University, the makeup of the boards would change, to a mix of appointees and regents elected by congressional district. At the other colleges and universities, the governor would continue appointing all the regents, from the nominating committee’s recommendations.
A spokesman for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said she opposes the proposals, although – unlike other legislation – constitutional amendments don’t require her signature, so she wouldn’t be able to veto them.
Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, another sponsor of the measures, said the changes would increase accountability.
“Regents should answer to the public, not to a governor,” Woods said in a statement. “If they are not designing curriculum that actually prepares teachers to teach our children successfully, then they need to be thrown out at the next election.”
And he said schools need regents with business backgrounds who can direct curriculum into high-tech fields.
Rep. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, said the governor should have input – as she does in the judicial selection process, appointing judges from nominees recommended to her.
But having elected regents provides a balance that allows the governor input “without making it entirely political, or taking away all the control from the voter – because it really is their university,” he said.
The proposed changes follow an uproar last fall over the secrecy-cloaked departure of former NMSU President Barbara Couture, who was paid $453,000 on her way out the door.
Steinborn said there is lingering concern about that in the community, and the public is “absolutely hungry” for transparency and accountability. While the constitutional changes wouldn’t directly address the transparency issue, a board more in tune with the community could change policies, he suggested.
House Joint Resolution 8 would simply require the Legislature to establish one or more regent nominating committees, with details left up to lawmakers.
House Joint Resolution 9 would increase the size of the board of regents at NMSU from five to seven; require lawmakers to establish qualifications for all regents; and reduce regent terms at UNM and NMSU from six years to four and set a two-term limit.
The seven-member boards at UNM and NMSU would consist of three regents chosen in nonpartisan elections from each congressional district; two regents appointed by the governor – based on the nominating committee’s recommendations – from the county where the main branch is located; one student regent appointed by the other regents on the recommendation of the student body; and one faculty regent selected by the governor on the faculty’s recommendation.
Colleges and universities already have student regents on their boards, selected by the governor from lists provided by the schools’ presidents.
The regents would still require confirmation by the state Senate, under the proposed constitutional changes.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal