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Editorial: University must resolve health-sciences oversight

“The successful candidate should be an individual who … comprehends the complexities and challenges of leading a comprehensive research university that includes an academic health sciences center….”

– Posting for the University of New Mexico presidential search that led to the hiring of Bob Frank

A year into his presidency, there is a dispute brewing at the state’s flagship university over what that language means, with Frank saying he does not have sufficient authority over Health Sciences to effectively lead a unified university. It’s no small issue.

Health Sciences is a $1.5 billion-a-year enterprise – a huge operation that includes the state’s only Level I trauma center, teaching hospital and medical school. It’s an important mission with experienced and respected leadership in Chancellor Paul Roth and his team.

In 2010, UNM regents changed its oversight by setting up a Health Sciences Center board of directors comprised of three regents and four community members. Arguments in favor made sense: With complex Obamacare rules looming and Medicaid booming, health-centric oversight promised streamlined operations.

That same job description about “leading” a university that “includes” a Health Sciences Center talks about that change but focuses on streamlining issues as they pertained to regent committees – not as they relate to the president.

Frank says that under the current system he has all the responsibility without the necessary authority. For example, he can evaluate the health sciences chancellor, but that is treated as a recommendation by the HSC board. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the chancellor’s priority would be on keeping that group happy.

The arrangement also presents potential challenges for Frank in his effort to implement game-changing economic development initiatives that if successful could give UNM the resources it needs to improve its national status. HSC leadership, understandably, would have different views and priorities than a president charged with leading on both sides of Lomas.

When regents hired Frank they made much of his health care background – the UNM PhD taught public health and clinical psychology at the University of Florida and established a school of public health at Kent State University. He also has been a change agent with several bold moves, including his support of the plan to revamp the college of education.

Roth, who also is dean of the school of medicine, is another exceptional leader with an outstanding track record. When he was acting UNM president, he pushed for the current separate governance structure and points out that it was developed over months because “we needed to be more accountable.”

Two regents who supported the change in 2010, Gene Gallegos and Jamie Koch, now say they regret it and that the current structure possibly violates the state Constitution, which requires the board of regents – not an offshoot – to have full oversight. Regents don’t have a majority on the HSC board.

At least two new regents, Conrad James and Suzanne Quillen, seem squarely on the side of the current structure, along with Regent Brad Hosmer and student Regent Heidi Overton, who is a medical student.

The question is now on the plate of UNM regents who need to do their homework and determine the best governance structure for the university and its Health Sciences Center. The real question is, can the sum of UNM and HSC be stronger than its parts?

Do regents want a unified university or two relatively autonomous entities, one with a direct report to the regents and the other with an indirect report through a separate board?

Finding ourselves in this dilemma, the university and New Mexico taxpayers would be well served by an arrangement acceptable to Frank, Roth and all regents.

Roth in the past has been mentioned as a possible president of UNM. Would he favor the current arrangement if he was in the other office?

But long term, this is a governance question that should be driven by goals and policy – not personalities. Arguments can be made both ways. But one thing is certain. If regents keep the current system, that presidential job description needs to change.

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.