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UNM Presidential Candidate Won’t Bend To Political Wills

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — University of New Mexico presidential finalist Elizabeth “Betsy” Hoffman said Friday her 2005 resignation as president of the University of Colorado system was a direct consequence of her refusal to fire a professor, as ordered by then-Gov. Bill Owens.

Hoffman, now provost of Iowa State University, raised the issue at a forum Friday at the UNM campus after a student asked her if she would be willing to stand up to political pressures.

“I have never bent to the political wills,” which ultimately led to her resignation from the University of Colorado, Hoffman replied. “It was my refusal to do what I was ordered to do by the governor.”

After the forum, Hoffman said Owens had ordered her in a telephone call to fire University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who had drawn intense criticism for likening some Sept. 11 victims to Nazis.

Hoffman said she told Owens she could not fire Churchill, explaining that supporting the principles of free speech sometimes requires defending people with unpopular opinions. Owens replied that he would “put his plan in place,” she said.

Conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly “excoriated” Hoffman nightly on his Fox News Channel program, “and 30 days later, I resigned,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman, 65, told UNM personnel that serious tests during her career in academic leadership, combined with her ability to communicate effectively with faculty, staff, students and community leaders, have prepared her to handle difficult problems, from budget cuts to athletic scandals.

“Having been through a very difficult athletic experience, I have no tolerance, absolutely zero tolerance, for misbehavior,” Hoffman said during a forum with students. Athletics can serve as a “front door of the university” for students, alumni and donors, “but only if it’s done with great ethical standards.”

As president of the University of Colorado system from 2000 to 2005, Hoffman drew fire for failing to act quickly enough after several women alleged they had been raped by university football players and recruits.

Hoffman said her five-year goals for UNM would include increasing graduation rates to at least 50 percent, raising UNM’s “research profile” and increasing undergraduate participation in research programs.

The key to improving graduation and freshmen retention rates is providing “a very, very high-quality first-year experience” for students, she said. Hoffman would work at increasing participation in freshman learning communities and Greek life and bolstering student advising to improve the freshman experience.

“If you can bring up the first-year retention, you can bring up the six-year graduation rates,” she said. Hoffman promised to be engaged and visible on campus.

“I intend to live in the president’s house in the middle of campus,” she said, drawing applause from about 30 students who took time during exam week to attend a forum. “You will see me walking my dog on campus.”
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal