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Editorial: Regents should do right by UNM, President Frank

The University of New Mexico Board of Regents, in a special meeting scheduled this morning, has an opportunity to step up today and do the right thing, both for the state’s flagship university and for President Bob Frank.

If it doesn’t, it is difficult to imagine finding a quality candidate willing to step into the role. Of course there would be no shortage of applicants – after all, UNM has had seven presidents in 19 years. But if this ends up in a nasty courtroom fight, what high-level candidate would take a job after studying what happened to a president who appeared to have met all the key goals he had been given? For Frank those have included improving graduation rates, pushing ahead during a budget crisis and soldiering through the controversial Health Sciences merger advocated by a regent majority – all while retaining solid faculty support.

That’s not to say Frank’s tenure has been free of missteps and controversy. Given that and UNM’s penchant for switching presidents, it was no surprise when Frank announced he was not seeking a contract renewal and regents said he would get a $350,000 tenured position at Health Sciences. That’s called a deal.

But it appears regents then got heartburn of a political nature. And it should be noted taxpayers are weary of UNM buyouts for presidents and coaches.

So despite having gone down that road, regents reversed course and ordered up two reports in response to a whistleblower complaint. The first report, an internal audit, found Frank was over-reimbursed on roughly $5,500 out of $227,000 in expenses, which he has since paid back to UNM. For the second they hired a lawyer for $9,300 to do an outside review that interviewed eight of the university’s 1,250 full-time faculty and 3,000-or-so staff members, finding Frank can be “impatient, bitingly sarcastic, condescending, and rude.” Some also expressed support for him.

And last week Frank, who had yet to see the report – which fell short of concluding he created a hostile working environment – filed a tort claims notice. It calls the reports defamatory and says, in part, regents initiated investigations into “Dr. Frank’s conduct to create a pretext for the termination of his employee contract.”

In other words, regents were trying to backfill that $350,000 hole after catching criticism. If regents, who are appointed by the governor, can fire Frank for cause, their job offer becomes null and void.

But the report falls far short of firing grounds and Frank has been the first UNM president in recent memory to significantly improve student academic achievement along with ties to local business and technology. Degree requirements have been aligned and streamlined to boost four-year graduations, a record number of degrees were handed out last year, student support services have been increased, faculty is more engaged, and UNM has become an integral part of Albuquerque’s economic development with the high-tech/entrepreneurship public-private partnership of Innovate ABQ.

In May, UNM will have lost a president who has been successful in many ways. The challenge now is how to move forward.

Let’s hope that if the opportunity to compromise knocks today, those involved don’t respond by kicking down the door.

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.