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Amid shrinking budgets, NMSU leaders face hard choices

SECOND IN A SERIES

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – On the butcher block at New Mexico State University: programs, positions, millions of dollars, the status quo.

A top-to-bottom reorganization of the university is moving from the administrative side to the colleges this semester, a potentially thorny effort that could see academic programs meshed or eliminated and schools reorganized.

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The restructuring is both a product of New Mexico’s broken budget and Chancellor Garrey Carruthers’ vision for transforming the NMSU system into a more sustainable, more efficient institution.

There have been about three-dozen layoffs and a workforce reduction of several hundred positions through attrition and retirement. Beyond that, changes have run the gamut.

They range from revamping procurement – everyone will use a single Amazon account instead of running to the local office supply store – to stripping down layers of management – some will lose power, some will gain it – to restructuring departments and rethinking the “why” of almost everything.

NMSU students walk to class under the cover of late fall foliage on campus. (Andres Leighton/New Mexico State University)

NMSU students walk to class under the cover of late fall foliage on campus. (Andres Leighton/New Mexico State University)

NMSU has slashed $30.5 million from its “instruction and general” budget over the past two fiscal years, including a 5 percent emergency reduction in appropriations required by the Legislature in a special session last fall. NMSU’s I&G budget – 62 percent of which is funded by legislative appropriations – currently stands at $178.1 million and is what pays for everything related to classroom instruction. Slight further cuts by the Legislature are still expected this session.

NMSU’s total operating budget in fiscal 2017 is $621.8 million.

NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers

NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers

Carruthers has thus far managed the reorganization with substantial support from the Board of Regents and without significant push back. That may change as academia, too, comes under the knife.

As institutions of higher education in New Mexico face the unrelenting squeeze of reduced appropriations, falling student enrollment and limited tuition hikes, colleges and universities statewide are having to make tough decisions. NMSU may be going farther than any other large institution in the state, opting for a complete overhaul rather than piecemeal cuts.

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“Most leaders tend to be visionaries,” Carruthers said. “They see the budgets are being cut. They see the appropriations are down. They have a vision for where you have to go, but they are not the best people to solve how it is we’re going to get there. You have to go to the stakeholders and get them to participate.”

NMSU students walk by the new Hardman and Jacobs Undergraduate Learning Center in early fall 2016. (Andres Leighton/New Mexico State University)

NMSU students walk by the new Hardman and Jacobs Undergraduate Learning Center in early fall 2016. (Andres Leighton/New Mexico State University)

Searching for savings

One January morning, Carruthers – whose past roles in New Mexico include governor, insurance CEO and dean of NMSU’s College of Business – presided over a meeting of eight people known as “Team 1.” They were wrapping up the painful task of reorganizing 19 administrative offices.

That day, the Provost’s Office was on the block.

NMSU Provost Dan Howard oversees an array of functions at the university, from the graduate schools to diversity programs to human resources. The Journal was invited to witness the decision-making process.

Team members tossed out questions. Why is there an “assistant dean” in this area? Why are we using such an old model? What is the purpose of these units? Can you back that up with metrics?

Broad sheets depicting “before” and “after” organizational charts color-code the tough decisions in pastels: orange for an eliminated position, green for a reclassification that might mean a lower salary for a new hire, purple for a reporting change that might mean that one manager loses some control while another gains it.

a01_jd_06mar_nmsutuition a01_jd_06mar_nmsuenrollmentCarruthers stayed largely quiet in this meeting, for the most part letting the team do the talking and make the decisions. Later, at a smaller meeting of key leaders, he’ll give direction, explain how he wants a new team set up and who should serve on it.

“You can just dictate, ‘I’m going to get rid of the chemistry department and the physics department, and we’re going to save a lot of money,’ ” he said. “But it won’t work at all that way. You have to go back to the organization and say, ‘This is our issue. How can we solve this problem?’ And that is the way we operate around here.”

With the effort to restructure the administration nearly complete, now its six colleges with more than 60 departments in total have roughly six months to propose how they want to slash their budgets down to size.

The stainless steel and granite sculpture "Quest For Knowledge" by Federico Armijo stands north of the library on the NMSU campus. (Andres Leighton/New Mexico State University)

The stainless steel and granite sculpture “Quest For Knowledge” by Federico Armijo stands north of the library on the NMSU campus. (Andres Leighton/New Mexico State University)

Showdown ahead?

When Donald Pope-Davis became dean of the College of Education two years ago, he envisioned transforming the school into a better version of itself. He came from the University of Notre Dame to New Mexico to be a “change agent,” he said.

NEW MEXICO STATE UNIVERSITY LOGO NMSU a01_jd_06mar_nmsu-numbers Neither Carruthers, who became chancellor in 2013, nor Pope-Davis, came to their jobs intending to lead a painful restructuring, but the realities of the state’s budget woes very quickly settled in. Pope-Davis is the first of the university’s deans to embark on a reorganization of the college he leads.

As part of that process, Pope-Davis plans to roll the college’s five divisions into three schools. Some programs could be scaled back or eliminated.

“When I started, money wasn’t the motivator,” he said. “It was, ‘How do we make ourselves better?’ The money piece hasn’t affected that substantially yet, but what it has done is forced me to ask questions slightly differently. Not just what do we want to be? But how are we going to pay for it?”

Carruthers said at a December regents’ meeting: “As difficult as this has been, we have had more cooperation and collegiality and less push back than anyone would ever anticipate, and that’s because they are a caring community trying to take care of a great university.”

But the lack of push back may have more to do with what hasn’t happened yet: The cuts haven’t reached academic programs or faculty. But they will.

“The faculty are monitoring it, but it hasn’t hit home yet,” said Stuart Munson-McGee, a food science professor, former chairman of the Faculty Senate and member of “Team 1” who has worked at NMSU for 26 years. “As we move forward, I expect that that will change. As we get more into how it affects what programs we offer and at what level, I think the push back will appear.”

In February, in part because of the chatter around budget cuts, some members of NMSU’s faculty restarted a conversation around unionizing that had gone dormant years before.

Although Carruthers has robust support for his restructuring efforts, he has been criticized by some for paying too much attention to the “business” side and not enough to the academic side.

“The people I have heard that from,” Munson-McGee said, “I’m not sure how much they understand about how this university really operates. It’s easy to criticize when you don’t know what it takes. I don’t think it’s a valid criticism. Of all the chancellors I’ve known, this one does more listening to his leadership team than any of the others.”


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