Lawmakers propose to elect some university regents

January 30, 2013 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Voters could elect some members of the governing boards of New Mexico’s largest universities under a legislative proposal that supporters say will lessen the influence of politics over higher education.

Two constitutional amendments introduced in the House on Wednesday would overhaul the selection of boards of regents for public colleges and universities. The governor currently appoints regents and they serve staggered terms.

“The fact of the matter is in many cases our regent positions are treated as political plums,” said Rep. Jeff Steinborn, a Las Cruces Democrat who’s sponsoring the measures with other lawmakers.

University of New Mexico Regent Jamie Koch opposes revamping the current regent system.

“What they’re talking about doing here really keeps the governor from having the opportunity [auth] to make the changes in higher education that that governor might want to do,” said Koch, a Santa Fe businessman named to the board by former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson. “The governor loses control over higher education and I don’t think that’s right.”

Koch’s term expires at the end of 2014.

One legislative proposal would require lawmakers to establish minimum qualifications for the regents of four-year universities and colleges, as well as the New Mexico Military Institute, the School for the Deaf and the New Mexico School for the Blind & Visually Impaired. It also would significantly change the boards of regents at the two largest universities — the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University.

A second proposal would establish an independent nominating commission to recommend people to the governor for appointment as regents. The commission would be similar to bipartisan panels that screen applicants for judgeships and make recommendations to the governor for possible appointment.

For NMSU and UNM, voters would elect three regents and the governor would appoint two. There also would be one faculty member on the board — named by the governor from candidates recommended by the faculty — and one student regent, who would be selected by fellow regents from recommendations of the student body.

Candidates for the elective regent positions would run in non-partisan elections, with one elected from each of the state’s congressional districts.

Currently, there are seven UNM regents and five for NMSU. Lawmakers propose seven-member boards for both universities and limit terms to four years rather than six.

There would be no elective regents other than for UNM and NMSU, and the governor would continue to appoint regents at other schools. None of the proposed regent changes would apply to two-year community colleges.

If the Legislature approves the proposals and voters adopt the constitutional changes in the 2014 general election, it would be left to the Legislature to determine some details, such as the specific qualifications for regents. Voters adopted a constitutional amendment last year to require lawmakers to establish qualifications for Public Regulation Commission members.

Supporters said their proposals should improve the governance of higher education.

“As we have now, I think the system encourages people who may not have experience in higher education and therefore they are more likely to not understand the issues and to just go along with what a president might say. That doesn’t serve the universities in a good manner,” said Sen. William Soules, a Las Cruces Democrat.

He and Steinborn said the proposed regent overhaul wasn’t precipitated by a specific incident but they acknowledged there was an uproar in Las Cruces over the abrupt resignation last year of NMSU President Barbara Couture, who received a six-figure payout.

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