End the Aggie soap opera, Mr. Chancellor

August 21, 2017

Even the most forthright politicians dodge questions, duck for cover and create confusion.

Garrey Carruthers, who appears to be the lame-duck chancellor of New Mexico State University, has done all of that in recent days. He is declining interview requests after contributing to a massive rumor mill.

Carruthers, who turns 78 next week, recently announced through the university that he would retire as chancellor when his five-year contract expires next summer.

His decision was a surprise because age really is only a number for Carruthers. He is an energetic and skillful administrator, one more comfortable on campus than he was in the governor’s mansion. A Republican, he served as New Mexico’s governor from 1987 through 1990.

Carruthers didn’t seem to be ready for a pension and an engraved watch, but he notified his university’s board of regents that he would retire next June 30.

Carruthers has since allowed his intentions to become muddier than the Rio Grande. “I have indicated to many people in the last six months that I would be willing to stay on for another two years,” he said before muting himself.

This led four state legislators to write two columns saying Carruthers has been an exceptional administrator during New Mexico’s fiscal crisis and he should remain in office.

“When you’ve got an opportunity to maintain that kind of stability, you should take it. You don’t change horses in midstream,” said state Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec.

Neville, a graduate of New Mexico State University, has known Carruthers since his freshman year in the mid-1970s. He believes in the chancellor.

So does Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming. He says Carruthers is still the best leader for the university.

Smith said he suspects that Carruthers doesn’t want to retire, but powerful forces are seeking a change at NMSU.

“If he wasn’t pushed, he got a strong nudge,” Smith said in an interview.

Not true, said Joseph Cueto, press secretary for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

“It was the chancellor himself who announced his decision to retire,” Cueto said. “We haven’t had discussions about the chancellorship with the regents. It’s up to the regents to do what’s best for the university. These are just shameless politicians trying to delay a potential search in a transparent attempt to ensure that the next chancellor is chosen by regents appointed by the next governor.”

It’s worth noting that Carruthers and other university presidents criticized Martinez when she mindlessly vetoed the entire budget for higher education this year, a decision that hurt student retention and faculty recruitment.

But Debra Hicks, chairwoman of New Mexico State University’s Board of Regents, offered the same story as Martinez’s camp, saying Carruthers wants to step down.

“He let us know that at the end of his contract he is going to retire,” she said. “We’re embracing his decision.”

Hicks said Carruthers may have told others he would be open to staying longer. But Hicks added that she had spoken to Carruthers and “we’re on the same page on going forward.” As for the suggestions that Carruthers wants to stay on longer, “I don’t know where they’re coming from.”

It would appear they came from Carruthers himself, a loquacious character who all at once is media-shy.

If Carruthers really wants to remain chancellor until the summer of 2020, when he would be almost 81 years old, he ought to withdraw his retirement plan and make his pitch. His offer might be tempting.

Carruthers pulls people together. He has an engaging personal style and an open ear. He pays attention to students, faculty and taxpayers.

No matter what Carruthers does, NMSU is well-positioned in terms of leadership.

The university’s provost, Daniel Howard, competed against Carruthers for the chancellor’s appointment in 2013. Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, then an NMSU regent, led support for Howard. Carruthers prevailed on a 3-2 vote.

Howard at the time worked at the University of Colorado at Denver. Carruthers hired him away, a clear sign that Carruthers was not threatened by a younger man who once was a rival.

Everybody I’ve spoken to has good words about Howard. He should be a leading candidate for chancellor whenever Carruthers retires.

Howard probably would face plenty of competition. Carruthers makes $385,000 a year. His successor likely would receive more money when the regents negotiate that contract. Even as student loan debt and tuition increases pile up, university chancellors always seem to receive higher salaries.

Carruthers has had a good run at New Mexico State University. He owes it to the public to end all the rumor mongering about whether he wants to remain as chancellor.

And he needs to speak up before this Aggie melodrama turns into a reality series. It’s nice that you have a captive audience, Mr. Chancellor, but you shouldn’t hold it hostage any longer.

Ringside Seat is a column about New Mexico’s people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at 505-986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com.