NMSU regents vote to search for new chancellor
LAS CRUCES — The New Mexico State University Board of Regents voted 4-0 Wednesday to move forward with the search for a new chancellor despite mounting pressure from lawmakers, faculty, students, donors and others to keep former Gov. Garrey Carruthers at the helm.
Members of the five-member board didn’t reveal exactly why they decided not to extend Carruthers’ contract for the chancellor’s job, which expires in June, saying in a prepared statement that the board “has and will continue to show professionalism, confidentiality and restraint, as well as integrity, by not engaging in communication regarding personnel matters.”
Carruthers, who became dean of the school’s business college in 2003, was named chancellor in 2013 and guided NMSU through the state’s fiscal crisis. He announced earlier this month that he planned to retire but later said he would be willing to stay in the post for another couple of years, signaling that he is being pushed out as his five-year term comes to an end. Some Democratic legislators have charged that Gov. Susana Martinez is trying to run off Carruthers, an occasional critic of the governor.
Student Regent Margie Vela, who was appointed in January, abstained from voting but didn’t explain why.
The regents, all appointed by Martinez, have been under pressure themselves amid declining enrollment at the state’s second-largest university. The issue is an “ongoing concern,” they said, that has resulted in millions of dollars in lost revenues.
“When you compare to other universities in our region, we’re down by nearly 27 percent,” board Chairwoman Debra Hicks said during the meeting, adding that the board also has expressed concerns regarding budget cuts and investments, though she didn’t elaborate.
Carruthers said declining enrollment at the university, with an enrollment of more than 25,000 students, is one of the regents’ “big problems.”
“Enrollment is down clear across the country in most places,” he said. “The revenue side concerned them. They didn’t complain at all about our transformational work, which saved millions of dollars. They didn’t complain about that at all. It’s the revenue side. That’s what they like to talk about.”
After the meeting, Hicks told The New Mexican that the regents had ratified six key performance indicators in 2016 that they considered critical, including enrollment, retention, graduation, research and giving.
“Those are our key indicators, so where has the needle moved?” she said. “Right now, the needle has moved just with recruiting, and the recruiting efforts have been significant. The chancellor has invested dollars in marketing, so we have increased first-time freshmen for the first time in many years.
“The retention, total enrollment, those things haven’t moved yet,” she added. “We’re still on the downward decline. And when you look at that, we’re on the downward decline when you compare us to our peers in the state and notably [at the University of Texas at El Paso] and others. Within the state of New Mexico, other universities have increased their enrollment, and we have not. We have to figure out what we have to do to move forward.”
The decision to look for a new chancellor came amid mounting pressure from legislators from both sides of the aisle to keep Carruthers, a Republican, and assertions that the board wanted to push him out to give the job to Gov. Martinez, who is term-limited.
“I hope that the wild rumor that nonextension is part of a plan to put somebody else, another governor, a soon-to-be ex-governor in his place — I hope that is just a wild rumor because if that happens, you’ll be famous for a generation,” Peter Goodman, one of six people who spoke in favor of retaining Carruthers, told the board before the vote.
Regent Kari Mitchell shot down the rumor, saying, “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Mitchell said it was her understanding that Martinez, also a Republican, has no interest in the job and that, “at least from what I know of her background,” doesn’t have the qualifications the board is looking for in a new chancellor.
“I think we can very quickly and easily dismiss this notion that this is an effort to put the governor in this seat,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell and other regents said they appreciated the “stakeholder input” they received over the past couple of weeks, saying it affirmed the level of commitment and passion about the university.
“Making these decisions exclusively on input, we’d be remiss without looking at performance, direction and the needs of the university going forward,” she said.
Carruthers, who wanted to stay on the job but said the regents “have every right to do what they want to do,” called the support he received statewide “fantastic” and “a vote of confidence.”
“When this issue came up, I told the regents there would be some pushback because people had talked to me about continuing on,” he said. “I was just amazed it came from all around the state, and people really were very complimentary.”
Carruthers said the regents talked to him about continuing to work with the university, such as with fundraising or legislative affairs.
But Carruthers said he told them during an executive session before the vote Wednesday that the next president “needs to be the one that makes that determination. They can’t assign me legislative liaison work or fundraising work or something like that,” he said. “That would be unfair to the next person, whoever it is. If that person wants to reach out and say, ‘I know you know the Legislature. Would you help me?’ — I’m an Aggie. I’ll be there. I’ll help them. But I don’t think we can do that right now.”
Despite being out of a job in about 10 months, Carruthers, who was wearing a bolo tie featuring the Aggies mascot, Pistol Pete, was upbeat, smiling and working the crowd. Before the start of Wednesday’s meeting, he playfully picked up an unattended television microphone and pretended to deliver a live sports update about the Aggies, generating laughter from the audience.
Carruthers said in an interview that he doesn’t have plans after his contract expires next year, though he has so-called retreat rights that will allow him to teach at the university.
“If I do, I will not charge the university for that because it’s not about money,” said Carruthers, who makes about $385,000 annually as chancellor. “I would just do it because I want to teach a class or two.”
Carruthers said being chancellor of New Mexico State University, which was teeming with young people headed to class Wednesday, has been fun for a man his age.
“I was 78 years old yesterday, and you can tell from my energy that I kind of live on the energy of these young people that we deal with every day,” he said.
“I just get such a kick out of mentoring them, talking to them, welcoming them, counseling them, doing those kinds of things. It’s a great place to be for an old person whose golf game has gone south,” he said, smiling.
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.