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Regents discuss interim candidates

Board talks about search schedule in closed session

The Board of Regents met in executive session Tuesday to discuss potential interim presidential candidates, but say it's still undecided who will fill the vacancy while a formal, national search is conducted.

"We will make a decision as soon as it is appropriate, and I don't foresee any special meetings happening before our next meeting to make a decision," board president Larry Willard said after the meeting.

Willard would not discuss who was on the regents' interim candidate list or how many people were being considered for the job.

During open session Tuesday, Faculty Senate President John Geissman urged the regents to consider faculty members' concerns and involve them in the process of selecting an interim president and someone to fill the vacancy on a permanent basis.

Willard said the regents also discussed the presidential search process during the closed session. He added that the process would likely begin this summer once current UNM President Bill Gordon leaves for his new job as Wake Forrest University provost.

"We discussed the search and agreed that the guidelines and timelines would be very similar to last time," he said.

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Recent UNM presidential searches have been contentious, prompting lawsuits by local media and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, a watchdog group that works to ensure enforcement of the Open Meetings Act and other open government laws.

Robert Johnson, executive director of the Foundation for Open Government, said he would not try to predict what the regents would do and instead chooses to watch the process unfold.

"At this point, I don't anticipate any problems with the search because the law is very clear cut," he said.

Johnson has seen several presidential searches go awry.

He said that in 1991, the presidential search committee was formed and conducted several meetings without public notice and the committee ignored the candidacy of several Hispanics interested in the job.

"In other words, we thought the search was conducted very badly," Johnson said.

The regents' action prompted the Johnson to join the Albuquerque Journal and NBC affiliate KOB-TV in filing a lawsuit. He said the goal was to force the University to adopt a reasonable search procedure, later known as the consent decree.

"The result of that lawsuit was a settlement in which UNM agreed to make the names of candidates public when they been interviewed either in person or by telephone by two or more regents or members of search committee, either all together or in sequence," Johnson said.

UNM again launched a presidential search in late 1998 that stretched into 1999, which Johnson also watched closely.

"When the last search began, we told them that there would be no problem, if they complied with that consent decree," he said.

But Johnson said Regent David Archuleta, who still sits on the board, came up with a plan to have a regent tape interviews with candidates, then play the tape for regents and the search committee - an accusation Archuleta disputes.

"The thought that was a clever way of circumventing the search decree, so we filed a lawsuit," Johnson said. "The judge ruled that UNM had violated the consent decree, threw out the search and directed both parties - in this case FOG, the Journal and the regents - to meet and arrive at a reasonable compromise to settle the lawsuit."

The two sides scheduled two meetings, but Johnson said the regents did not send representatives who could negotiate. Then the group discovered that Regent President Larry Willard and Gov. Gary Johnson had agreed to add a bill narrowing the terms of university search processes to an upcoming special session.

"They kept their plan quiet until about two days before session began, and we found out that they had already called a lot of legislators, so we started calling legislators," he said.

The session began and legislators debated the bill that would have allowed UNM to just announce one finalist.

"In other words, all they would have to do publicly is announce their choice as president," Robert Johnson said.

After negotiating with legislators who were interested in seeing the matter settled, a bill passed that stated that a list of candidates must be provided at least 21 days before the regents make their final selection.

"The regents also must identify at least five finalists to show that this was not just a put-up job, as they have done before," Johnson said.

With the new law in place, the regents proceeded with a new search and agreed to pay the Foundation for Open Government's and Albuquerque Journal's legal fees and court costs.

"There won't be any problems this time around if the regents comply with the law, which was the problem before - they didn't," Johnson said.

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