The Board of Regents meeting Thursday morning was, for the most part, a business-as-usual session of the oversight body.
However, the two and a half hour meeting was punctuated about halfway through by an animated debate on a theme from their previous gathering in October — the University of New Mexico’s unexpectedly large decline in student enrollment and corresponding nosedive in revenues from tuition and fees.
The meeting began genially with a report from President Garnett Stokes outlining various initiatives undertaken by the University in recent weeks, most of which can be found in the President's Weekly Perspective. Stokes also announced progress in the search for the Senior Vice President of Finance and Administration position as well as future dates for her traveling office hours.
The next opportunity for faculty, staff and students to hold an open dialogue at Stokes’ roving office hours will be at the Willard Room in Zimmerman Library on Nov. 28 from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
Following Stokes’ presentation was the Board’s routine review of equipment acquisitions for various University departments, the most notable being UNM Hospital’s (UNMH) request for a $2.7 million PET-CT scanner to replace the aging, outdated scanner currently in use. Bonnie White, interim chief financial officer of UNMH, was granted unanimous approval by the seven member board for the upgrade.
The mood of the room shifted significantly after several more reports concerning the operations and modernization of UNMH and the UNM Health Sciences Center. The Daily Lobo has previously reported that a shortfall of $9.7 million in revenue from the enrollment decline will dip into University reserve funds.
That figure was reiterated multiple times on Thursday during a presentation by University Controller Liz Metzger and other University officials concerning the most recent quarterly financial report.
Regents then began a protracted debate on the state of the University’s finances and the current plan to mitigate the nearly eight figure deficiency.
Marron Lee, vice president of the Board, began by asking, “Do we have a really good reason why there’s such a sharp decline? I know there’s a lot of things that are going on, but can we address that? For every one percent decline (in enrollment), we lose a million (dollars).”
Several somewhat testy exchanges followed — interim Provost Richard Wood went on the defensive, pointing to shifting demographics and an improving economy as the two main factors in the enrollment losses.
Wood also cited a new study suggesting a shifting perception amongst 18 to 35 year olds that a college education isn’t worth the cost. When Wood continued his testimony on behalf of the University’s recruitment and retainment efforts, touting UNM’s success in recent years in raising the six year graduation rate to 50 percent, Regent Tom Clifford provided a sharp rebuttal.
“Okay, so 50 percent of our customers get nothing of value that they can show. They get debt. That’s not a good product, folks,” Clifford said. “And telling ourselves it’s because people don’t understand what a good product we have? That’s ridiculous. That’s totally naive. That’s how we get the reputation of being ivory tower, out of touch people.”
Tensions lessened soon after as the agenda moved on to a brief report from UNM athletics officials and an update on current projects from the University’s marketing and branding department. The meeting adjourned after cordial updates on ongoing activities from representatives of the Associated Students of UNM and the UNM Graduate and Professional Students Association.
The future makeup of the Board of Regents is currently in a state of uncertainty, due to five of the seven regents having terms that are set to expire at the end of the year. On the campaign trail earlier this year, Democratic Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham has been vocal about her dissatisfaction with the current slate of members and their handling of University affairs.
After the meeting adjourned, the Daily Lobo asked Stokes if she has had a chance to speak with Grisham about her plans for the board. Stokes said, “I haven’t personally spoken with her; we’re in the process of scheduling a meeting.”
When asked for comment on a letter recently sent by ASUNM President Becka Myers to Grisham urging a diverse cast of regents that are more representative of New Mexico’s demographics, Stokes said, “I am aware (of the letter). I was really pleased to see our student government taking such leadership.”
Grisham’s term as governor begins on Jan. 1. Barring a major new development, considering the comfortable Democratic majority held in the New Mexico Senate that will confirm Grisham’s appointments, the University can expect a set of fresh faces on the Board in the near future.
Andrew Gunn is a freelance reporter with the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites.