In a largely unheralded move in January, the Board of Regents of Northern New Mexico College voted to change the school’s name to “Northern New Mexico University.” Officials at the time said the change would better reflect the school’s academic offerings, and would help the institution be regarded in the same light as the state’s other regional universities, such as Western New Mexico in Silver City and New Mexico Highlands in Las Vegas.
But now, even before any signs have been changed on the school’s Española campus, the new name is at the center of the latest fight besetting the school, which has been mired in budget and personnel controversies for much of the past year.
One newly confirmed regent of Northern New Mexico College said this week it that should stop calling itself a university because the Legislature never approved that title.
“My position is that it needs to be changed by statute,” Regent Damian Martinez, an attorney from Las Cruces, said of the school’s title.
The Board of Regents voted 4-0 on Jan. 27 to change the school’s name to Northern New Mexico University. Martinez was not in office when the decision was made. Two of the four regents responsible for the decision no longer are on the board.
Northern has rankled several state senators by renaming itself a university.
Only after the regents approved the name change did the school try to have the university title established in state law. But a bill to change the college’s name died in March, when the sponsor, Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, declined to present it on the Senate floor.
Cisneros said in an interview this week that he heard from opponents and proponents of Northern being renamed as a university. He said he decided to stop his own bill so it could be reviewed more carefully during the interim, when legislators prepare for their 30-day session next year.
Ricky Serna, Northern’s vice president of advancement, first said that the school administration did not know why Cisneros had pulled the bill.
“They knew,” Cisneros said.
Serna, in a subsequent email to The New Mexican, then said: “Once again, we shared the same concerns as Senator Cisneros. We support his call to hold off on hearing the bill and will seek his advice on how to best proceed in the interim.”
But Serna also said the school had not jumped ahead of itself by changing its title without approval from the Legislature. “Tell us where the process was defined and how we didn’t follow it,” he said.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, in one committee hearing voted against Northern receiving a university title.
“Frankly, I don’t think they rise to the level of a university. They have no graduate programs,” Stewart said in an interview this week.
Stewart said she was concerned about the process that Northern had used to rename itself. She said she could not find a provision in the state constitution that allows the regents to make the change. Another concern, Stewart said, was whether the state Higher Education Department was consulted about the name change by Northern administrators.
“I think they did it in such a sloppy way,” Stewart said of regents voting to give Northern a university title.
The naming controversy is just the latest sign of unrest at the troubled Española college, which has faced accusations of financial mismanagement and poor leadership during the past year as it wrangled with budget constraints.
Last spring, at least 500 critics of the college petitioned the state’s Higher Education Department to reject the school’s budget and investigate the college, arguing that its leader mismanaged federal funds, raised tuition and cut programs, leading to a decline in enrollment and staffing.
And this week, another controversy ensnared Northern New Mexico College as it landed on a list that no school wants to make.
The U.S. Department of Education has named Northern as one of about 500 colleges and universities that are under increased financial oversight.
Serna downplayed his school’s inclusion on a list that has long existed but was made public for the first time by the federal government.
Serna said Northern fell behind on two consecutive audits in 2010 and 2011. Then it had to reconcile its 2009 audit. He said the college had cost overruns on capital construction projects from a prior administration.
But, Serna said, Northern’s audits have been solid for the last three years. The federal list is maintained for five years, so the school needs for the clock to run out before it is removed, Serna said.
The U.S. Department of Education said the list of colleges and universities that are on “heightened cash monitoring” is a step that the Federal Student Aid Office can take to provide additional oversight on financial or federal compliance issues.
“It is important to note that heightened cash monitoring is not necessarily a red flag to students and taxpayers, but serves more as a cautionary measure. It demonstrates that the department is watching these institutions more closely to ensure they use federal student aid in a way that is accountable to students and taxpayers,” the agency said in an email.
On the name change issue, the state’s Higher Education Department did not respond to a question this week about whether it was apprised of Northern’s decision to call itself a university. In a statement, Joseph Cueto, a department spokesman said: “We respect the decision of the NNMU Board of Regents.”
Northern has full-time enrollment equivalent to 784 students. It offers two- and four-year degrees.
In announcing its new university title, the school issued a statement saying it has 13 bachelor’s programs, and it “has expanded to offering post-baccalaureate opportunities via partnerships in recent years.”
Cisneros said he had mistakenly thought the school offered its own master’s programs.
Minutes of the regents meeting in which they approved the university title show that Northern President Nancy Barceló advocated for the name change partly because her school has five colleges.
Barceló, according to her school’s written record of the meeting, said the name “college” had caused confusion. “… Because if you say Northern New Mexico College and the College of Education, it makes it sound like two different institutions,” the minutes stated in explaining Barceló’s position.
In a public statement issued after the meeting, Barceló said the university title would also help the institution to be regarded with equal status to sister schools such as Western New Mexico and New Mexico Highlands.
Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, and Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, were among other legislators who challenged the regents renaming Northern as a university.
“I was not comfortable with it,” Morales said this week.
Morales did not have the opportunity to hear the bill in his Senate committee. Four other senators, though, voted against the name change in two separate hearings. Still, the bill advanced to the full Senate on votes of 7-2 and 5-3 before Cisneros removed it from consideration.
For his part, Cisneros said changing the college’s name appeared to be the “exclusive purview” of the regents. Serna, the Northern vice president, also said the school had authority to make the change on its own.
Asked why Northern then sought a law enacting the name change, Serna said it was for consistency. A new law would list the same university title that Northern is using on its website and in describing itself, he said.
Martinez the new regent, said he believes Northern has a good administrative team in place to move the school forward. But, he said, the university title is inappropriate because state law says the school’s proper name is Northern New Mexico College.