Correction appended

New Mexico law says the school in Española that grants two- and four-year degrees is a college. But campus administrators already have renamed it Northern New Mexico University.

Now, with five days remaining in this year’s legislative session, Northern’s management team is taking some heat as it pushes for a bill that would formally rename the school a university.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, has publicly criticized Northern for bestowing a loftier title on itself without receiving legislative approval. The school’s website, for instance, already lists it as a university. Campus phone operators also greet callers by saying “Northern New Mexico University.”

Ivey-Soto compared Northern to a graduate student who calls himself “doctor” before writing his dissertation.

Ricky Serna, Northern’s vice president for advancement, said the school isn’t misleading anyone with the university title.

“Academic dishonesty is a most inappropriate way to describe it,” he said Monday in a phone interview.

Serna said Northern’s university title has been recognized by an accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission. Northern’s board of regents voted to change the school’s name.



“There is no procedure or process spelled out about using the name [before legislation is approved],” Serna said. “We’re doing the same thing that’s been done historically.”

But for consistency, he said, the school is seeking approval of the bill that would legally change its name from a college to a university. That measure has cleared two Senate committees, though it received negative votes from four senators along the way. It now is before the full Senate.

Damian Martinez, who was confirmed Saturday by the Senate to Northern’s board of regents, said he agreed with Ivey-Soto that the school should not be calling itself a university unless the law is changed. Martinez is an attorney from Las Cruces.

Northern, with a full-time enrollment of 784, offers associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. Serna said numerous other schools that do not confer graduate degrees have university titles.

But, he said, the school’s regents may have to revisit the question of the university title if the legislative session ends without the name change being approved.

The Legislature last changed the school’s name in 2005. It went from the Northern New Mexico State School to Northern New Mexico College.

Correction appended: The original version of this story incorrectly said that the Higher Learning Commission authorized the name change from college to university. The commission recognized the university title on its website, but did not play a role in the name change.

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com. Follow his Ringside Seat column and blog at santafenewmexican.com.

(6) comments

Mellis Schmidt

I would like to see the letter from the Higher Learning Commission approving the name change. I have my doubts about any approval.

Jeff E Green

Also, I would be remiss not to point out that there is a contradiction between the story as it's reported here and what Ricky Serna and other Northern administrators said in their testimony to the Sentate Public Affairs Committee on Thursday, March 5. In this story, it's implied that Northern changed their name first with the Higher Learning Commission, and then through the Board of Regents. But during the SPAC hearing, they said multiple times that the Board of Regents initiated the name change. From my vantage point as a recent alumni, it seems that Northern administrators have a pattern of lying and believing they're too clever to be caught. But this time, the SPAC video is archived for all to see. Check this out to see Ivey-Soto's blistering interrogation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9aGfBOyIfk

Jeff E Green

As a footnote to this article, it's important to understand that this name change bill (SB 603) appears to be effectively dead in the Senate. It has too much opposition to even be heard and voted on by the Senate floor. The bill was actually scheduled for a vote on Saturday afternoon, March 14 at approximately 4 pm by the Senate Majority Leader, but Senator Cisneros (the bill's sponsor) passed on the opportunity to hold a floor debate and vote. He must have known it would fail. I believe SB 603 will quietly die without ever being voted on by the full Senate, which is unfortunate, because many of us were eagerly looking forward to it going down publicly in flames. Northern will then face a ton of pressure to change their name back to "College," which is in fact the name that the Senate used throughout the confirmation hearings this week on Northern's two new regents, Damian Martinez and Melinda DeHerrera.

Jeff E Green

According to an authoritative source (Wikipedia), "Universities are research-oriented educational institutions which provide both undergraduate and graduate programs." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_education_in_the_United_States#Universities)

In his testimony to the Senate Public Affairs Committee on March 5th, Ricky Serna said that there are 28 universities in the U.S. that do not offer graduate degrees. Even if that is true, it puts Northern in the category of the 1% rather than the overwhelming majority of universities with graduate programs. Senator Ivey-Soto is correct -- Northern is trying to misrepresent themselves as something that they're not. It's like me running around Santa Fe posturing as a city councilor, even though I lost the election. I don't do that, and neither should Northern. After all, lying is one of the cardinal sins of academia.

Jeff E Green

As a recent grad from Northern NM College and former student senate president, I definitely agree with Senator Ivey-Soto. If anything, Ivey-Soto understates the manifold arguments to be made against Northern's name change to "university." If the name change goes through, Northern would be the only "university" in New Mexico that does not offer graduate degrees. Furthermore, Northern has been cutting (not expanding) academic programs during the last few years, and student enrollment has been dramatically declining. The current college administration (Ricky Serna included) has made a series of horrible mistakes, including repeated tuition raises and mass firings of faculty, not to mention cracking down on free speech and engaging in discrimination and, most of all, CORRUPTION. The unjustified, misleading and possibly fraudulent name change is just the tip of the iceberg of what's going wrong with Northern. I hope that Regent Damian Martinez and the newly confirmed Student Regent will help lead the effort to restore sanity and integrity to my beloved alma mater. Thank you, Milan, for covering this story.

Rod Lievano

A "university" with 784 students and no graduate programs. Self-aggrandizing.
Regional accrediting agencies accredit practically any group claiming to offer degrees, and their opinions are highly suspect.

Problem is, however, that private for-profit entities call themselves anything they like. We have a local example.

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