mug_milan_simonich

Milan Simonich

Ringside Seat

Ask the four candidates for governor what kind of people should oversee New Mexico’s universities. Their answers will be identical.

All of them will say they would appoint only the best and brightest to serve as university regents because the positions are so important. It’s the regents who set the tone by hiring university presidents and charting the strategic direction of a school.

The truth about regent appointments is different from the political promises.

Connections count far more than competence in becoming a member of a university governing board in New Mexico.

U.S. presidents can reward their donors and cronies with ambassadorships. Governors don’t have the power to hand out jobs in exotic places such as Dublin or Paris. But a governor in New Mexico can offer political insiders the prestige and power that comes with an appointment as a university regent.

This breeds mediocrity. The caliber of regent appointees will never improve unless the system is changed.

New Mexico voters should elect regents. The general public would do a better job than the governors who have stacked university governing boards with political allies.

The existing system is supposed to have a check and balance because a governor’s appointees have to be confirmed by the state Senate. But the 42 senators only work part-time. They almost always confirm the governor’s choices without asking any hard questions.

Only in extreme cases does the Senate take an interest in regent nominees, such as the time Republican Gov. Susana Martinez nominated a man who was suing the very university she wanted him to help govern.

Martinez appointed a loyalist named Carl Foster to serve as a regent of New Mexico Highlands University. Foster had been an adjunct instructor at the Highlands campus in Rio Rancho.

He claimed a student brought an unjust complaint against him that gained traction. Foster said in court papers that university administrators “retaliated by not allowing me to teach in the Special Education Department, causing a significant loss of income.”

In his lawsuit in federal court, Foster claimed Highlands had breached his contract, denied him due process and violated the state public records law.

With the lawsuit ongoing, Martinez still wanted Foster on the five-member governing board of Highlands.

Foster eventually dropped his lawsuit, but he never served on the Highlands Board of Regents. Sen. Linda Lopez, a Democrat from Albuquerque who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said Martinez’s nomination of Foster was unacceptable and unworthy of consideration.

Foster’s story didn’t end there, though.

Martinez appointed Foster as a regent of Western New Mexico University in 2015. The Senate confirmed him last year on a 39-0 vote. Not a single senator mentioned Foster’s lawsuit against Highlands.

Martinez has appointed her former finance secretary to The University of New Mexico Board of Regents. She also has appointed several other political confidants to the UNM board. Two did not make it.

The first was Matt Chandler. Like Martinez, he was a former district attorney. He also had served as treasurer for a political committee friendly to Martinez. It ran false and misleading campaign ads against Democrats.

Senators rejected Chandler’s nomination for the UNM Board of Regents, the only time they have voted down one of Martinez’s nominees.

Martinez complained for a while. Then she appointed Chandler to a District Court judgeship.

Another political insider Martinez tried to place on the UNM Board of Regents was Don Tripp, the former Republican speaker of the state House of Representatives.

Tripp was a forgettable lawmaker except for his performance during a special legislative session that was supposed to focus on a state budget crisis. Tripp used the session to push Martinez’s crime bills.

During the predawn hours, while most people were asleep, Tripp called on the House to consider a bill to reinstate the death penalty. Tripp’s mission was to get Democrats on record voting against death sentences.

As it turned out, the bill for the death penalty failed, and Tripp lost the speaker’s job when Democrats regained control of the House.

Martinez then tried to make Tripp a UNM regent, but he couldn’t serve because he did not resign from his House seat under the legally prescribed schedule.

Few would believe Chandler and Tripp were the best qualified candidates to be UNM regents. Their main credential was a willingness to serve Martinez.

But she is no different from other governors who used regent appointments to reward friends or to make sure a political agenda would be heard at universities.

It would take a constitutional amendment to elect university regents. Legislators can put the measure on the ballot, if they want to improve management of universities.

I don’t like the odds.

No governor wants to lose the power to appoint regents. And any legislator who tries to buck the system could expect a lot of vetoes — of his own bills.

So much for the best and the brightest.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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