Regent objects to use of buildings

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By Don Pace

A Highlands University official says the university’s practice of renting out its facilities for private events needs to stop.

Last week, Regent Jesus Lopez told the finance and administration committee that he chairs that he would like to see an outright ban on the practice.

“The risks are incredible,” said Lopez, a Las Vegas lawyer.

The matter of renting out campus space came before the finance committee in the form of an updated policy and price list.

The proposed policy came with a detailed price list for the rental of places like the golf course clubhouse, Ilfeld Auditorium, Sala de Madrid, Kennedy Hall and the swimming pool.

During the discussion, the committee and administration members got an ear full from the chairman on what he thought about private parties on campus grounds.

Lopez said he was unaware of the longstanding policy that allows people not affiliated with the university to rent various facilities. He said after the recent primary election, he read in the Optic that state Rep. Richard Vigil, D-Ribera, had rented Kennedy Hall for his election party.

“I said to myself, what in the world is Highlands University doing allowing any candidate to have any kind of party at our facilities? That’s ridiculous, I don’t think we should be renting or lending our facilities for private purposes,” Lopez said.

Lopez said he wasn’t interested in hearing any legal arguments concerning the New Mexico Constitution’s anti-donation clause, which bars public resources from going toward private causes without getting something of equal value in return.

“You don’t have to tell me the legalities involved — that they pay and all that, that’s not my point. There’s plenty of private facilities in this town that are there for the purpose of generating money for local businesses that are intended for private parties. That is just not the primary purpose of higher education, period,” Lopez said.

Lopez said the liability for the university was just too great. He said all kinds of terrible things can happen, and insurance doesn’t always cover catastrophic accidents.

President Jim Fries said there’s a lot of pressure from nonprofits and friends of the university to not only use facilities, but to use them for free.

“One way the university demonstrates it’s part of the community is by making its facilities available when we’re not using them. So if we do that, this policy will require that we recover our costs,” Fries said.

Lopez said, “I can withstand the pressure if you can. I can take a lot of pressure. I appreciate the point that you just made, and I can see allowing the utilization of school facilities to private, nonprofit organizations that have some relationship to the university, alumni and student groups. I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is strictly private matters, like weddings and political celebrations,” Lopez said. “Do you have a problem with banning such use?”

Margaret Gonzales the university’s campus life director, said this past fiscal year, her office has processed about 2,000 facilities-use request forms.

“Of those, about 1,600 requests came from on-campus groups or organizations, and about 400 were for private weddings, baptisms, birthday parties and such,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales said a number of conferences have been planned for this year and next for government agencies.

Lopez pointed out the distinction between public and private groups and agencies.

“I have no problem with county, city, municipalities or any other public groups — the United World College, area schools, and other institutions from public agencies. That’s not a problem, I just didn’t know until I saw in the newspaper, and what I’m learning today, that university facilities are being used for strictly private affairs,” Lopez said.

Fellow regent and committee member Pete Aguilar said the only thing that bothered him was the liability.

Bill Taylor, Highlands’ vice president for finance and administrative services, said he thought this was an important policy decision. But he said this wasn’t a change in policy, and there was indeed insurance in place to cover liability.

Lopez said he may stand alone in his stand on the issue.

“My proposal is going to be that facilities not be allowed ever for strictly private, non-university-related affairs, period,” Lopez said.

Taylor said that recently, the regional Realtors Association used one of the university’s lecture halls and, in turn, had an economic impact.

“We can accommodate some of these things. Is it escaping you guys that I’m talking about really private parties? That’s what I’m talking about — I’m talking about weddings and political celebrations. Do you get it? Do you have a problem with that?” Lopez said. “This university is not here for private affairs, never has been and never should be.”

Gonzales and others said Highlands is not alone in renting campus facilities to help make ends meet. She said Highlands has been renting facilities for at least 12 years.

Gonzales said there have never been any problems with either security or accidents.

Lopez recommended the committee table the matter, but he wanted officials to look into it.

Fries said his office would check with other universities in the state and research the matter.

He said Tuesday that the university charges people to use university buildings for private events, including those for politicians such as Vigil.