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Regents extend Fries’ tenure

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President will lead Highlands through June 30, 2016

By Martin Salazar

Sending a clear message that they continue to have confidence in their president, New Mexico Highlands University regents approved a contract extension that will keep Jim Fries at Highlands’ helm through June 30, 2016.

All four regents present at Friday’s board meeting voted to approve the extension, each one heaping praise on Fries for the job he has done leading Highlands since January of 2007.

Both regents and Fries stressed that the president’s remaining time at Highlands will be spent trying to take it to the next level.

“My interest in continuing at Highlands is not, frankly, to continue business as usual, but to ... make adjustments that will sustain us well into the future,” Fries said after the vote. “As we see the national changes that are taking place in higher education, we’ve got to be cognizant of that. We’ve got to react to that. We’ve got to get out in front of that and make sure that we are continuing to provide the kind of quality education opportunities for students that make a difference. We’re in the business of touching lives.”

Regents spent two-and-a-half hours in executive session prior to returning to open session to vote on the extension.

Regent Jesus Lopez said at most a half hour was spent discussing the contract with the rest of the time spent on unrelated legal issues. Lopez said the half hour devoted to the president’s contract was spent mostly on trying to convince Fries to stay as long as possible.

“We are very lucky to have Jim Fries as president of Highlands, very, very lucky, and I for one, and I know we all feel this way, do not want to lose him,” said Lopez, who made the motion for the contract extension.

Lopez said the university has made great strides in may ways over the last six years. He said the first part of Fries’ term was devoted to stability and continuity issues.

“You brought it forward in that regard,” Lopez said, addressing Fries. “And now Jim and the board have a passion for moving beyond that, way beyond that. So we’re going to enter a new phase now, and I’m very excited.”

Lopez added that Fries, too, has been lucky because he’s had a good board to work with.

“Between us, Highlands has made great progress, the greatest progress I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I’ve been here all my life, and the greatest stability,” Lopez said.

This is the second contract extension regents have approved for Fries since he was hired six years ago. His contract had been set to expire in December 2013.

Fries, 69, is paid about $232,000 a year. While regents agreed to extend the president’s contract through June 30, 2016, Fries told the Optic after Friday’s meeting that the terms have yet to be finalized.

“I’m deeply grateful to this board, and not just for the extension of my contract, but for the support that I’ve enjoyed as president from everybody on this board,” he told regents following the 4-0 vote to extend his contract. Agreeing with Lopez, he said it takes the board, president and the rest of the campus and community for Highlands to succeed.

“Your support has been key to my ability to do my job,” Fries told regents.

The president said one area of focus will be implementing changes that will give students who arrive at Highlands not fully prepared for college work a better chance of succeeding.

That, Fries said, could include things like requiring students who aren’t ready for a particular college level course to take a co-requisite class instead of prerequisite development classes, which often discourage students.

Highlands, and higher education in general, are at a transition point right now, he said.

Fries said the university’s mission is student success, adding that the timing is right to look at what that means and how the university should be organized to accomplish that mission.

He said the university is also looking to commercialize some of the patents it holds, a move that could generate significant revenues for Highlands.

Fries said that if the university moves appropriately over the next few years, he thinks it will see an increase in enrollment and in the number of degrees it awards.