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Senator proposes merger

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Smith wants study on combining Highlands, Luna

By Martin Salazar

A powerful state senator is asking the state Higher Education Department to study whether it makes sense to merge New Mexico Highlands University with Luna Community College to save money.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, made the request in a July 26 letter to Gov. Susana Martinez.

“I would like a review of the benefits and drawbacks of combining Luna Community College with New Mexico Highlands University,” wrote Smith, who serves as vice chairman of the powerful Legislative Finance Committee. “I understand these institutions rely on a strong partnership to meet the needs of northern New Mexico residents and beyond; however, I believe a combined campus structure could eliminate redundant administrative and other services and capital resources could be used more efficiently under New Mexico Highlands University’s leadership.”

Smith also asked for a study on partnering Northern New Mexico College in Española with either the University of New Mexico or New Mexico State University.

Highlands President Jim Fries said he appreciates where Smith is coming from but added that he believes it’s unlikely that either proposal is going to happen, given how complicated such a merger would be.

Highlands is a constitutionally created institution that has a board of regents appointed by the governor. Luna was created by state statute and has a board of trustees elected by voters in its service area, which spans several counties.

“It would be a complicated process...,” Fries said. “Frankly, I think any movement toward a merger would have to come from Luna. It’s not something I  would foresee Highlands campaigning to make happen.”

Luna President Pete Campos said he appreciates Smith’s concerns, but doesn’t believe a merger would be good for the area. Campos, who serves on the Legislative Finance Committee with Smith, said both institutions have talented people who bring in federal and state resources to this area to bolster their educational missions.

While merging a four-year university with a two-year college would be complicated, it’s not unprecedented. Both the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University have two-year schools under their umbrellas.

Smith’s letter addresses the state of higher education in New Mexico as a whole. He states that  he believes it’s time for the Legislature and executive branch to evaluate how the state delivers postsecondary training and education and whether the approach it has taken is the most efficient and effective way to accomplish the task.

Smith’s letter comes at a turbulent time for Luna Community College. The school’s board of trustees is currently engaged in a power struggle, several key employees have left and there is even behind-the-scenes talk of asking the governor to step in and take control of the college.

Smith, a conservative Democrat,  told the Optic during a telephone interview Tuesday morning that his letter to the governor has “absolutely nothing” to do with the turmoil playing out at Luna right now.

Smith pointed out that he has long been concerned about the proliferation of higher education branches and centers throughout the state, including Highlands’ decision about 20 years ago to open up a facility in Rio Rancho.

“We’ve got the presence of higher education more than we can afford,” Smith said, adding that the current system just isn’t sustainable.

“We’re going to have to look at greater efficiencies,” Smith says.

But it’s not just higher education that Smith is concerned about.

“I’ve always been concerned about the (Public Education Department) situation, and Vegas is at the center of that with two public school systems ....,” he said. “Both of those school systems are smaller than the school system in Deming, where I hail from. Combined, there’s like 3,500 enrolled, and we’ve got two school systems on that. Deming has like 5,300.... I’m just saying how do we really save money?”

Smith said nobody wants to talk about that, which he calls a mistake.

“I just came out of a sequestration seminar in Atlanta, Ga., right now,” he said. “We have absolutely no backup plan as we’re impacted by sequestration and reduction in spending in the state of New Mexico.

“It seems to me that our debate and dialogue needs to be centered on how do we replace the reliance  on federal moneys in the state of New Mexico because they will be cut.... We have no backup plan.”