University called ‘fiscally strong’

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By David Giuliani

Highlands University is “fiscally strong in all respects,” a top official said last week, but the school expects budget cuts because of the declining economy.

Gov. Bill Richardson has ordered all executive branch agencies to trim spending by 5 percent, a directive that doesn’t apply to the state’s universities.

However, Highlands President Jim Fries warned the Board of Regents at its quarterly meeting on Friday that the Legislature may reduce universities’ budgets during the legislative session beginning in January.

He said the university has already started the process of planning for cuts of up to 5 percent. About half of such a reduction could be covered by not filling existing vacancies, he said.

“It’s won’t be easy, but Highlands will be able to adjust to directives that come forward,” Fries said. He promised to work hard to make sure cuts don’t affect student services and academics.

He said it’s ironic that cuts would come at a time of economic decline, which is when enrollment typically increases.

Javier Gonzales, chairman of the Board of Regents, said he hoped that the university wouldn’t keep the position of vice president for advancement vacant because of possible budget cuts, arguing that such a person could increase the school’s revenue.

Fries agreed, saying the university would be selective in which vacancies it doesn’t fill.

Gonzales also said he didn’t want to see athletics suffer any major cuts because that part of the university attracts many students. He noted that a quarter of the student body is involved in athletics.

“Students will stay in school if they’re doing something they enjoy,” Gonzales said, adding that he wanted to make sure that athletes were getting a good education.

Fries said Highlands emphasizes that athletes are students first.

“The real goal is graduation. We want everyone to have a meaningful opportunity to achieve degrees,” the president said. “There’s no bigger issue than improving graduation and retention rates.”

But he said the students are ultimately responsible.

“We can’t go to class for them,” Fries said.

On another issue, Gonzales wanted to make sure that the university continues to structure its debt correctly. He said other colleges are suffering because they had variable interest rates on their debt, while Highlands has stuck with fixed rates.

“The administration is on the side of being conservative,” he said.

Gonzales suggested Highlands have an extra level of assessment on its debt. For instance, the school could get outside experts to look at debt agreements because, unlike underwriters, they don’t have any interest in transactions, he said.

In other business:

The Board of Regents approved a certificate program in cultural resource management. “This certificate will train anthropology students with hands-on methods to prepare for jobs,” Regent Nancy Long said.

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Ashley Ramirez, president of the graduate student senate, said her group wants to recognize graduate students who are getting their degrees in December. Highlands only holds graduations after the spring semester. As such, Ramirez said the graduate student senate is holding the Winter Graduate Awards Banquet for December’s graduates.

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Regent Javier Gonzales said he met with Rio Rancho city officials and that they remain committed to Highlands’ presence in the Albuquerque suburb.