Kurt Wurm believed the decision to cut his job as a professor in New Mexico State University’s Surveying Engineering program had already been made — until this reporter told him otherwise last week.
Eliminating the program — which includes Wurm’s and two other faculty jobs — was among the budget cuts NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers announced earlier this month. Cutting the program, NMSU says, would save the university $340,644 each year. The university is struggling to address an estimated $12.1 million shortfall in the current fiscal year caused largely by decreased state funding and declining enrollment.
NMSU may have given the impression that the decision to eliminate Surveying Engineering was final. A news release and a slideshow presentation given at a public meeting earlier this month said the plan would be presented to the Faculty Senate in the fall, but Carruthers told NMPolitics.net he believed the cut could be made regardless of the Faculty Senate’s recommendation.
Cutting an academic program requires the approval of the university’s governing body, the Board of Regents. But that wasn’t mentioned.
Regardless, the proposal to cut Surveying Engineering is, at this point, just that — a proposal. The Regents have the authority to decide whether to “create, reorganize, relocate or eliminate” any academic program, university policy states.
NMSU spokesman Justin Bannister and Debra Hicks, the Regents’ chairwoman, confirmed last week that the Regents will decide whether to cut the program.
The state’s Open Meetings Act requires that the decision be made at a public meeting. There would be opportunity for public input and discussion.
A vote by the Regents could come later this year, but only after the Faculty Senate has a chance to weigh in on the proposal.
NMPolitics.net spoke with a number of NMSU community members who, like Wurm, believed the decision was already made. Wurm said he was relieved to hear that his program has a chance to survive.
“It is good news that this isn’t over,” Wurm said. “…It is likely that this recommendation was not properly considered in the big picture, but rather by a simplistic dollars-and-cents perspective. This profession has always been small in numbers, but high, very high, in public recognition.”
Confusion about the process
University officials say NMSU policy gives Carruthers the authority to make many other budget cuts he announced earlier this month — including eliminating jobs, outsourcing employee health services, cutting the women’s equestrian team, and relocating the Center for Latin American and Border Studies.
There’s gray area between what’s policy, which the Regents are responsible for, and what’s administration, which is Carruthers’ job. Even university officials have expressed some confusion about who’s responsible for what. When the Regents voted on May 13 to approve spending levels for each NMSU campus around the state, Regent Kari Mitchell questioned what Board members were approving and what they were leaving to the administration to figure out.
Angela Throneberry, senior vice president for administration and finance, responded that the Board was approving overall spending levels. Regents’ approval would be required to change spending levels later. Many other changes “within a department or an office,” Throneberry said, could be made without the Regents.
At that meeting, Hicks said Regents were giving the administration “what I would consider to be a blank check.”
“I think that we’re expressing our trust in you with this motion to approve,” she said. The Regents voted unanimously to approve the spending levels for each campus.
But not all details other than spending levels are in the hands of Carruthers, as the Surveying Engineering proposal demonstrates. And the university told NMPolitics.net last week that authority to eliminate 126 jobs lies with Carruthers, who announced those cuts on July 12, but that’s also not entirely true. Three of those jobs are the Surveying Engineering faculty positions that only the Regents can cut.
In other words, the process is complicated. That’s why, some say, the university must be clear with the community — so people have an opportunity to be involved in decisions, especially those that are in the hands of the Regents and governed by the transparency requirements of the Open Meetings Act.
“It would seem that the university community, as a subset of the public, especially needs to know whether there is still opportunity for input or whether the decision is final,” said Susan Boe, executive director of the N.M. Foundation for Open Government.
University officials say they’re trying. Noting the confusion about who decides the fate of the Surveying Engineering program, Student Regent Amanda López Askin pointed out that NMSU is “a large bureaucracy” with a budget of more than $600 million. She believes Carruthers has been “very transparent” throughout the process of addressing the university’s budget woes by holding public meetings and communicating in other ways.
“Is it a perfect system? Potentially not, based on some of the feedback I’ve received, but this is a large bureaucracy run by human beings,” Askin said.
Hicks said the Regents have encouraged the administration to discuss its plans with the public.
“They would not have open budget meetings, the administration… if I didn’t push, if the Regents didn’t push,” Hicks said.
Should Surveying Engineering be cut?
The proposal to cut the Surveying Engineering program arguably deserves public debate and scrutiny. Surveyors do many important jobs related to public infrastructure, property disputes, and mapping. “A good New Mexico example of work surveying engineers have done is the ‘Big I’ in Albuquerque – the interchange of Interstates 25 and 40 and their associated frontage roads,” a 2012 news release from the university stated.
Even NASA is looking for surveyors for an eventual mission to Mars.
“Sometimes a university such as NMSU has to do the right thing for the sake of the greater good, for the sake of the society, whether or not it’s economically viable because we’re in a period of low enrollment,” Wurm said.
NMSU is the only university in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and West Texas to offer a four-year surveying degree, Wurm said. Graduates of NMSU’s program have worked for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Highway Administration; state agencies including the Department of Transportation; and cities and counties around New Mexico, he said.
“However quiet and however small we are, we’re still fulfilling a niche that is kind of important to society,” Wurm said.
New Mexico currently requires a 4-year bachelor’s degree in an approved engineering program to become a licensed surveyor. Discussions about changing the requirements are underway, but most of the proposed changes would still require a four-year degree in an engineering program approved by the state licensure board. So what happens if no school in New Mexico offers a four-year surveying degree?
“I’m concerned about our current students. I’m concerned about our future students. I’m concerned about the citizens of New Mexico on behalf of our profession,” Wurm said. “I’m concerned about my own employment.”
Carruthers has said the recommendation to cut the program came from the advisory board in the College of Engineering. The university will allow the 17 students currently enrolled in the program to complete their degrees before eliminating it, he has said.
Hicks, the Regents’ chairwoman, is the president and CEO of Pettigrew & Associates PA of Hobbs, an engineering and surveying company directly affected by the proposal to cut the Surveying Engineering program. She said she doesn’t know whether the Regents will vote to approve the cut.
“I do know the Regents are very committed to degree programs that allow our graduates to get a job in New Mexico, as this one does,” Hicks said. She didn’t say how she planned to vote or if she’s considering recusing herself from the vote.
“Elimination of this program will impact my company,” she said. “As chair of the Regents I need more information to determine what is best for New Mexico State University and New Mexico.”
Askin, the student Regent, said she is “always open to more information and more feedback from faculty and staff and even the general public” as she considers whether to vote to cut the program. But, she said, “I’ll always circle back to the idea that the Engineering College and their advisory board are the ones who recommended that the engineering program be eliminated. They are the experts.”
Wurm questions the process by which the College of Engineering came to make the recommendation to eliminate the program. Information has been sporadic and sometimes not clear, he said.
“It’s clear that we’ve got some financial issues that have to be addressed,” Wurm said. “My biggest question is about the way that we are throwing these cuts haphazardly around.”