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ENMU proposes three system positions; Leaders urge caution over ‘centralization’ proposal meant to oversee campuses

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A capacity crowd gathers in the board room of Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell Tuesday afternoon to participate by phone in an ENMU Board of Regents meeting in Portales. "Alarm bells" went off for some on the campus after hearing that Dr. Jeff Elwell, president of the ENMU system, wants to centralize some functions of the Portales, Ruidoso and Roswell campuses. Dr. John Madden, president of ENMU-R, is seated in center. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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A proposal by the new president of Eastern New Mexico University to centralize some administrative functions concerned some of the leaders of the local branch university and revealed a bit of the tension that exists between the flagship university and its Roswell campus as Dr. Jeff Elwell starts his leadership of the ENMU system.

“The alarm bells went off for two reasons, quite frankly, Regents and Dr. Elwell,” said Dr. John Madden, president of ENMU-Roswell. “This was brought forward as an action item to the Board of Regents with no collaboration at all with the branches, and that is a tremendous concern to us.”

The Roswell group met Tuesday afternoon at the local campus to participate by phone in a special meeting of the ENMU Board of Regents in Portales. The local conference room was filled with ENMU-R employees and a couple of board members who connected with the Portales contingent about 20 minutes after the meeting started due to miscommunication about the conference call.

The special meeting was called primarily to consider a proposal released yesterday by Elwell that describes establishing three ENMU system senior administrators who would be in charge of the human resources, integrated technologies and business affairs functions at all three universities, Portales, Ruidoso and Roswell.

In response to Madden’s remark, Elwell, who joined ENMU in July, said he had spoken with Dr. Clayton Alred, president of the Ruidoso campus, with some others on the branch campuses and with regents prior to presenting his proposal.

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Elwell also sought to reassure people that he intends to create a more efficient and stronger university system, rather than to take away from the branches.

“We wouldn’t define it as transferring (functions or position),” said Elwell. “I would define it as oversight. The same functions will occur on the Roswell campus, and those people will just have dual-reporting structures with the president on the campus, if that is who they report to, and the three system officers.”

He also explained that the proposal was developed in part due to recommendations of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Commission (LFC), which produced a report Oct. 24 about public higher education institutions. The report recommended several ways to decrease costs and improve performance at public universities, including centralization of functions and positions among parent universities and their branches.

Elwell pointed out that some of that already occurs. For instance, many  of the financial aid functions on all three campuses are handled by Portales staff, he said. Student services, on the other hand, he said, are handled separately, given the difference among the academic programs at the three locations.

“The idea of all this is to be a stronger system and to help, not to take away,” said Elwell.

Elwell said he had spoken with Dr. Barbara Damron, head of the New Mexico Higher Education Department, and she had expressed her support for his proposal regarding the three positions.

Those positions would be a vice president for business affairs, a chief information officer and a human resources officer. The chief information officer position already exists, according to Elwell’s proposal, but does not currently manage communication systems for the Roswell campus because the two campuses use different software systems and databases.

The regents also made the suggestion that ENMU develop one set of consistent policies and procedures for the entire system, with some differences permitted to allow for the varied missions and needs of the three campuses.

Among those who urged the regents and Elwell to “be careful” and “approach this cautiously” were Eloise Blake and Steven Henderson. Blake is a former ENMU-R health care program administrator and faculty member and current Branch Community College Board member, and Henderson is an ENMU alumnus, a city councilor and president of the ENMU-R Foundation Board of Directors.

“Basically the mission in Portales is not the same as the mission in Roswell,” said Henderson, “so we have to make some adjustments to consider those differences when we adopt any kind of policies.  … When I think about the New Mexico Legislature and the LFC, the word ‘efficiency’ does not pop into my mind. They have created a disaster for our state financing. We need to realize that this advice being given to us doesn’t square with reality. I think we need to take all of this with a grain of salt. … I honor and respect Dr. Elwell, but this seems to me to be a knee-jerk reaction to some criticism that is suspect by the LFC.”

Henderson and Blake both argued that Roswell’s emphasis on health care and other vocational programs create significant differences with Portales and that the local campus has many different accreditation bodies overseeing its work.

“I submit that someone at a four-year college does not truly understand the implications, the work, the budget, the people, whatever, that it takes to do those accreditations, and budget is a big one,” said Blake. “Who is it that is going to put that budget together for submission to us who understands what it takes to pay faculty in the health department? … Let’s not jump into this thing. There is a lot of difference between us. And I don’t think our community, and I am going to speak for the health programs, this community is not going to be happy about this. We need someone who understands EMS and so forth. … As Steve said, let’s not do a knee-jerk. Let’s look at this and see if we can find some common ground.”

Elwell countered that ENMU has some of the same health care programs and accreditation bodies. He also noted that ENMU passed its recent accreditation without any findings or need for interim reports, while ENMU-R is required to file an interim report and participate in an “assessment academy” so that its self-assessments meet the standards of the Higher Learning Commission.

After discussions, the regents voted to approve the concept of Elwell’s proposal. They said they would consider a final version of the proposal as well as further discuss the idea about consistent policies and procedures at the Board of Regents meeting in December.

“It sounds as if we will have a chance for collaboration now,” said Madden after the meeting.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.