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Elwell: ENMU plans no terminations in Roswell; New president tells ENMU-R employees there is no takeover

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Dr. Jeff Elwell, Eastern New Mexico University president, standing, answers many of the 52 questions ENMU-Roswell employees had submitted anonymously to him Friday on several topics, including concern over a proposal to create three system officer positions. The three people in those positions, which would be formalized as systemwide positions by his proposal, also came to talk to employees. They are, from left, Director of Human Resources and Title IX Coordinator Benito Gonzales, Vice President of Business Affairs Scott Smart and Chief Information Officer and Vice President of Technology Clark Elswick. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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The president of Eastern New Mexico University and three of the system’s senior administrators spent several hours at the Roswell campus Friday answering dozens of employee questions and seeking to reassure faculty and staff that they are not planning a takeover, firings or budget usurpations.

More than 100 people gathered in the Performing Arts Center to hear Dr. Jeff Elwell address their concerns, including many of the 52 anonymous questions forwarded to him by Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell employees. Those questions concern a proposal made Tuesday to the ENMU Board of Regents, as well as larger questions about his willingness to collaborate and coordinate with the local university as he seeks early in his presidency to create a more unified university system. Elwell joined ENMU in July.

On Tuesday, the Board of Regents considered Elwell’s proposal to create three system officer positions to oversee integrated technologies, human resources and business affairs at all three campuses of the university.

Some ENMU-R board members and employees, including Dr. John Madden, president of ENMU-R, expressed worry that they were not consulted before the proposal was presented to the regents. A miscommunication about the conference call which caused the Roswell group to be left out of the meeting for at least 20 minutes also prompted some concern.

The Friday appearance in Roswell by Elwell was intended to clear up misunderstandings and demonstrate his desire to be collaborative.

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Accompanying Elwell were the people who currently hold the system officer positions he has proposed: Scott Smart, vice president for business affairs; Clark Elswick, chief information officer and vice president of technology; and Benito Gonzales, director of human resources and Title IX coordinator.

While people already are in the posts, Elwell has requested that the positions have formal reporting and oversight authorities of those functions on the Portales, Roswell and Ruidoso campuses. In theory, the chief information officer position is already considered a system position, Elwell said. But, in practice, Elswick has not been overseeing the Roswell functions. He has had a supervisory and working relationship with the Ruidoso campus.

The regents voted Tuesday to approve the proposal in concept and to consider it further during their next meeting, now scheduled for Dec. 15. They also plan to talk about creating consistent administrative policies and procedures systemwide, with some variations allowed to accommodate individual campus needs.

In preparation for that meeting and possible centralization, the three senior administrators were scheduled to talk to smaller groups of employees in their areas of concern after Elwell’s presentation.

Elwell stressed that his ideas about creating system efficiencies are not about hampering the local university.

“Takeover is when we say, we are going to run the Roswell campus. … We couldn’t do that by state statute and law,” Elwell said.

In response to several of the employee questions, Elwell told the group that his proposal has not affected and is not intended to impact job titles, salaries or positions in Roswell.

“There have been no terminations that I know of,” he said, which prompted a cry from the audience.

Elwell asked if the speaker wanted to repeat what had been said, as the remark could not be heard clearly at the front of the auditorium. But whoever blurted out the comment did not speak up.

Elwell went on to explain, “There have been no terminations because of the system-level (positions). There have been a number of terminations on all three campuses for a variety of reasons. None of them have to do with this (proposal). … I can’t legally speak anything about personnel issues, but I can tell you here that I heard there were rumors going around that quite frankly surprised me.”

He added that the creation of the system positions will not mean that campuses cannot have their own directors for those functions if they want, and he asked both Madden and ENMU-Ruidoso President Clayton Alred on a couple of occasions to confirm that he had never blocked them from an action their campus or boards had decided to take or reallocated money from the local university to the main campus.

He reassured the group that the campus budget is protected by state procedures and regulations. “You have a CCB (Community College Board) who looks at the budget. You have a president who looks at the budget … and the resources that come in, come in here. The only way we can get them is to come with a gun and take them. I don’t think Scott will come with a gun. Well, if he does, you have permission to call the state police.”

When making the proposal to the regents, Elwell indicated that they were prompted in part by a Legislative Finance Committee report analyzing public higher education institutions in the state from a financial perspective. The report notes that the two of the major sources of revenues for public institutions, state funding and tuition and fees, are likely to see little growth and could decline in coming years. The report urged institutions to consider ways to create more financial efficiencies, including consolidating and centralizing functions.

Elwell said that sharing software and integrating systems could save the system millions of dollars. He also said that, while the Roswell campus performs well in many areas, Portales is also strong financially and in terms of its academic standing. At one point, he mentioned that the low student loan default rate at the four-year flagship university is a benefit to both Ruidoso and Roswell campuses, which have much higher default rates and could be in danger of losing eligibility for federal student loans if not part of the larger system.

Vice President of Business Affairs Scott Smart said the Legislative Finance Commission report provides a good opportunity for public universities to plan how they will decrease their dependency on state funding, not making the mistake that Michigan did by having to raise tuition by double digits year after year.

“What it tells us is that today, in New Mexico, if you put all the higher ed institutions together, 60 percent of our funding comes from the state,” Smart said. “The national average today is 25 percent. … In today’s dollars, I think our state funding will be cut by 50 percent over the next 20 years and that will bring us into line with the rest of the country. … What I see from this is that we can work together to be as efficient as possible so that we can find ways to fight off what is likely to be declining state funding without raising the tuition and fee rate so high that no one can afford to go to college in New Mexico. This is not a takeover in any way, shape or form. This is a way to share resources to become as efficient as possible.”

Steve Henderson, president of the ENMU-R Foundation, added that the state has too many four-year and two-year institutions. “Nobody is going to want to volunteer to give it up. They are all going to be in there champing at the bit and trying to gain more success. … We realize that we are in competition, a lot of us, for a few tax dollars.”

He also said that he thought Elwell’s presentation was helpful and apologized for previously referring to the proposal as a “knee-jerk reaction.” He indicated that, while the proposal on Monday was a surprise to him and some others, he recognized it had been thought about for a while by Elwell and others at ENMU.

Cla Avery, a new member of the ENMU-R Branch Community College Board, said after Elwell’s presentation, “I am really pleased by the passion expressed about the campus and its importance to the community. I think it was a positive meeting.”

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