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New Mexico State University Carlsbad

Courtesy of New Mexico State University

The New Mexico State University system announced Tuesday a broad restructuring plan for three of its campuses as it aims to reduce expenses in the face of declining enrollment across New Mexico and pandemic-related state budget cuts.

The system will consolidate leadership at three community colleges across the state -- NMSU Alamogordo, NMSU Carlsbad and NMSU Grants -- so that the institutions will operate as branch campuses under central leadership rather than as stand-alone institutions. System chancellor Dan Arvizu appointed Ken Van Winkle, former president of NMSU Alamogordo, as the branch executive director to lead the transition.

New Mexico can't afford to continue funding its more than 30 universities, Arvizu said.

"It's been known for a number of years that we've got way too many institutions. The state -- which provides a very generous amount of support relative to other states -- simply can't afford all these various institutions," he said.

More than three-quarters of New Mexico's higher education revenue comes from state appropriations, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association's fiscal year 2019 State Higher Education Finance report. Student share -- the proportion of total revenue for public institutions paid for by tuition -- is less than 25 percent in the state. Nationally, student share is 46 percent.

Declining enrollments have exacerbated the strain on the state's higher education budget, Arvizu said. Enrollments across the state are down -- New Mexico is one of five states where enrollments have dropped 10 percent in the last decade.

NMSU is no exception.

"The number of on-campus students from 10 years ago is down 66 percent," Arvizu said about the Alamogordo, Carlsbad and Grants campuses. "So we're one-third in terms of people on the campus."

In the fall of 2019, NMSU enrolled 24,041 students, down from 25,312 in fall 2016 and 29,768 in fall 2012. Arvizu said that enrollments for fall 2020 look steady from 2019 despite the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges to the system, including a steep funding cut from the state legislature. The pandemic's impact on the local economy -- particularly on oil and gas production -- has devastated the state's budget.

"New Mexico is an oil and gas state, we live and die with oil and gas," Arvizu said. "We had projected increases of billions of dollars, only to find when oil and gas essentially went to zero that … all of the sudden we had a $2 billion deficit."

In June, the New Mexico Legislature proposed to cut 4 percent from universities' research and public service projects and 6 percent of general higher education funding.

The system is looking to save $1 million through the restructuring process at the three community colleges.

"Stay tuned," Arvizu said -- the details of what and who will be cut to meet that goal are still being worked out.

The system has already eliminated the president positions at all three campuses. With Van Winkle stepping into the executive director role, NMSU Grants president Mickey Best will likely be departing the university. The president's position at NMSU Carlsbad had been open since former president John Gratton retired earlier this summer, and Andrew Nwanne, chief academic officer and provost, has served as interim president.

NMSU's Doña Ana Community College, the only other community college in the system, will not be affected by this restructuring, though Arvizu said it will likely be included in future restructuring plans.

New Mexico State University isn't the first university system to announce leadership changes this year. In July, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education said that it would be combining leadership for several campuses. The University of Alaska system in June proposed a merger between two of its universities which has since been scrapped. In April, the Vermont State Colleges system considered closing and consolidating several of its campuses but punted the issue after significant blowback to the proposal. Connecticut State Colleges and Universities has forged ahead with its plan to merge the state's 12 community colleges despite faculty opposition and a prior rejection by a regional accreditor.

Similar announcements are likely to come from elsewhere as the fallout from the pandemic continues, said Aims McGuinness, senior fellow at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Enrollment declines and budget cuts put significant pressure on the smallest universities within a state system. To save them, restructuring and shared services are often crucial.

"If you don't do something differently, the smaller units are simply not going to be able to survive," McGuinness said.

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