Ex-leader at UNM-Taos to over­see higher ed

Lu­jan Gr­isham also names her picks to lead Cul­tural Af­fairs, IT, Trans­porta­tion

The Taos News - - LOCAL NEWS - By An­drew Ox­ford aox­[email protected]­i­can.com

For­get the ivory tower. The state’s next top univer­sity of­fi­cial is more fa­mil­iar with the mesas.

Gov.-elect Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham tapped Kate O’Neill, the for­mer head of the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico’s Taos cam­pus, to head her ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment.

O’Neill will take of­fice in the wake of tu­ition hikes at uni­ver­si­ties across the state, which have strained the lot­tery-funded schol­ar­ship pro­gram that thou­sands of stu­dents rely on to cover much of the cost of col­lege. She will have to fig­ure out how to sus­tain that ini­tia­tive while also nav­i­gat­ing a swirling de­bate among pol­i­cy­mak­ers over whether it is time to sim­ply con­sol­i­date some cam­puses in New Mex­ico’s sprawl­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem or at least com­bine boards of re­gents, which are po­lit­i­cal bat­tle­grounds in their own right.

Lu­jan Gr­isham also an­nounced Wed­nes­day she is nam­ing De­bra Gar­cia y Griego, di­rec­tor of the Santa Fe Arts Com­mis­sion, to lead the Depart­ment of Cul­tural Af­fairs. She’ll over­see state mu­se­ums, his­toric sites and mon­u­ments.

The gov­er­nor-elect tapped Vin­cent Martinez, Depart­ment of Information Tech­nol­ogy staffer and for­mer leg­is­la­tor, to run the state govern­ment’s IT agency.

And she named long­time Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion of­fi­cial Michael San­doval to lead that agency.

In tap­ping O’Neill, Lu­jan Gr­isham has ap­pointed a higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary who has worked in one of UNM’s net­work of branch cam­puses, which are cred­ited with do­ing the grunt work of get­ting ru­ral and work­ing New Mex­i­cans into de­gree pro­grams. That ex­pe­ri­ence would seem to fit with Lu­jan Gr­isham’s pri­or­i­ties, which she de­scribed Wed­nes­day as en­sur­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion is ac­ces­si­ble, in­clud­ing in ru­ral reaches of the state.

The gov­er­nor-elect sig­naled that af­ford­abil­ity will have to be a big part of that, telling reporters at a news con­fer­ence in Al­bu­querque that uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges can­not sim­ply raise tu­ition to bal­ance their bud­gets.

“They can’t just rely on tu­ition hikes be­cause New Mex­i­cans can’t af­ford it,” Lu­jan Gr­isham said.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, Lu­jan Gr­isham said her ad­min­is­tra­tion would study lot­tery op­er­a­tions to bet­ter un­der­stand how it could max­i­mize rev­enue for the state’s schol­ar­ship pro­gram.

But Lu­jan Gr­isham ar­gued steps to­ward greater ef­fi­ciency should not scale back ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion.

For ex­am­ple, while some ar­gue merg­ing cam­puses should be a no-brainer when there are 31 pub­lic higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions around New Mex­ico run by 21 boards, O’Neill ar­gued each has its own par­tic­u­lar mis­sion.

The key, she ar­gued, is en­sur­ing the schools are work­ing to­gether, not du­pli­cat­ing ser­vices, and pro­vid­ing smooth paths from one cam­pus or pro­gram to an­other.

“What I’d re­ally like to see is schools across the state col­lab­o­rate more ef­fec­tively,” she said.

A grad­u­ate of Tufts and Har­vard uni­ver­si­ties, O’Neill ended up in New Mex­ico in the same way that many land in a place like Taos.

“I came to visit Taos in 1993 and my wagon wheel fell off,” she told The Taos News in 2017, when the news­pa­per named her ci­ti­zen of the year.

O’Neill started teach­ing at UNM Taos as ad­junct fac­ulty and ended up chair­ing the psy­chol­ogy depart­ment. She took lead­er­ship of the cam­pus in 2006 and over­saw the ad­di­tion of a nurs­ing pro­gram and an early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter.

The school worked with area schools to cre­ate a route for high school stu­dents to grad­u­ate with a diploma and as­so­ciate de­gree at the same time. In turn, the cam­pus be­came some­thing of a hub of the com­mu­nity.

When the molyb­de­num mine near Questa closed, O’Neill pushed to cre­ate a com­mer­cial driver’s li­cense pro­gram to keep min­ers em­ployed. And when she stepped down as CEO of the branch cam­pus in 2016, plans were un­der­way to ex­pand a small busi­ness in­no­va­tion cen­ter and dig­i­tal me­dia arts pro­gram.

O’Neill may not be a na­tive New Mex­i­can, but state Rep. Bobby Gon­za­les told The Taos

News she blended well with the com­mu­nity.

Marc Saave­dra, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the New Mex­ico Coun­cil of Univer­sity Pres­i­dents, said uni­ver­si­ties will want to see the state con­tinue ef­forts to­ward cre­at­ing smooth tran­si­tions from two-year pro­grams to four-year de­grees as well as ini­tia­tives aimed at boost­ing re­ten­tion and grad­u­a­tion rates.

Saave­dra de­scribed O’Neill’s ap­point­ment as en­cour­ag­ing.

“She knows New Mex­ico. She knows higher ed­u­ca­tion in New Mex­ico,” he said.

O’Neill’s ap­point­ment comes as Lu­jan Gr­isham con­tin­ues to fill out her Cab­i­net ahead of tak­ing of­fice on Jan. 1.

File photo

Kate O’Neill at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico -Taos cam­pus in 2017. Gov. Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham named O’Neill to head the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment.

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