SANTA FE, NM (By Chelsea Erven, Daily Lobo) October 14, 2010 ― The UNM Faculty Senate hosted an on-campus Forum on Higher Education where state legislators and gubernatorial candidates were invited to share their perspectives on New Mexico’s higher education.
Faculty Senate President Richard Wood said community members engaged candidates and elected officials about the higher-education issues.
“We wanted to get key higher education issues that affect students, staff, faculty and the whole higher education community onto the table, and talk with our elected officials about them,” he said.
Nine New Mexico legislators, including seven democrats and two republicans, as well as Lt. Gov. candidate Brian Colón answered pre-selected questions.
The questions were selected from hundreds of questions submitted by faculty, students and staff members in an online survey and focused on higher education funding, strategic priorities for higher education, the regent selection process and student preparedness.
Wood said the budget is the critical issue being addressed at the forum.
“Budgets always sound boring, but this is about pocketbooks and the learning environment for all of us, and how UNM can stay the kind of place where students can thrive in higher learning,” he said.
Student Kayla Ulibarri said she was interested to see what candidates have to say about budget issues. “I would go just to see where the budget is going and see what our leaders are doing about it,” she said.
Graduate student Andrea Ochoa said she watched because she is unhappy about problems affecting graduate students.
“As a grad student, I see our department taking huge budget cuts, and I’m disappointed in the school’s priorities when it comes to grad students. Something needs to change,” she said.
Senate leaders from other higher education institutions around the state were also encouraged to participate, Wood said.
The event was simulcast online so that faculty, students, staff and other higher education institutions in the state could see the legislator’s responses to questions, said Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, chair of the Faculty Senate Governmental Relations Committee.
The UNM Faculty Senate made repeated efforts to connect with state legislators and gubernatorial candidates, but neither gubernatorial candidate attended the Forum on Higher Education.
Faculty Senate President Richard Wood said both gubernatorial campaigns have ignored higher education issues, even though it’s an important topic to New Mexico voters.
“We think that’s a real mistake. To vote well, voters need to understand where candidates stand on the crucial issues,” he said. “The forum will do that.”
Both gubernatorial candidates Diane Denish and Susana Martinez were invited in September to the forum, and Wood said the Faculty Senate communicated with their campaign staffs since June 23 about the event.
Diane Denish’s running mate, Brian Colón, attended the forum, and Martinez’s running mate John Sanchez was not at the forum because of a scheduling conflict.
Wood wrote in the candidates’ invitation given New Mexico’s higher-education issues and the looming UNM budget crisis, the Faculty Senate thought their campaigns would be incomplete without a public discussion on the topic.
“New Mexican students and parents deserve such a discussion, and residents threatened with insecurity in their jobs or their businesses need to know how each campaign might strengthen higher education once in office,” Wood said.
Both Denish and Martinez were unavailable for comment.
Donald Gluck, president of UNM Conservative Republicans, was among several people demonstrating by Johnson Gym. He said he is puzzled why Martinez did not attend the forum.
“I think Martinez and Sanchez are supportive of higher education and of people improving themselves through education, but we can’t really speak for the candidates,” he said.
Both Denish and Martinez have published statements on their websites and campaign brochures relating their stances on New Mexico education, but neither addressed specific higher-education issues.
“Education in New Mexico constantly ranks at the bottom of national lists,” Martinez campaign brochure reads. “This is unacceptable. As governor, Susana will work to ensure more money goes directly into the classroom — where it can actually help students — instead of to a wasteful bureaucracy.”
Denish’s campaign website says, “Diane Denish believes a quality education is the key to getting a good-paying job and achieving your dreams,” but only specifically addresses issues pertaining to grades kindergarten through high school.
Graduate student Andrea Ochoa said it’s hard to tell if higher education is a priority for either candidate. “Higher education should be the biggest priority to them and to the entire nation,” she said. “They should be here addressing the issues.”