Yesterday’s Higher Ed Town Hall

Yesterday afternoon, I participated in one of the series of town halls being held around the state on efforts by the Higher Ed Department on developing an education master plan. We at the Rio Grande Foundation have done a good deal of work on higher education and support the concept of a master plan to ensure that limited resources are used efficiently and that institutes of higher ed exist because they are necessary, not as trophies and patronage tools for local politicians.

While I made some of those points during the discussion, there are a few points that need to be addressed about the town hall format:

1) Approximately 1/3rd of the attendees were from the school at which the town hall was held, in this case SIPI. More than that in terms of the crowd of 25 or so were directly involved in the university system and therefore have a direct financial stake in more higher ed spending;

2) These events draw some eccentric and misinformed people. Attendees ranted about the $787 billion federal “stimulus,” the bank bailouts, tax cuts for the “rich,” and New Mexico’s K-12 system.

State Senator Dede Feldman was in attendance and, for a politician, did a remarkable job of not dominating the discussion. Although Feldman is a pretty liberal sort, she did make some good points including advocating tying reimbursements made by the state to higher education departments to graduation rates. This is a sensible, moderate solution.

While Feldman and most in the room avoided the topic of actually closing some components of our bloated higher education system, I think the way to do this is with our own equivalent of the federal government’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission. This would involve a commission studying which schools and branches are least necessary and then giving the Legislature the chance to vote up or down on the recommendations.

Anyway, perhaps the current Higher Ed Department can come up with a solid plan that the next Governor can implement. Coming up with a plan is simple; implementing it is the difficult part.