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On the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos campus, big things are happening. The campus’ advisory board is at hard of work on its plans for the future, most notably the expansion of some programs and the introduction of some new ones.
All this is happening in spite of a challenging economy and in the face of declining state funding. Figures show state funding for the Los Alamos campus has gone down by 40 percent recently, making the goals of the board even more challenging.
In the middle of this is this month’s UNM-LA Advisory Board election, where the board will fill three open seats. The election is Tuesday, and those interested in voting can do so either at the White Rock Fire Station or at the Community Building in Los Alamos.
Three seats are open but only one is contested. That race is between UNM-LA Advisory Board three-term (12 years) incumbent Ronald M. Dolin and challenger Michelle K. Hall.
Micheline Devaurs is unopposed and Nelson Hoffman is being replaced by John Hofmann. The other members of the board, Stephen T. Boerigter, chair and Linda Hull, secretary, have terms that run until 2015.
Dolin said he decided to become a board member because at the time, he had been teaching on campus and he wanted to get more involved in the school’s academic life and help in the direction the campus was headed.
When he took a seat on the board in 2000-01, the UNM-LA campus was facing some of the same challenges and issues it is facing today.
“When I first came on, we were just going through a bond election and the community supported the new building that’s there now,” Dolin said.
He also described the campus as “vibrant” at the time and they were heavily involved with doing a lot of employee training for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. While that has dropped off, Dolin hopes to be a part of making the UNM-LA campus an integral part of LANL’s future.
“Where I work, in Technical Area 55, there’s going to be a lot of hiring going on in the next few years,” Dolin said. “I think there’s an opportunity there for the university to partner with the lab. Some of the training that’s not being offered at the lab can perhaps be offered through the UNM-LA campus.”
Dolin said he’d also like to see students enrolled at the UNM-LA campus start and finish their degrees here. He said currently, most end up finishing their degrees at the main campus in Albuquerque.
“I think we can help the students better if they can finish here without having to take time away from work or time away from their families to go to Albuquerque,” Dolin said.
Dolin also managed to change the rules that treated students who weren’t from New Mexico differently from in-state residents.
“Tuition was of course very expensive and I worked to get that changed so they could have affordable tuition,” Dolin said.
Dolin said he’ll be working hard to close the state spending gap and maintaining what he says is the campus’ high academic standard, making sure the school’s upcoming goals aren’t sacrificed due to a lack of state funding.
“We are the best performing campus in the whole University of New Mexico system. Every measure that they’ve done shows Los Alamos on top. We even outperform students at the main campus; so we have the best core curriculum in the state and I want to make sure that as we move forward with the new Strategic Plan that we don’t lose sight of maintaining our core and our core excellence as well.”
In order to help close that spending gap, the university briefly toyed with a referendum on raising the property tax rate of up to two mils. The school’s Board of Regents ultimately decided against it, citing a competing bond referendum for the Los Alamos Public Schools and other issues with the overall economy.
The university may bring it back this year and Dolin said the board will be reaching out to residents resistant to a tax increase.
“In my mind, it’s a two-pronged strategy,” Dolin said. “First you have to show the value that we give to the younger, more traditional students, the 18 and 19-year-olds in the community, and how we help the high school students and add value to all those areas. We also have to show the adult community how we add value through enrichment courses, like Russian and Chinese studies, philosophy, not necessarily for the degree-minded, but for someone looking for enrichment.
“I think we can make a compelling argument that we can add value to everybody in the community that our community is enriched by having a community college. Only then I think we can make a successful run at raising the mil rate.”
Dolin has lived in Los Alamos for 28 years and is currently a program manager at LANL.
He and his wife also own Don Quixote Distillery and Winery.
Dolin’s opponent, Hall, said she’s also very familiar with many aspects of UNM-LA. One of her more recent projects involved helping the school writing proposals to the National Science Foundation from which the school received $1.5 million. She’s also attended board meetings as a resident and was interested in the proposed tax increase the board was exploring last year.
“I came there generally feeling like I don’t want to see another tax increase, but by the time the hour and a half was over I was so overwhelmed with excitement about where (the board) wanted to go, that I decided I needed to help them,” said Hall, as to why she is running for a seat on the board.
Hall said she would help the board focus its priorities on UNM-LA’s two “signature” programs: the applied engineering technology program and the school’s first responder degree, a two- year program in emergency management, fire and police science.
“Both of those programs were designed to take advantage of the talents we have in this town in order to teach a really high quality program, but also to take care of the needs of the town, the lab and the county,” Hall said.
With those two goals in mind, Hall says that’s where the board should be focusing.
“Their budget has fallen precipitously, they’ve lost 40 percent of state funding in the last five years, their enrollments are down and everyone’s endowments are down, so the idea is really focus and come out with two programs that are the best in the state, the country and become really well known for that.”
Hall said it is also very important UNM-LA tries to serve the broader community as well. “We need to bring more people into our community, whether that’d be for pleasure or learning,” Hall said. “We need to have more activities that engage us all and make us a rich and lively community.”
Hall said her background in program development would also make her an excellent board member.
“I want to work with the faculty and staff to help get these signature programs where they want to be; I also want to help them build strong collaborations with the community, especially with LANL and the hospitality industry,” she said.
As far as declining enrollment numbers are concerned, Hall said while UNM-LA has a great retention rate, she wants to help the campus expand its recruitment efforts as well.
“The school has really impressive numbers when it comes to retention; we just need to get more of them (students) in.”
But she also said that none of that means anything if the board does not hold key people accountable.
“I want to hold the executive director (Cedric Paige) and the advisory board accountable for implementing this Strategic Plan,” she said. “The advisory board has not been as strong in holding people, including ourselves as well as the university administration accountable for these things. If we’re going for a mil levy, they have to be clearly accountable to the citizens.”
Hall is a PhD-degreed scientist who also has a background working in academia. She has also worked in government for five years as well as industry. She is president of “Science Education Solutions” and has lived in Los Alamos for 10 years.