Former UNM-Taos leader picked to run Higher Education Department
ALBUQUERQUE — 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 Department of Information Technology staffer and former legislator Vincent Martinez 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, 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-schoolers 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. She has scheduled a news conference for 1 p.m. Thursday in Albuquerque to announce additional appointments.