SOCORRO, N.M. December 17, 2012 – Two state legislators who represent Socorro visited campus Thursday to get a tour of a new laboratory and hear concerns from faculty and staff.

State Rep. Don Tripp (Socorro) and state Sen. Howie Morales (Silver City) held an open house at City Hall in the morning, then had a private visit at the office of President Dr. Daniel H. Lopez. They then toured the new laboratory at Cramer 114 before hosting an open forum with Tech employees at the Fidel Center.

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Graduate student Ben Cooper explains the new equipment in Cramer 114, the new engineering lab, to state legislators Don Tripp (left) and Howie Morales (center). In the background are V.P. Peter Gerity (from left), President Dr. Daniel Lopez, Dr. Chelsea Hargather and Christy Neill.

 

During the initial meeting, Dr. Lopez told the legislators about his top three priorities for the upcoming 60-day session of the state legislature. The top priority is to craft a funding formula for higher education that is appropriate for a research institution such as Tech, with an increase in core funding, including a 2.5 increase for employee salaries. The next two priorities are funding for special projects, and $6 million to complete the Bureau of Geology building.

“That’s our limited agenda and any help would be appreciated,” Lopez said.

The current proposal for higher education funding is calculated on the average cost per student, regardless of whether the student is in an associate’s program at a two-year college or is a doctoral student at a research university. Lopez said the cost of educating a graduate student is far more than the cost of an undergraduate student.

Morales and Tripp said they understand that the proposed formula does not take into account “quality” of education. Lopez said he’s been pushing for three different formulae for two-year colleges, four-year colleges and the research universities.

Tripp said a big hurdle is that New Mexico has 22 two-year schools – each with legislators who are competing for funding for their home institution.

During the open forum, several Tech professors encouraged the legislators and Dr. Lopez to continue to push for a funding formula that would reward Tech (and UNM and NMSU) for graduate level instruction. The forum lasted about 90 minutes. The following are the main topics covered.

Dr. Bill Stone, math professor, said that high-tech industries in New Mexico are looking to hire people with master’s and Ph.D.’s. Morales said New Mexico lacks a sufficiently skilled workforce, yet the formula doesn’t provide incentives to the institutions that offer graduate degrees. He said he will continue to have discussions about New Mexico’s need for people with advanced degrees and the benefit of fully funding those programs.

Both Morales and Tripp said the state has overextended itself with too many two-year colleges, but reducing the number of community colleges would be politically impossible. They both said that they’d work to prevent the formula from watering down the importance of graduate programs.

Dr. Rick Aster, professor in the Earth and Environmental Science Department, asked the legislators what can be done to improve the funding formula to enhance support for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs, further asking if there is hostility or ambivalence toward adding weight in the formula toward STEM programs. Tripp said the legislative fight is simply about funding and that research schools face an uphill battle. He also said he would talk to Governor Susana Martinez and the Secretary of the Higher Education Department on behalf of Tech.

Dr. Gary Axen, professor in the Earth and Environmental Science Department, asked if faculty members could do anything to assist the lobbying effort. Morales suggested writing individualized letters to legislators urging them to consider funding research institutions separately from other schools.

Dr. David Burleigh, professor of materials engineering, asked about high school proficiency tests and the N.M. Lottery Scholarship Fund. Tripp said the lottery fund is going broke and the state will have to consider options to keep the fund afloat.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech