Notes from the Oct. 21, 2003 Regents Meeting

by Valerie Kimble

SOCORRO, N.M., Oct. 22, 2003 – Policy changes, from purchasing controls to revised per diem rates, took center stage at the October 21st meeting of the New Mexico Tech Board of Regents.

Regents authorized Tech President Dr. Daniel H. López or his designated vice president to sign commitments up to $250,000 without board approval, up from the previous ceiling of $100,000.

“I review restricted fund expenditures monthly,” López said. He added that the policy change would provide greater efficiency when dealing with an institute budget in excess of $175 million.

“There’s plenty of oversight,” added W.D. Peterson, vice president for administration and finance at New Mexico Tech.

It was noted that under a similar policy at New Mexico State University, regent approval is needed for purchases over $1 million, “a significantly higher threshold,” according to Lonnie Marquez, Tech’s associate vice president for administration and finance.

The New Mexico Tech Board of Regents also agreed to consider new per diem rates at its next meeting in November; in the meantime, Tech faculty are encouraged to view the proposed changes to the institute’s Travel Policy and offer their opinion.
“We haven’t had much response yet,” said López, adding that the campus newsletter SCOPE carries an e-mail address for comments on the proposed policy.

Current travel per diem rates “are way below federal standards, with the faculty bearing the burden,” said Dr. Peter F. Gerity, Tech’s vice president for academic affairs.

“This is an issue they’re anxious to get moving,” Gerity said, explaining that the proposed rates “are as close to federal levels as possible.”

The per diem issue will appear on the board’s November agenda unless a special meeting is called beforehand, according to board of regents president Ann Murphy Daily.

As part of an update on New Mexico Tech’s proposed purchase of the town of Playas, Peterson told regents a purchase agreement with the federal government was “on the table.” Tech has offered to buy the town and its standing infrastructure for the university’s counter-terrorism training and First Responder programs.

“We’re about ready to finish with the earnest money part,” said Peterson. “A group is going to Playas tomorrow to provide inventory and financial information.”

The initial idea, according to Dr. Van Romero, Tech’s vice president for research and economic development, was to use grant money for the purchase.

“The problem is, so many departments want to use it, that if it becomes the exclusive property of one agency, it would be difficult for them to interact with each other,” he said.

With an initial asking price of $3.2 million and more than 20 interested bidders, Romero said he was confident Tech could sell the town on the open market, if that ever became necessary.

“We already have from 10 to 12 very strong customers,” he said, adding that the Department of Homeland Security alone has agreed to purchase 100 days of use for $5 million, “leaving us with 200 days to pursue other business.”

Romero called the Playas project “creating a new EMRTC,” referring to the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center, the centerpiece of Tech’s scientific research park.

Regents also were updated on improvements to Water Canyon Road, a winding, forest road that leads to the proposed site of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO).

Romero recognized Pierce Howell, MRO site project engineer, for “great project management” for bringing the initial rehab phase of the forest road in on time and under budget. Future work includes carving ditches and installing culverts at existing waterways, Howell said.

In other announcements made during the meeting, regents were told that a recent Chronicle of Higher Education report ranked New Mexico Tech first in earmarked federal research funds with just over $56 million. Of the total amount, $41 million was earmarked for the MRO project and the university’s counter-terrorism and First Responder programs.

“Forty-one million dollars in federal funds would get us to the top of any list,” said Romero, explaining that funding for MRO and the First Responder training program propelled Tech to the top of the list.

"We get some ribbing, but then they ask us how we did it," quipped López. “It’s a very demanding effort that does pay off.”

Gerity added that an area often overlooked is the level of competition in the research arena. “We’re forced to play like everyone else,” he said.

Students and faculty both benefit from research funds, said Dr. John Juarez, Tech’s vice president for student and university relations.

“We’re a victim of our own success,” said Romero, adding that he didn’t think New Mexico Tech would head the list next year.

“We need to come up with new projects to take their place,” he said, referring to large-scale research activities. MRO, he said, was in the works for seven years.

In addition, the New Mexico Tech President and several members of the Board of Regents were quite charmed by Prince Andrew, Duke of York, during his recent visit. The younger brother of Britain’s Prince Charles was in Socorro in support of the MRO consortium, of which Cambridge University is a partner.

“We had a wonderful time,” said López of the visit, adding that Prince Andrew is “committed to returning.”

Student Regent Isaiah Storey and Regent Daily commended event organizers and noted that U.S. Senator Pete Domenici in a congratulatory message specifically mentioned the roles López and Romero played in making the project a reality.

In other business considered at the board’s monthly meeting: