Garrey Carruthers has had so many high-level jobs and hefty titles it’s hard to know whether to address him as governor, chancellor, president or doctor.
Turning 78 at the end of this month, Carruthers is old enough to have collected those and other titles and to be thinking about retirement. But he’s enjoying his fifth year as chancellor and president of NMSU in Las Cruces, and retirement is 11 months off.
A moderate Republican, he served as New Mexico’s governor from 1987 until 1991 and might have gone on but for the state law that didn’t allow a governor to serve consecutive terms.
Before that, he served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, chair of his state’s Republican Party and earned a doctorate in economics from Iowa State University.
Carruthers was in El Paso recently in his official capacity to meet with a group of NMSU alumni.
“We have a lot of alums in El Paso, so I’m looking forward to a good crowd,” he said. “I’ll talk to them about the status of the university and how well we’re doing.
“You would be surprised how many NMSU alums live in El Paso. I can’t give you the number, but I will tell you it’s a big market for New Mexico State University.”
New Mexico State’s total enrollment is about 15,000, and more El Pasoans attend NMSU than students from any other city except Albuquerque and Las Cruces. That makes El Paso pretty important to the university.
“The latest number I have is there are 321 first-time freshmen already enrolled for the fall here at New Mexico State from El Paso,” Carruthers said. “In the fall of 2016, we had 1,326 undergraduates and graduate students from El Paso at NMSU.”
Before the Aug. 3 gathering of NMSU alumni at the Angry Owl Restaurant, Carruthers talked with El Paso Inc. by telephone from the president’s office in Las Cruces.
He talked about retiring, the similarities and differences between NMSU and UTEP and offered his surprisingly positive take on having to freeze 90 vacancies to address a $12 million budget gap.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: NMSU’s enrollment is declining. Why is that happening at a time when UTEP continues to see its enrollment grow? It seems a bit of a mystery.
It’s not a mystery at all. All universities that are in major metropolitan areas have not seen the declines that New Mexico State has or that UNM has to a small degree.
Also, during the recession, students really flocked to universities because there were no jobs. So part of our decline had to do with graduating very large classes. We graduated about 4,000 students last year, and it’s pretty hard to reload 4,000 students at a time when you’re graduating at that level.
I will tell you that our freshman class for this fall is up 15 percent, and our transfers from branch colleges are up 21 percent. But our graduate enrollment is down. We believe part of that is due to some of the declarations from Washington, D.C. regarding immigration status.
Foreign students love the United States for graduate training. But they become very apprehensive when all of a sudden they’re uncertain about their immigration status and whether they can come and go. So we think we’ve lost some graduate enrollment as a result of that.
Q: Is there anything demographically going on in New Mexico that would also cause a decline in college enrollment?
Absolutely. The population in New Mexico in two of the last three years has actually declined. The state has seven colleges and universities, a population that is declining and the worst high school dropout rate in the country.
Q: NMSU’s budget is $561 million, but a lot has been made of the more than $12 million in budget cuts from the state Legislature. What impact are they having on NMSU?
They’ve been very positive in many ways. We’ve gone through a transforming process. I think every university ought to look at what we’ve done here. We’ve kind of reorganized and remodeled the university so it can be sustainable. We’ve lessened the number of levels of management that we have.
Our span of control has gone from three to one – where one boss has three employees – to six to one. We’d like to get it to eight to one.
We’re looking at the prospect of making (the university’s) colleges more efficient and maybe save $1 million to $1.5 million. We’re looking at savings of $10 million to $12 million on a recurring basis as a result of efficiency measures.
Q: This has gotten a lot of publicity, and I haven’t seen a positive spin put on it like that. But you’re saying NMSU, in terms of what it can offer, hasn’t been hurt?
Actually, we get all kinds of positive spin on it. The Legislature thinks we’re well ahead of most universities in doing this.
The faculty has been reasonably supportive and actually participated, along with department heads and deans, in making sure that we were reducing our expenditures in the right area and not the wrong area.
So I’m very proud of our university. A faculty member said to me, “We’ll sail this ship together through the stormy sea.” I think we’ve actually come out of the storm in a much better position than we were. And now we’re in tranquil waters.
Q: A lot of El Pasoans know the Brookings Institution ranked UTEP as the nation’s No. 1 institution this year for research and social mobility. But some might not know that Brookings put NMSU at No. 2 in the country. Why is that?
Most people didn’t realize that we’re both science universities that have paid particular attention to upward mobility and social mobility. Both institutions ought to be extremely proud of that. The University of New Mexico is No. 8. That’s a combination of allowing first-generation students and students from less than wealthy backgrounds come to great universities and to give them the kind of academic experience that causes them to be very successful in the future.
UTEP and New Mexico State and even UNM ought to be extremely proud of our social mobility category. But to get in this particular classification, you also had to be a high-intensity research university as well.
Q: The Brookings list includes other schools that you don’t typically find at the top of lists of academic institutions in the U.S., including the University of New Orleans and the University of Houston. What do the schools at the top of the list have in common?
To get on the list, you have to be a university of choice for students who need an affordable education to begin with and yet have a high-quality science component so they can come and enjoy science and the STEM opportunities, and that’s how you get on the list.
You mentioned the University of Houston. There’s a lot of wealth in Houston, and there are a lot of places in Houston that are not wealthy. I’m going to guess that students who don’t have the funds to go to Harvard or Yale find the University of Houston a very appealing place to attend because it’s very affordable, and they’re a research university.
We have a number of students here who are from upper-income classes and who are very pleased to be here as well. We’re a land-grant university and land-grant universities were founded under an act in 1862 called the Morrill Act, and Justin Morrill was interested in setting up universities in every state for the people. He did not believe everybody could get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton.
When you talk about land-grant universities, there are, I think, 56 of them in the country. They’re rather large, like the University of Arizona, Iowa State, where I graduated, or large universities – Michigan State’s one of them.
Those universities still have central to their mission and values to be the people’s university. They’re there to make sure that students who want an education – but may not have the opportunity to get an education at one of the big private schools – have a place to go and come out educated as well as if they’d gone to one of the best schools.
Q: What does NMSU offer that UTEP doesn’t?
UTEP is an outstanding university, but we do have some disciplines up here that I don’t think are offered at UTEP. That may be an element of it. I don’t know their curriculum down there well enough, but I will guarantee you they do not offer agriculture at UTEP.
We probably, given what I know of their history, have a few more offerings in arts and science than they do. Most of the universities that started as schools of mines have become rather comprehensive, but their strengths have been in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees. So I’m guessing we may have a different mix up here.
Q: Can you offer some examples?
We offer things like hotel, restaurant and tourism management. I’m not certain that they offer something like that at UTEP.
Q: Living on campus at UTEP is a neat experience because there’s a lot of new student housing, which NMSU may not have. But are there other amenities at NMSU that El Paso students and their parents have always liked? The hospitality of the campus is one thing they talk about.
We think our campus is very beautiful, and we get those kinds of compliments all the time. We’re much more spread out because we’re on 900 acres. I don’t think UTEP’s on more than a couple hundred of acres. We have a heck of a lot more parking, and we probably have more students living on campus.
All the comments I get sitting in my chair are what an absolutely gorgeous campus we have, largely because of the amount of green space that’s available. We have multiple parks here and those kinds of things. Students seem to really enjoy that.
Our student life is first class. I don’t know about UTEP and can’t compare them, but we work very hard to make sure our students have lots of activities because we believe retention depends on having good student-life elements.
Q: How does NMSU compare to UTEP on cost for the student who is going to live on campus?
Almost dead even. We’re both very affordable.
I don’t know how many students we have living on campus, but we’re expanding. We’re going to build a new residence hall. We now have a requirement that first-year students live on campus unless they’re from Doña Ana County or meet one of the other exceptions.
What you’ll find is that living on campus really makes students more successful. They develop better networks, but most of all, their retention rate is much higher if they live on campus. UTEP is more of a commuter campus than we are.
Q: You are 77, same age as UTEP President Diana Natalicio as it happens. Most people your age have long since retired. I was going to ask you if you’re thinking about retiring, but I just read you have announced you’ll retire next year.
I’m going to complete my five-year contract, which allows me to retire on July 1, 2018. There are some people here who want me to continue on. I’m willing to do it, but I have not asked for a contract extension.
Q: If they ask you to stay on for a couple more years, would you consider that?
Yeah, I think under the right circumstances, that would be possible. But I have not asked for that.
Q: No question, you have done a million things and had an astonishing career.
Willie Nelson is like 83 years old, still writing music, still performing and he’s had the hardest life of anybody. Maybe I drank a little too much wine, but I’m not in Willie’s class. So we’ve got a lot of old people around and doing a fine job – and your president at UTEP is an outstanding leader.