As the mayor and a lifelong resident of Santa Fe, Javier M. Gonzales was the first in his family to go to college. He has since become an advocate for educational opportunities for young people. He served on the Santa Fe County Commission for two terms, and in 2001 was elected as the first Hispanic president of the National Association of Counties, which represents more than 3,000 counties nationwide. He also served two terms as chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico. He most recently was a vice president of corporate responsibility and sustainability for Rosemont Realty, overseeing the greening of office buildings to make them more energy efficient. A former member of the Highlands University board of trustees, he is finishing his six-year appointment to the board of regents of New Mexico State University (NMSU).
How have you balanced your responsibilities as an elected official and a regent, knowing that tough decisions might impact your electability?
A board member’s first responsibility is to the institution and its students. As regents, we are tasked with ensuring that students are given a clear pathway to graduation and that an NMSU degree is seen by the state’s constituents, including employers, as high quality and relevant. To meet these goals, board members must make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions.
As you might imagine, tuition increases are usually at the top of that list. We invite students to participate in the tuition-setting process; it is important that they are able to offer ideas for how their tuition dollars are spent and charged with helping to find budgeting options when funds are limited. Transparency must be a part of our conversations about tuition increases, which makes communicating the rationale for any increase easier.
During my service on the board, we received pushback for raising the academic standards for entering freshmen. This decision reflected our responsibility to recruit students who are prepared to persist and graduate in a timely manner. Those who aren’t quite ready can attend our community colleges and then transfer into the university once they are prepared to succeed. Some saw the increase in student profile as counter to our land-grant mission, but board members saw it as fulfilling our duties and serving as honest brokers.
Do board members have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of the institution in their professional and personal lives?
By taking an oath to serve, board members agree to advocate for the best interests of the institution. We agree to be viewed as representatives of the institution and its brand at all times, even in our personal and professional lives. For these reasons, we need to hold ourselves to high standards.
As a first-generation college graduate, do you feel a special duty to give back to your alma mater?
Even if I weren’t a first-generation student, I would give back to NMSU because I have a special connection to my alma mater that deserves honoring. NMSU provided me with mentors, personal and professional connections, and college-life opportunities that helped me to mature and grow. Perhaps most important, the university provided caring faculty members who pushed me to complete my degree. I served as regent to ensure the same paths to graduation were available to my fellow Aggies.
What would you say to those who think they can only dream of going to college?
We need to stress to all students that college isn’t just a dream. If a student wants to go to college, then we must pair him or her with people who can help that student succeed. We must assist students in defining their passions and relevant courses of study to reduce their time on the campus and resultant debt loads. Once committed to college, students must stay committed. If they need reminders of the reasons to persist, then we need to talk about earning potential, career satisfaction, and all of the other benefits of college. That said, it’s okay to admit that college isn’t for everyone. Professional development and intellectual growth come in many different forms.