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Shake-up at higher ed as another New Mexico agency loses leaders

Jens Gould
Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE - The interim leader and deputy secretary of New Mexico's Higher Education Department have left their positions, adding to the turnover in top positions within Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration.

Kathie Winograd, who had been leading the department since former Secretary Kate O'Neill resigned, departed the agency after her temporary contract expired in late June.

Around the same time, Deputy Secretary Carmen Lopez left her position to take another job, according to a July 1 letter from the Governor's Office to higher education leaders in the state.

"Governor Lujan Grisham recognizes the unique opportunities and substantial challenges higher education is currently facing and we are diligently working to appoint a cabinet secretary as soon as possible," the governor's chief operating officer, Teresa Casados, wrote to university presidents, chancellors and other higher education leaders.

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Stephanie Rodriguez, the governor's senior policy adviser for education, and Workforce Solutions Deputy Secretary Ricky Serna are now overseeing the department "over the next several weeks" until the governor appoints a new secretary, the Governor's Office said.

The departures come as public universities and colleges in New Mexico are preparing for austere times as the state has reduced previously approved higher education spending amid a huge budget shortfall caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The news also marks another example of executive branch leaders stepping down during a time of local and national crisis.

On Friday, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel, who has been key to coordinating the state's coronavirus response, announced she intends to retire in the near future.

The interim leader and deputy secretary of New Mexico's Higher Education Department have left their positions, adding to the turnover in top positions within Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration.

Olivia Padilla-Jackson, former Cabinet secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration, left her post at the end of May — just as her agency was gearing up for a special legislative session to fix the budget gap.

In total, Cabinet secretaries at seven departments have left their posts, or announced they plan to do so, since Lujan Grisham took office 18 months ago. That's nearly one-third of the departments under the governor's authority, according to a state government organizational chart published by the Legislature.

Additionally, the former director of the state's Office of African American Affairs, William Scott Carreathers, resigned in June. Lead state epidemiologist Michael Landen also stepped down from his role last month.

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Lujan Grisham has said in the past that she keeps a demanding work schedule and pace for herself and staff members, sometimes starting early in the morning and continuing until night.

"I'm tough to work for," she said in an interview last year.

Asked whether that work ethic might have played a role in the recent resignations, spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett gave a one-word answer.

"No," Sackett said.

O'Neill, who was secretary of the department until March, stepped down "to attend to family matters at the outset of the pandemic," Sackett said.

Winograd, who is the former president of Central New Mexico Community College, was then brought on as Lujan Grisham's higher education adviser. Over the next three months, she oversaw the department while Lopez continued as deputy secretary.

Winograd is retiring, while Lopez has taken a position as senior democracy director at the State Innovation Exchange, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit, the Governor's Office said.

For now, Rodriguez is overseeing day-to-day operations of the Higher Education Department, while Serna is supervising budgetary issues and plans for campuses to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Together they will provide leadership and oversight at the department in addition to managing some critical priorities that intersect with your work," Casados told higher education leaders in her letter.

Rodriguez and Serna also will work on the implementation of the Opportunity Scholarship, a Lujan Grisham-backed program aimed at providing free college tuition to New Mexico residents, according to the letter.

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