Hector Balderas found himself at a crossroad.
Unable to seek reelection due to term limits after serving eight years as New Mexico’s attorney general, Balderas, who had previously served two terms as state auditor and one term as a state representative, weighed his next career move.
“I had numerous private-sector options,” said Balderas, 49. “There’s obviously been consideration for future public life.”
Balderas, who ran for US Senate in 2012 and at one point was considered a gubernatorial contender, has chosen a path in higher education instead.
Long considered a potential star in the Democratic Party and long steeped in the intricacies of state government, Balderas was a nontraditional hire when Northern New Mexico College’s Board of Regents selected him as its president last month — a move he said fits not only his skills and the small school’s needs but also his passion.
“I wanted to use my unique leadership skills at this point in my career,” said Balderas, who started his new job Jan. 1 under a $232,500-a-year contract.
While acknowledging a future in politics is still in the cards, Balderas said he’s committed to the Española-based college, which has an enrollment of about 1,500 students.
He secured a 3½-year contract that automatically extends for an additional two years, or until June 30, 2028, if Balderas remains employed as college president on Jan. 1, 2024.
“I haven’t ruled anything out, [but] I don’t have any plans other than to transform Northern,” he said.
Though unanimous, the selection of Balderas — a politician with a law degree and a lot of connections but no experience in academia — has sparked mixed feelings on campus and beyond, particularly since he was selected over Española native Patricia Trujillo, a former NNMC professor who has a doctoral degree and is deputy secretary of the New Mexico Higher Education Department.
Former state Rep. Roger Montoya of Velarde said reactions to Balderas’ selection run the gamut.
“Some people agree with my hopefulness; others are pessimistic,” he said, adding a section of the community was rooting for Trujillo, not only because she is a native of the area with direct ties to the college but also the only female finalist.
Montoya said he’s hopeful about Balderas’ capacity as a leader.
“He’s an impressive man, and he’s done so many good things. But in the context of leading an institution of higher education, you know, he doesn’t necessarily have a résumé to that end,” he said.
Nevertheless, Montoya said he is hopeful for Balderas’ success, in part because he came out of Northern New Mexico’s Mora County, which has a similar context of poverty and small towns.
“I think he has the grit and the determination and the resiliency. And hopefully, I’m sure he has the memory of what it is to live and to try to elevate from that kind of a society, which is similar to Española’s,” Montoya said.
The son of a single mother who didn’t own an automobile, Balderas grew up in public housing and on food stamps in Wagon Mound, a small village in Northern New Mexico about an hour and a half from Santa Fe.
“I spent a lifetime trying to get out of a small town and seek opportunities,” Balderas said, adding it was education that propelled him out of poverty.
Board of Regents President Michael Martin said Balderas identified well with students at the college, one of the reasons he was tapped to lead it.
“At both of the community meetings, both in El Rito and Española, he mentioned that he grew up just like the students at Northern — single mom in poverty, lots of adversity — and he was in a spot now where he can give back to those people, and that really impressed me, specifically,” Martin said.
Martin said Northern’s former president, Rick Bailey, “didn’t really come from a background in academia” either.
Bailey, who joined Northern in 2016, spent 24 years in the US Air Force and retired as a colonel and command pilot. He is credited with leading Northern out of a financial morass. The college at one point risked losing state and federal funding because of financial mismanagement. An external audit Bailey ordered led to embezzlement charges against the former financial director.
Bailey “did an excellent job for us at Northern and so [academic experience] wasn’t something that we thought you have to have in order to succeed because President Bailey had shown us through his success how that was not one of the most important things to have in a president,” Martin said. “It’s more what’s in the person.”
Bailey stepped down last year to become president of Southern Oregon University, where enrollment is about four times larger.
Martin, who has served on the Board of Regents for four years, said Balderas’ experience as state auditor and attorney general will help Northern maintain the progress it has made.
‘I quickly became their top choice’
Balderas isn’t shy about touting his accomplishments — “I’m the first lawyer from my community” — and believes he’s the right man for the job.
“I’m kind of at the height of my power and experience to give back and to do something very rewarding, and I saw the Northern job opportunity pop open, and I began to look at that organization and then soon realized that their specific needs kind of played to some of my strengths,” he said.
“They needed someone to fiscally stabilize them coming off some years that they were in crisis,” he said. “No. 2, they needed a strong fundraiser, and they were [also] looking for a special type of communicator … to tell their story.”
Balderas said he also saw an opportunity to change lives. “I thought, ‘I’ve spent my entire career working on the back end of a tragic pipeline,’ ” he said. “As a prosecutor, as a lawmaker and as attorney general, I’ve dealt with Hispanics that end up in jail and prison, and I’ve become really excited to work with communities that I was raised with to really work on the front end of the pipeline.”
Balderas said he “quietly submitted his name” for consideration as president of Northern “with no conversation to any political players.” He said it was important for him to be considered on his own merits.
“I was excited that I thought I could lend some of my skills to an institution and a community that I care deeply about,” he said.
During the interview process, Balderas said he talked about how academics had opened the door of success for him.
“I said, ‘I was raised by a single mother, and it was professors and educators that saved my life.’ I said, ‘You need to be represented by someone who respects your profession,’ ” Balderas recalled.
Balderas noted Northern is unionized and that he was “No. 1 as far as having the most union experience” among the candidates being considered for president.
“When I told them about my personal experience and how I view academic freedom and the tenure process and the collective bargaining process, I quickly became their top choice,” he said. “Secondly, I began to talk about how I would partner with the academic community, and when I talked to them about fundraising and my experience in equity and some of the advocacy work that I have done, I then was very solidified as their top choice .
“While I don’t have direct academic and research experience,” he added, “they soon realized that I had very complementary executive experience that I became their top choice.”
Proving the naysayers wrong
So Balderas wants to get some guidance.
According to his contract, Northern “at its own expense” will provide Balderas access to an executive coach for college presidents. He is expected to identify and begin working with an executive coach within the first six months.
Balderas said he’s thinking of reaching out to the likes of former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, who served as Chancellor and president of New Mexico State University, or Daniel H. Lopez, former president of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, also known as New Mexico Tech, in Socorro.
Balderas’ contract also requires Northern to provide him “access to a seminar for newly selected college presidents.”
Still, Balderas downplayed his lack of academic experience, saying he’s been discounted before.
When he ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives, critics said he was too young and didn’t have political experience.
When he ran for state auditor, naysayers said he wasn’t qualified because he wasn’t a certified public accountant.
When he ran for attorney general, “they said, ‘Well, he doesn’t have a lot of litigation experience’ because I had never worked for a law firm, and I didn’t have the pedigree of practicing law like [former state Rep.] Daymon Ely, but yet I’ve brought in the most revenue than any other practicing AG in the history of New Mexico,” he said.
“I think it’s going to be the same thing with the presidency,” Balderas said. “They’re going to say I didn’t have any experience in academia, but I’m probably going to attack the inequities for Hispanic and Native American rural students in higher education more aggressively and fundraise and tell their story more aggressively than anybody in history, and that’s my goal.”
Balderas said Northern has “a very small donor base” and “a very modest culture of giving” that he hopes to “greatly expand” by telling its story.
“They are among, I believe, one of the culturally wealthiest regions in the nation, and that’s how I will tell their story,” he said. “I mean, they have sacred tribal land and wonderful Hispanic rural communities all meshed with a desire to succeed and learn, so I’m excited to tell their story and to raise the funds that the academic community and the students need to build a better student experience.”
Balderas said he plans to tap into state and national donor bases, from “some of the most successful tribal economic companies all over the country” to the automobile industry, which is short master mechanics.
“I’m also going to develop a strategy for the Legislature to also properly invest in that institution once we develop an updated strategic plan and a regional plan,” he said. “I think there’s some exciting opportunities, and I think the Legislature is going to be excited about investing in that institution and in that region.”
How long Balderas will invest himself in Northern remains to be seen.
Martin, president of the Board of Regents, said Balderas’ political aspirations were a topic of discussion before his hiring.
“I served as the chair of the search committee, and so we interviewed Mr. Balderas both as a search committee and then again as regents, and both times the question came up. He said he was ready for a change in his public service from an elected position to something he could do in higher ed, and so that’s the assurance he gave us,” Martin said.
Balderas said he’s focused on helping the college continue to succeed. His contract gives him the option to live in a college-owned residence at Northern’s El Rito campus, which Balderas said he plans to do.
“I’m a norteño, you know, so I’m always from these communities,” he said. “I go where the people need me.”