CLOVIS — Becky Rowley has spent most mornings of her adult life jogging along the streets of Clovis. She runs through the neighborhood in which she grew up, past the law office her grandfather started in the 1930s, and by the high school where English teacher Lois Jones helped her develop a love for literature.
Even in the busiest section of downtown, her hometown offers safe passage for runners.
“There’s not that much traffic in Clovis,” Rowley said. “On a Sunday morning, I can run down the main street without worrying about any crowd.”
The backdrop to her morning routine is about to change from Eastern New Mexico’s pancake-flat plains to the mountains of the state’s capital. Rowley, who has run 25 marathons, is wrapping up her final weeks as president of Clovis Community College before taking over as president of Santa Fe Community College in July.
Once she sorts through her collection of 2,000 or so books and determines what to keep and what to donate, the former literature professor will relocate for a new challenge at a larger college in a busier town.
But the challenge is greater than mere movement: Rowley says the job at Santa Fe Community College provides greater opportunity to affect community colleges statewide.
“It’s hard to leave Clovis, but I caused this disruption,” Rowley said in a twang refined through a lifetime spent eight miles from the Texas border. “This did not happen to me; I caused it.”
Rowley, 55, said she started at Clovis Community College on a nine-month contract in 1988 as an English teacher — a position that opened only after someone quit at the last minute. Since that unremarkable start, she has run a circuit in education: temporary and full-time faculty member, department chair, vice president of academics and student services, community college president.
In each post along the way, Rowley said she worked into a shot at a promotion.
“Nobody is going to just pick you out of a crowd. If you want to move up, you have to do the right things to be seen,” she said. “I volunteered for things and made sure that I was at events where I met people.”
Over eight years with Rowley as president, Clovis Community College’s persistence rate, which measures the percentage of students who return for a second year, has improved from 34 percent to 84 percent, according to data from the college.
In Clovis, a city of 38,000 where her parents, uncles, brothers, nieces, and nephews still live, Rowley said she focused on adapting the college’s programming to the surrounding workforce.
Rowley, who graduated from Clovis High School in 1982 and had moved out of town only to obtain her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, said the town’s Air Force base, dairy farms and railroad hub are established industries that steadily draw employees from Clovis Community College.
During her tenure, the college worked on offering more adaptable careers as well. Its nursing program, which administrators say enrolls about 25 percent of students and receives more applicants than it has spots, prepares students for an in-demand job. In 2016, Clovis started a physical therapist assistant program.
But for community college presidents, becoming enmeshed in the larger community is just as important as new classroom initiatives. Rowley fills the role with gusto. It’s not unusual for her to spend a morning having breakfast at Cannon Air Force Base, the afternoon speaking with Curry County dairy farmers and the evening hosting a health care career fair that attracts hospitals from across the region.
“She understands that in order for a community college to be successful, it has to constantly be building relationships in its community. That is her strength,” said Central New Mexico Community College President Kathy Winograd, who started working at the Albuquerque school in 1997 and has worked with Rowley on legislative issues.
“She is talented in terms of her academic credentials and background. She was a teacher and vice president and all that,” Winograd continued. “But she also has that incredible skill of being able to understand that a community college is successful when we are taking care of our communities.”
Part of Rowley’s new community is the Roundhouse, where she will be a leading voice in advocating for legislation that will affect community colleges statewide. She said her first foray into politics was attending Curry County Chamber of Commerce meetings as Clovis Community College’s vice president. Since 2015, she has been president of New Mexico Independent Community Colleges, a network of 10 community colleges that includes Santa Fe as well as Northern New Mexico College in Española and Luna Community College in Las Vegas, N.M.
“When she told me she was leaving, in a way I was saddened, like, ‘What are we going to do now?’ ” Clovis Community College Board of Trustees member Raymond Mondragon said. “But we’re going to be OK because she’s still in our state, and in Santa Fe we know she is the best representative us and all the other community colleges in this state could have.”
Rowley said the legislative challenge for New Mexico community colleges is that many have vastly different profiles: Central New Mexico has more than 22,000 students, while Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari has around 800.
“I have good experience connecting with conservative legislators from rural areas and explaining to them what is important to community colleges,” Rowley said. “And in Santa Fe, it’s all about how you talk and how you listen. You don’t want to seem weak, but you also don’t want to seem entitled to anything.”
Of the five finalists in Santa Fe Community College’s presidential search, Rowley was the only one with experience in New Mexico. During the 2019 legislative session, Rowley said she sometimes drove from Clovis to Santa Fe and back twice a week.
“During the last session, she was quite active and a really good presence. Even to the point that [Legislative Finance Committee director David Abbey] joked in the hall one day that I better hire her,” said Santa Fe Community College board Chairwoman Linda Siegle. “Knowing New Mexico is so important because we’re really weird. So it can be hard to understand the way things work. Knowing New Mexico going to be a big asset in not just the Legislature but everything.”
As she starts at Santa Fe Community College, which has an enrollment of around 5,400 students — 1,800 more than Clovis — Rowley joins an institution that has regained financial footing after recent periods of uncertainty.
In 2012, the state reported 21 findings in its financial audit of the college but found none in fiscal year 2018. Since 2014, the college’s cash reserve balance has increased from slightly above $700,000 to above $3.9 million.
On campus, financial stability has helped improve conditions for employees. During the last session, the Legislature mandated that public institutions of higher education give faculty and staff a 4 percent raise. According to its 2019 budget, Santa Fe Community College will give employees a 5 percent bump. Earlier this month, the governing board and the school’s faculty union reached their first collective bargaining agreement after more than two years of negotiations.
“I know it must have been brutal for the college to get its financial problems turned around,” Rowley said. “But they’ve come out on the other end of that and are much stronger now.”
Ahead of her July 1 start date, Rowley said she plans to do about six months of listening before acting to implement any new initiatives or programs. As soon as Santa Fe Community College hired current interim President Cecilia Cervantes November 2017, Rowley said she knew she would seek the job, the first position she has applied for outside of Clovis.
“I know a lot of people all over the state, but I’m not ancient. I’m at a good point in my career where I have experience to offer, yet I’m not looking to retire anytime soon,” Rowley said. “It feels like the right time for a change, and I might be ready to leave Clovis, but I don’t want to leave New Mexico. That’s why Santa Fe is the right fit.”
Now that she’s made the jump — or caused it, as she says — it’s time to adjust. Once in Santa Fe, she will have to become accustomed to a change in altitude, landscape, even patterns in her running schedule. In Clovis, she says the arch of one highway overpass is the only available incline to practice running hills.
“A difference in the terrain will be good for me,” Rowley said. “You get tired of running in the same place.”