A new era is here for The University of New Mexico, and it certainly is welcome.
For the first time, UNM has a female president, Garnett Stokes. She comes to the school from the University of Missouri, where she served as provost. She took over Thursday, at a time when UNM is facing challenges on a number of fronts.
There are scandals to take care of, from the fate of head football coach Bob Davie, currently on suspension, to dealing with an athletic department that owes $4.7 million to the university. She must decide whether to cut the coach loose and, perhaps, forgive the department’s debt, as well as ensure its finances are run more competently going forward.
Across higher education in New Mexico, the budget has been lean in recent years. That makes it likely that UNM could at least consider raising tuition, something that might put an already expensive education out of reach of more New Mexicans. The UNM Board of Regents will be holding its budget summit in a few weeks and ultimately make those decisions, but a president’s input will be needed.
Then, there are the perennial problems colleges and universities face. Those include helping students complete their education in a reasonable time, finding ways to keep faculty paid and satisfied, and shoring up declining enrollment even as students receive less money from lottery scholarships and costs increase. The athletics department problems might grab headlines, but the most pressing challenge is how to shape the university education of the future.
To find the best way forward, the new president has said she will spend much of her time listening to different groups — students, faculty, staff and, of course, the wider New Mexico community. Stokes is fortunate that Chaouki Abdallah, who served as president while the search for former President Robert Frank’s successor was underway, remains at UNM as provost. His leadership proved invaluable over the 14 months he was acting and then interim president.
As such, the board of regents formally recognized Abdallah as the 22nd president of UNM. Now, he has said he is eager to get back to his job as provost, where he has been dedicated to improving the academic experience and helping plan UNM’s future. He said in an online interview for UNM that funding sources — traditionally state dollars, tuition, research and private giving — are changing and universities must adapt.
“In my discussions with provosts elsewhere and other academic leaders and colleagues, I learned that the good old days weren’t coming back,” Abdallah said. “I realized that these four traditional sources of funding were not going to keep up with the cost of providing good, quality education. Re-engineering is not a short-term fix, it’s a new model of funding higher education for long-term sustainability.”
And a sustainable university is what New Mexico needs.
President Stokes arrives at UNM at a moment of great potential for our state’s flagship university, a time when leadership, the ability to make tough decisions and the skill to bring diverse groups together will be needed more than ever.
We like her approach — listening first before jumping to hasty conclusions or decisions. As a veteran of higher education, Stokes held down top jobs at the University of Missouri when racial protests erupted on campus and at Florida State when questions arose about how the school had handled an investigation of sexual assault against a Heisman trophy-winning athlete. She is no stranger to conflict or crisis. That will be useful in her new job, where the ability to steer the ship through rough waters will be both a necessary and welcome skill.
With Stokes and Abdallah working in tandem, UNM has the potential to work its way through its challenges, keeping the focus on educating students — always a university’s most important mission.