When Chaouki Abdallah steps aside as the 22nd president of The University of New Mexico later this week, he’ll probably do so with both a little sense of accomplishment and a big sense of relief. Accomplishment coming in the form of knowing that he successfully guided The University through one of its more turbulent times in school history, and relief in knowing that the challenges he’s navigated are no longer his own.

“From a personal perspective, it has been a very challenging, but a very rewarding time,” said Abdallah. “I’ve been honored to serve. It’s been a lot more turbulent than I would have wished, but at the same time I feel like maybe I did keep the ship afloat. One of the things that I feel I’ve contributed to this University is that I’ve talked to a lot of people, I’ve listened to a lot of people and I’ve been able, I hope, to have calmed, at least a little bit, the troubled waters.”

Little did Abdallah know more than 14 months ago just how turbulent this journey would become serving first as acting president, followed by interim president and finally as the president of the state’s largest institution of higher education. The view he’s had from his office on the first floor at Scholes Hall has provided him with a clear perspective of the many challenges he’s witnessed during his tenure including free speech, campus safety, finances and trust.

“The challenges that I faced are very similar to what academic leaders are facing these days. As a leader, you have to look at what’s best for The University. It’s been quite challenging at times, but at the same time an honor, a privilege and a great experience to serve The University as its president.” — Chaouki Abdallah

The first challenge Abdallah faced was an issue of free speech and campus climate issues involving the appearance of controversial conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. “That was a challenge both to live up to what the university should be about as well as to address the concerns of our students’ safety,” said Abdallah. “That’s definitely one that’s going to continue. I don’t expect it to get easier in light of what’s going on across the U.S.”

Campus safety is another growing concern across the nation and UNM certainly is not excluded if a recent incident involving a bb gun on campus is any indication. “It’s one I’ve been concerned with actually since I became provost,” said Abdallah. “There are a lot more incidents across the U.S. and we need to address that, both from an operational standpoint and how we communicate our plans going forward.”

Finances are yet another lingering concern that won’t be alleviated anytime soon. The state’s dwindling resources for higher education due in part to lower than expected revenues and other social concerns, makes it increasingly challenging and difficult to provide affordable, quality education in a state known for being poor.

“Finances have always been a challenge since I’ve been in these positions first as provost and as university president,” Abdallah said. “I’m hoping that in discussions with the university community and the leadership of our new president, that we’re going to be able to look at a long-term model of how we can re-engineer The University to address this issue because it’s not going away either.”

Greeting Students
President Chaouki Abdallah greets students as part of UNM's Welcome Back Days last fall.

Abdallah discussed these issues and raised the question of The University being able to come together amid the lack of trust that sometimes arises in addressing some of the concerns. He admits it’s been a difficult thing to overcome, but says progress is being made.

“I think we have a long way to go, but I feel like one of the qualities I brought to the position, switching from challenges to small successes, is the fact that I believe I established a way of communicating with people that they trust. When I tell people something – it’s the truth as I know it – I’m not trying to hide anything,” he said.

“I think establishing trust is key because these challenges are going to be with us for a while and they cannot be addressed individually by the board (of regents), by the administration, by the faculty or by the students alone. It has to be everybody working together.”

Despite all the challenges and many distractions that literally range from A to Z including the acronym IPRA, Abdallah has remained steadfast in his focus on the academic mission, a task he’s been dedicated to since 2011 when he was tabbed from his position as an electrical engineering department chair in the School of Engineering and appointed provost, despite being unsure of what a provost did. Since then, he’s not only educated himself on the role, one in which he’s looking forward to returning to, but educating students and preparing them to be productive members of society has always been the mission.

“One of the small wins I feel that we’ve had is that we’ve continued to focus on the academic mission,” Abdallah said. “At times when people attack each other or what somebody at the university has done, it invariably goes back to the question, ‘are you doing your main role well?’ I think that’s the key when people try to criticize what the university is doing. It always comes back to the same thing, ‘are you focusing on your main mission,’ and we’ve been able to do that.”

Abdallah points out that The University, any university, has multiple roles that it plays, “but the main mission is education. That’s the first thing we need to do. That includes teaching, providing services such as healthcare, and it includes research. All of those are really the main reason why the university should exist.” An increase in the graduation rates due to a variety of student success initiatives and recruitment, as well as faculty initiatives are a testament to that mission, and the fact that UNM has managed to continue its focus on education. It has led to more students graduating in a shorter period of time saving money not only for students, but The University as well.

Abdallah has also been pleased with many other accomplishments over the past 14 months including the administration’s reliance on data and facts in terms of making decisions affecting student success, and the relationship between main campus and the health sciences, which has improved at a lot of different levels.

“Chancellor Roth and I have worked tirelessly to try to make it a win-win,” Abdallah notes proudly. “There’s a lot more collaboration in the research and service areas, and also in terms of financial planning.”

While he’s deftly handled the challenges, and is modest about the successes, Abdallah knows perhaps the biggest challenge, not only for The University of New Mexico and higher education in general, still lies ahead – re-engineering higher education for long-term productivity and viability. As a systems and controls engineer, it’s a concept he’s embracing more and more all the time.

"We have a great incoming president who has all the values, all the skills and who has been at places where she’s faced considerable challenges and has done very well. I would ask everybody including the board, the faculty, staff and everybody outside the university to give the new president the freedom and the time to learn the lay of the land. Together, when we’re on the same page, we can move mountains." — Chaouki Abdallah

“Re-engineering is actually something I started looking into five years ago in my first year as provost,” said Abdallah. “The idea of re-engineering itself comes from a book, ‘Reengineering the University,’ by William Massey, who was a vice president for administration and finance. His point was that you can’t continue doing the same thing and expect the revenue sources to keep on increasing.”

With state funding, tuition, research and private giving all under stress, the idea of reengineering the university essentially becomes part of the academic mission.

“In my discussions with provosts elsewhere and other academic leaders and colleagues, I learned that the good old days weren’t coming back,” said Abdallah. “I realized that these four traditional sources of funding were not going to keep up with the cost of providing good, quality education. Reengineering is not a short-term fix, it’s a new model of funding higher education for long term sustainability.

“When people talk about the costs of education rising, some of the costs are beyond our control, and others we can control but at a cost, and that cost may be the quality of education we provide. So the cost of providing education is going up, the revenue sources aren’t keeping up and there’s a gap so what are you going to do about it?”

That challenge lies ahead for incoming President Garnett S. Stokes, as well as Abdallah who will also be at the forefront of the discussion. And just how can the campus community help in that effort?

“We have a great incoming president who has all the values, all the skills and who has been at places where she’s faced considerable challenges and has done very well,” said Abdallah. “I would ask everybody including the board, the faculty, staff and everybody outside the university to give the new president the freedom and the time to learn the lay of the land.

“Together, when we’re on the same page, we can move mountains. Have the wherewithal to look at the long term – the big picture. Last but not least, the president can’t do anything alone except set the tone and priorities, and talk about them. It’s really up to the people on the ground to do the work.”