Richard Holder
Richard Holder
Credit: Carolyn Gonzales

Forty years ago, Americans watched the Watergate impeachment hearings of President Richard M. Nixon, Albuquerque Cab Company began operations, and at the University of New Mexico a young, new professor, Richard Holder, arrived on a campus that was finishing off a few years of extensive construction.

“I was immersed in organic chemistry. I had one graduate student and one undergraduate working with me to get research projects going,” he said.

Holder arrived to a small, mostly young group of colleagues in the Chemistry Department. “It was a good place to be,” he recalls, noting that enrollment was probably half what it is today and that teaching took precedence over research. “We had no post-docs; now we have five to ten,” he said. In those early years, chemistry had few Ph.D. students: 20 then, 80 now.

Teaching has changed, with technology bringing new tools into the teaching chest. Students haven’t changed as much. “UNM students have great diversity and abilities. Like other state-supported institutions, many struggle. Our best students are as good as those anywhere. Many from chemistry have gone to work for large firms like Dow and Exxon – others are teaching. Our best undergraduates go on to do great things,” he said.

Holder took one year out, 1984-85, to work for the National Science Foundation. “I managed the organic chemical dynamics program and found out that I liked administrative work. Through it, I could help others be successful,” he said.

Holder followed the trajectory common among faculty then. He went from faculty member to chair (1989-91). He broke with tradition, though, by becoming dean of the Office of Graduate Studies rather than his own college: Arts & Sciences. He also served as dean of University College while working in the Provost’s Office on an interim basis. One needs an org chart to map Holder’s career.

Jan Roebuck was the first provost Richard Holder served under.

Then Holder held firm. He stayed in the Provost’s Office for 25 years. The first provost he served under was Jan Roebuck, who was interim while retaining her role as dean of Undergraduate Studies, which later became part of University College. Other provosts Holder worked with included Paul Risser and Mary Sue Coleman, both of whom went on to become university presidents elsewhere.

As Associate Provost, Holder had curricular and branch oversight, as well as promotion, tenure and faculty retention, “All of faculty life,” he said. “I had the feeling that someone from the faculty had to make life easier for faculty to be successful.”

Holder saw provosts and presidents who came from internal ranks and those brought in from the outside. “That pattern persists to this day. External people bring in different experiences, which is good, but internal people offer continuity and stability,” he said. 

Last year, Holder served as president of Faculty Senate. It wasn’t the first time he held that position. “I was elected 28 years ago, but didn’t finish my term because I was selected for the position in the Provost’s Office. I felt bad about not finishing it, so that’s why I did it now,” he explained. He served as president last year and is past-president this year.

He values the role of Faculty Senate in governance of the institution. “The president and the provost were active in attending Senate meetings. Regents used to attend meetings, but don’t do so any more,” he said.

Holder said that when he first came to UNM Regents decided whether or not a faculty member got a sabbatical. “We had an artist, Harry Nadler, who applied for sabbatical. One of the Regents didn’t like Nadler’s paintings, so he didn’t want to give it to him,” Holder said.  Another Regent, LANL Director Sig Hecker, persuaded the board to create committees, recognizing that it really wasn’t their role to micromanage the university.

“Every now and then a Regent makes a big difference,” he said.

Of the current issues facing Faculty Senate, President Frank’s China and Innovate ABQ initiatives are on the radar. “The concern is that these projects detract from the real issues of UNM,” he said. Holder said, “Faculty may not support a presence in China because of their suppression of the Tibetans and lack of academic freedom.”

And although Faculty Senate may be concerned about campus resources being diverted to support Innovate ABQ, he said, “We see the possibilities in an entrepreneurial minor coming out of it. The opportunity to combine technology and business in a degree to start a company would be a good addition to the curriculum.”

On a personal note
Holder earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Wyoming. “Then I spent two years in the Peace Corps teaching chemistry in Spanish in Concepción, Chile,” he said. Afterward he went to Yale University where he earned a master’s and a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Holder’s wife Bonny was a UNM employee at KNME and the School of Architecture and Planning. She retired quite a few years ago. “She does some writing, plays music and has acted as an extra in ‘Breaking Bad’ and is currently working in the ‘Longmire’ series.”

Maybe because of his roots in Laramie, Wyo., when not on campus, Holder works with rescue horses through Walkin N Circles Ranch. “They have 80 to 100 rescue horses that need to be fed, exercised and trained to ready them for adoption,” he explained.

Many of the horses were abandoned. “They are expensive animals to feed. Some were brought in; others were abandoned. They picked up two off the streets in Roswell,” Holder said. 

Although eligible to retire, Holder said, “I am teaching organic chemistry to 65 students this semester.”

UNM isn’t likely to see him ride into the sunset on his BMW motorcycle just yet. 

Notes: Harry Nadler, painter and chairman of the UNM Art Department, was on faculty from 1971 until his death in 1990 (New York Times obituary, Nov. 17, 1990).

Siegfried Hecker served on the UNM Board of Regents from 1987-95. He was appointed by then-Governor Garrey Carruthers. (Mallory Reviere, Special Assistant to the Board of Regents).

Paul Risser photo courtesy of Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Oregon State University. Link to oral history.