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UNM extends interim president’s contract

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Chaouki Abdallah has shepherded the University of New Mexico through what he’s called an “interesting” five months.

Now he’s agreed to remain at the helm for up to 12 more.

UNM interim President Chaouki Abdallah

UNM interim President Chaouki Abdallah

The school’s governing board recently changed Abdallah’s title from “acting” to “interim” president and formally signed him to a term that could span the next year. His new contract keeps him as interim president through May 31, 2018, or until the UNM Board of Regents appoints a new president.

“Chaouki has done an excellent job,” Board of Regents President Rob Doughty said of Abdallah’s work. “He’s stepped in with confidence and has really gained the respect of every different constituency within UNM.”

UNM will pay Abdallah an annual salary of $315,087 while he’s in charge.

Abdallah took over as UNM’s leader in January after Bob Frank’s departure. Frank stepped down with five months left on his contract, and the school is searching for his permanent replacement. Doughty said Friday that the regents could make a decision by late October.

Abdallah, who spent the previous five years as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, has repeatedly said he does not want the job. He reiterated that in a recent Journal interview.

But he has embraced all the responsibilities that come with his current role and said he will not resist making decisions that could resonate well beyond his time in the president’s office. The regents vested him with the same authority as a regular university president.

“In some ways, I think it’s probably easier for somebody who’s an interim – you’re not really trying to make decisions to either keep the job or look for the next job,” said Abdallah, whose new contract says he will resume being provost and executive vice president when his presidential stint is done. “… I may not be the person to execute on the full plan, but I’m going to be making decisions including hires and other things that will be long-term.”

He said he sees his role as focusing on the school’s academic mission, its financial health and “campus climate” issues like free speech and relationships among different UNM groups. He also wants to help the university thrive despite dwindling state financial support.

“We’ve been thinking about it, talking in smaller groups,” he said. “It’s time to put foot to the pedal.”

Abdallah has not had a quiet five months on the job.

A January visit from right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos generated protests, the school in March fired head men’s basketball coach Craig Neal – the highest-paid state employee at the time – and Gov. Susana Martinez in April clouded the budget planning process by vetoing all fiscal year 2018 higher education funding during a dispute with lawmakers. (Funding was restored last week.) More recently, controversy enveloped athletic director Paul Krebs, who acknowledged last week that UNM paid roughly $25,000 for three boosters to go on a 2015 UNM-sponsored golf outing in Scotland. The trip had already raised eyebrows when it was reported last month that the school paid $39,000 when Krebs and two other UNM and Lobo Club employees took the fundraising junket.

Abdallah described 2017 as “interesting” but resisted describing it as UNM’s most trying period. He noted that other public universities share some of UNM’s challenges, particularly when it comes to budgets and campus climate.

“The truth of the matter is in speaking to other provosts and presidents, many, many universities are facing similar, sometimes even worse, challenges,” he said.