Since taking the reins of UNM in January, interim president Chaouki Abdallah has been in the spotlight, speaking out on budget, free speech and athletics department issues. Senior editor Kent Walz sat down with him recently for a conversation about his unique background, and how that shapes his views today.
Chaouki Abdallah was like a lot of 22-year-olds with a freshly minted college degree. He was still trying to figure out what to do with his life.
That changed in an instant at a Syrian military checkpoint near his home village of Rashana in his native Lebanon.
Abdallah had come to the United States to escape a growing sectarian civil war at home and had earned an undergraduate degree from Youngstown State University in Ohio in 1981.
“After Youngstown I said that’s it, I’m done. I was going to go back to Lebanon and work … or maybe getting a master’s, which you need in Lebanon to get into the engineering guild. So I’m debating this.”
“By that time, the Syrian army was all over Lebanon and I’m going home. My sister is driving and I had sunglasses and a headache. I’m sitting in the car and we get to a checkpoint, and this young kid with a machine gun ordered us to pull over. He was offended because I had on sunglasses and wasn’t looking at him with respect or whatever. He wanted to humiliate me.
“So I decided right then. We get to my house and I tell my parents, ‘I’m going back to the U.S.’ ”
And so began the unlikely journey that now finds Abdallah as the interim president of the University of New Mexico – recognized for his work as a professor of chemical and computer engineering and praised by regents for his work first as university provost and as acting president since January. His title recently was changed to interim president, and he agreed to serve in that position until May 2018 unless a new president is selected first.
For the record, he says it’s a job he doesn’t want on a permanent basis, but more on his reasons later.
One of eight children of a Maronite Christian family, Abdallah agreed to sit for an interview on a recent afternoon at University House on the UNM campus – which has been vacant since Bob Frank’s presidency ended on a sour note and he moved out.
Abdallah’s 88-year-old father, Tanios, was present. He speaks limited English but enthusiastically asked questions of both his son and the interviewer, with Chaouki acting as translator, and showed off pictures of his impressive work as a stonemason. Visiting from Lebanon, he still works and points out that he is the oldest man in his village.
Tanios Abdallah, like his son, is personable and quick to laugh.
And the ties are strong in this family. All eight children are college graduates, and the older ones helped the younger ones financially as they earned their degrees and moved into the world of work. Five live in the United States; the others in Lebanon. Abdallah and some of his siblings pay for their mother to have 24-hour care at their home in Rashana.
Tanios speaks up to point out that he started working at age 13, and his son says, “He did OK. I don’t think I could raise eight kids and have them all go to college.”
That doesn’t mean they had it easy.
“I came because of the civil war that started in 1975” following in his brother’s footsteps, Abdallah said.
“My older brother came here to pursue his degree. He said if I stay here (in Lebanon) I will probably join one of the groups or be killed.'”
The war had begun to rage, pitting Christians against Muslim groups. As it unfolded, the Syrians moved in. At one point, Israel invaded and kicked out the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Beirut, called by many the jewel of the Mediterranean and not far from the Abdallah family’s village, was left in ruins.
Abdallah’s brother chose Youngstown State because their father had an aunt living in Aliquippa, Pa., and the closest university was Youngstown.
“She helped him get settled, and he started writing, urging me to come.”
Change of plans
Chaouki Abdallah arrived in the U.S. at age 19 after graduating from one of Lebanon’s “best public schools” and attending a private French university there to study engineering.
“We landed at Kennedy. Me and a friend. My parents had borrowed I think $3,000, and it was all hundreds. I needed to get to Pittsburgh, and I didn’t speak English. I tried French, and nobody would do anything. I was walking around waving a $100 bill hoping somebody would help me. One good person came to me and spoke a little French and walked me to the airline I needed. I was very dependent on other people.”
He plunged into studies, including six hours a day of English in his first quarter.
“I lived with my brother – four or five of us in this underground apartment that’s probably condemned. One window in the kitchen, and it was damp in the Ohio winter. I didn’t have a bed. I had this sponge mattress on my floor. But I was young.”
“I studied a lot, and my parents sent us about $300 a month for rent and expenses. School was cheap, and I cut grass in the summers – illegally because I wasn’t supposed to work. Burger King used to have these sales on Wednesdays with the Whopper for 50 cents. We would buy like five of them and freeze them.”
Abdallah survived the Ohio winters and cramped quarters, graduating with honors before making that fateful trip back to Lebanon.
He was accepted into Georgia Tech’s graduate program but had papers only for a school in Tennessee. He drove to Atlanta with his brother, where an immigration official agreed to the change – even though his brother told the man they had stayed overnight in the “Vacancy” motel and that Chaouki wanted to go to Tech because Herschel Walker played football there.
“Of course, Herschel Walker played for Tech’s archrival, the University of Georgia, and we had actually slept in the car,” Abdallah said.
The official nevertheless agreed to the change – once he made sure it was Chaouki and not his brother who was going to enroll.
Abdallah finished his master’s in three quarters and was still thinking of going home, but “that’s the year that Israel invaded to drive out the PLO.”
“My adviser said I should go for a Ph.D., but I ran out of steam. I failed my qualifying exam.”
The war made it difficult for a homesick student.
“I was studying and depressed. and one night I called this operator and I told him I hadn’t talked to my mom. He said, ‘Go to sleep and I’ll call you when I get her on the phone.’ Hours later. he called back and my mother was on the phone,” he says, showing emotion as he recounts the story.
Abdallah went to work for a small company in Orlando before passing the entrance exam and enrolling in the doctoral program at Georgia Tech.
His father came for graduation. “It was his first plane trip outside Lebanon and the first time I had seen him in years. I was sitting in the stands with my wife-to-be.”
He and Catherine Cooper, who has her own successful industrial engineering consulting business, met at Tech when he was a teaching assistant in a calculus class. They married in 1990 and have 17-year old twin boys.
Abdallah describes his wife as a “delightful person, incredibly smart. My wife is the brains in the family and the looks. I lucked out.”
Drawn to UNM
Abdallah, who now speaks English as well as Arabic and French, went directly from Georgia Tech to UNM because of Peter Dorato, “who was a legend in the field I was in – systems and controls.”
Abdallah landed at the Sunport when it was in the midst of a remodel with big cutouts of the “Chile Brothers” pointing the way for travelers.
“It looked like a Third World country and was pouring rain,” he said.
But he recalls waking up the second day he was in town and seeing the mountains from his hotel room.
“This can work,” he thought.
Except for a sabbatical, he has been here ever since.
He has published eight books and more than 300 peer-reviewed papers, and still teaches and does research.
A voracious reader, he’s currently working on three books, including “The White Working Class Today” and “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.”
He doesn’t play golf, and as far as getting to the gym to work out goes, “I’m doing OK but not as much as my wife would like me to.”
‘Face’ of protests
His profile in the university community grew with his visible role in faculty protests and a vote of no confidence against then-President David Schmidly – who later appointed Abdallah as provost.
“Schmidly came in my second year, and things started to go wrong for faculty,” Abdallah said, adding that he was upset an administrator in his department was denied a raise “even though we had the money to do it.” And other things were coming out about administrators making more money.
“So that pissed me off, and I decided to go talk to this (faculty) group. I was a latecomer, but since I was engineering faculty and a chair (most of those active were from Arts and Sciences) I was very visible. I wasn’t really the leader, but I became the face of it.”
Abdallah went from being the face of the resistance to provost and executive vice president for academic affairs in 2011, and Frank kept him in place when he succeeded Schmidly.
“Not a lot of people from engineering go on to be provost or university presidents,” he said. “An engineer is not necessarily a good student of politics.”
Diving into the right brain/left brain debate, he says he began as a student of humanities and moved to math only because “a teacher with a ‘cool sports car’ sat me down and taught me. But my mother was a very intuitive person … and I still have the pull of the humanities. Engineering and math taught me to be more logical … but at the same time I have emotional intelligence I would say is above average.
“When I became provost, I didn’t even know what a provost does. I asked, ‘What the hell is a provost. I Googled it. And do you know what came up first? Prison warden.’ ”
In engineer-like fashion, he started talking to colleagues at other universities about what made a good provost.
“I knew there were provosts. I just didn’t know what they did. I’m still trying to figure out what a provost does … one of my friends told me, ‘never apply for a job you can’t conjugate.’ ”
The long run
During his time as provost and acting president, where he is paid $315,000 a year, UNM has made significant gains in first-year student retention and graduation rates, bumping the four-year rate by an astonishing 12 percent.
But he says he’s not the person to do the job here in the long run, for reasons both personal and professional.
“Frankly, my wife does really well. But being the president’s wife is a 24-hour job, and if my kids, for sake of argument, go to Stanford, we are going to have to change our lifestyle … ’cause we lose her income.”
“And I help my parents a lot with money every month, and that’s not something I would cut back.”
“The other issue is the whole situation with the state,” he said. “I honestly feel that somebody coming in from the outside can make a better deal for the university. … I don’t want to be the president who just cuts.”
Abdallah understands New Mexico’s budget challenges but says the investments he was able to secure for programs to increase graduation and retention rates have begun to drop off.
“That funding then is paying off today with improved graduation rates. … We’re on our way to break 60 percent (for the six-year rate).”
But in general, he said, “in tough budget times, people cut the things they don’t see pay off right away.”
In response to a question, he noted UNM’s reputation for burning through presidents but pointed out that’s an issue nationally – at the same time observing that some universities that have excelled have had presidents with long tenures.
Asked about New Mexico’s prospects, Abdallah recounts the story of an older professor who pounded his fist on the table during a committee meeting and said, “I’m sick and tired of hearing about New Mexico’s potential. I’m ready for kinetic.”
“That’s how I think of the state. UNM has these spires of excellence, best in the world or top five,” he said, but like everything else around this state, the average is bad because you have to make sure everyone is taken care of.
“Our higher ed spending is more than most other states; the trouble is we don’t spend it wisely and (we) spread it across so many entities. We do need a plan.”
“If UNM, NMSU and New Mexico Tech were one university, we would be one of the top universities in the United States.” Or, he said, you could embark on a five-year plan to make the state’s community colleges world-class.
Abdallah also notes that New Mexico has “incredible resources,” including the national laboratories, and he is fervent in his belief that education is the way forward for the state. He says some form of college, including trades training, and the military, are the most effective ways for young people to become mature and contributing adults.
“The biggest engine for economic change is education,” he said. “That’s a fact. I think if you have investment and do it wisely, you can change the economic trajectory of this state.”
Face to Face is a feature by senior editor Kent Walz, who periodically sits down for a chat with a newsmaker. You can contact Walz at kwalz@ abqjournal.com.