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UNM has ‘existential’ need to re-engineer itself, Abdallah says

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The University of New Mexico’s evolution cannot wait until the next state budget crisis or even the next university president — the movement needs to begin now, Chaouki Abdallah told a crowd of about 80 people at a campus town hall Monday.

Abdallah, the school’s interim president, is crafting a roadmap for a university “re-engineering,” something he said is essential to ensure its viability in the face of funding cuts, changing student demographics, and advancements in how instructors teach and students learn. UNM cannot afford to operate in reaction mode, he said.

“This is truly existential — and by existential I mean we’ll either be a much smaller institution that cannot deliver on a lot of things or that we will be having to do something that not a lot of people will be happy with,” he said.

UNM has watched its two primary revenue streams dwindle in recent years. Tuition has slipped due to enrollment declines: UNM’s total headcount fell 7 percent between its recession-era peak in 2012 and 2016; its state appropriation, meanwhile, decreased more than 8 percent in the past two years.

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Other universities around the country are tackling similar issues, Abdallah said. While many are working to adapt, he noted that others have withered away.

“This is not simply a UNM challenge. Every higher ed institution — but especially the public higher eds — are facing the challenges that we’re discussing right now, including the role of higher ed, including the funding of higher ed and including  how do you react to some of these external pressures that are forcing you to either revisit your mission or to try to get into areas that today you aren’t in,” he said.

Abdallah’s Monday town hall at the Health Sciences Center followed a similar event on main campus last week, which itself came after related discussions he has had with the university’s executive leadership and the faculty senate. He also has plans to present to the staff council and student government associations.

Abdallah said the re-engineering effort will take about 18 months to develop. Teams around the university will study specific “drivers” of change and devise plans to address them. While UNM will invite outside experts for perspective, Abdallah said the school will rely primarily on its own community to develop solutions.

His ideas? Researching the feasibility of a four-day workweek; expanding online programming; recruiting new types of students; and spreading out governance and decision-making authority.

Abdallah is now eight months into his interim presidency, a stint scheduled to end next May, or sooner if a permanent replacement chosen by UNM’s Board of Regents comes aboard before then.

There is a faculty senate movement afoot to delay UNM’s presidential search and keep Abdallah through spring 2019 to stabilize UNM during a rocky period. The regents have not voted on the faculty’s resolution.

At Monday’s forum, a member of the molecular genetics and microbiology faculty told Abdallah, “We don’t want to see you go,” and asked him to consider applying for the permanent president’s job. The crowd applauded, but Abdallah reiterated that he does not want the position long term. He cannot commit to staying another five years, something he said leader-cycling UNM needs. He has, however, offered to extend his interim stay by an extra year if needed.

“I did tell the regents, and I told everybody, I will serve until the appropriate president is here,” he said.

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