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UNM hosts first finalist in hunt for new president


Dr. David Brenner, a finalist for the University of New Mexico presidency, answers questions during an open forum held at the UNM Student Union Building on Monday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/JOURNAL)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Dr. David Brenner has a high-ranking position at one of the country’s most prestigious public universities.

He works in San Diego and makes more in one year than the University of New Mexico paid its past president for two.

But Brenner said he’s willing to give that up to be UNM’s next president, and he’s now one of five finalists for the job.

“I have never picked a position based on the salary,” he said, walking briskly between meetings on the Albuquerque campus Monday. “I’ve only picked positions if I thought I could do good and I thought I could have fun.”

University of California-San Diego’s vice chancellor for health sciences, Brenner on Monday became the first of the presidential finalists to conduct a town hall-style forum with the campus community. The second forum, with Anny Morrobel-Sosa, is scheduled for this afternoon. The other three candidates, Chuck Staben, Garnett Stokes and Kenneth Kaushansky, will visit the campus over the next two weeks.

Brenner acknowledged to the approximately 120 people who attended his forum that he was attempting a somewhat unusual leap, but he said he sees parallels between managing UCSD’s health sciences system and UNM, citing his experience with large budgets, teaching, capital projects, research, philanthropy and government relations.

“I think the skill set for the vice chancellor, the job I’ve had for the last 10 years, is very similar to the skill set required to run a great university,” he said.

He described a vision for UNM’s future that includes making it a leader in modern educational practices and fostering better multidisciplinary collaboration, further bridging the gulf between health sciences and the main campus.

At UCSD, where he is also dean of the medical school, he said he is in regular – sometimes daily – contact with his peers from the business and engineering schools.

He said UNM can leverage its status as a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution to forge partnerships with other universities and that it also could be “the world center” for Native American research and education.

Brenner fielded questions from faculty, staff, students and others who attended, addressing matters like finances, diversity, university governance and student engagement.

UNM has suffered amid the state’s budget crisis, losing 8 percent of its state funding in the past two years. The University of California system has also weathered funding cuts, and while some money has returned, Brenner urged UNM not to rely on a full restoration and instead focus on luring more research dollars and boosting philanthropy.

Within UC, enrolling more students – especially higher-paying out-of-state students – has helped fill some of the funding gap, he said.

UNM biology professor Richard Cripps asked Brenner how he has handled cuts when they needed to be made.

“The overwhelming philosophy on this is that academics are protected against everything else,” Brenner responded. He adding that UCSD did not cut faculty or faculty salaries amid waning state funding “because that’s the lifeblood of the university.”

Asked by Noah Brooks, president of UNM’s undergraduate student government, about his experience working with undergraduates, Brenner said he has always had undergraduate students in his own research labs and has taught them through an “introduction to biomedical research” lecture course he established at UCSD.

Brenner also addressed his efforts at UCSD to hire and promote women and minorities, which involves taking stock after each search to ensure it encompassed a diverse pool – and restarting if it didn’t. He said UCSC health sciences had one female dean and one female department chair when he started; it now has five and three, respectively.

The subject of governance, including UNM’s seven-member Board of Regents, came up several times Monday, with one student saying that many of his peers view the board and upper administration as a “shadowy ominous figure.”

Brenner said he has little interaction with the board that governs all the UC schools and was surprised during his research into UNM to find that the relationship between the president and the regents was a recurring theme. UNM’s most recent president, Bob Frank, left before his contract ended amid acrimony with the board.

Brenner said he wants to make sure the regents and president are in alignment and communication is regular.

“I want the regents to have a sense of ownership, but I want them to understand we’re here for education; we’re trying to create the best possible education system we can,” he said. “I think what I would do differently would be to try to get more student engagement with the regents and more faculty input with the regents.”