Garnett Stokes was doing what she knew. What she thought made sense.
A teenage Stokes studied bookkeeping, typing and shorthand. Back in high school, she assumed she would follow in the footsteps of her mother, a secretary for a national professional organization. Neither of her parents had gone to college. She had no plans to, either.
“I had teachers in high school who would say, ‘You have to go to college,’ and I was adamant: I had no intention of going,” Stokes said in a recent interview, laughing at the memory. “Goodness gracious, what was that?”
Stokes, who moved regularly as a child due to her father’s service in the Air Force, remembers thinking college was for snobs. But she was just curious enough after graduation to take a few classes at an Indiana University branch campus.
She excelled, gained confidence and realized she liked it.
That little bit of college segued into a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology and a lifetime in higher education. That includes her current position as the provost at the University of Missouri and her next role: president of the University of New Mexico.
UNM’s Board of Regents this month unanimously selected Stokes to lead the state’s largest university. Her five-year contract begins March 1 at an annual salary of $400,000.
In making the announcement, Regent President Rob Doughty called Stokes the “consensus” choice among UNM stakeholders, someone who could “deliver on UNM’s commitment to student success and serving the citizens of the state of New Mexico.”
This career direction that a young Stokes could never have imagined has come to seem increasingly obvious. Stokes has been a provost — the chief academic official — since 2011, first at Florida State University and now at MU. And each of those institutions also entrusted Stokes with their top jobs at various junctures; she served as FSU’s interim president for about half of 2014 and spent three months this year as MU’s chancellor.
“She’s one of those people who, as soon as you meet her, you see potential for advancement in their career,” said Zora Mulligan, Missouri’s higher education commissioner and Stokes’ onetime colleague within the University of Missouri system.
Mulligan described Stokes, 61, as a “thoughtful” leader who seeks and weighs others’ input before rendering judgment; someone genuinely concerned about how her decisions will reverberate throughout the campus and beyond; charismatic but careful.
Mulligan on Twitter recently called Stokes the “glue that held it all together,” a nod to the stability she brought amid recent chaos and crisis at MU.
In late 2015, Stokes’ first year at Missouri’s flagship institution, racially charged protests rocked the campus. They garnered national media attention, led MU’s chancellor — Stokes’ boss — and the University of Missouri’s system president to resign and, some say, have contributed to MU’s recent enrollment declines.
Stokes said establishing her own relationships with people on and off campus at a time many had lost faith in MU’s leadership was one of her greatest challenges.
“I’m sure there was uncertainty about me on the part of some, because they didn’t know where my loyalties were or what direction I might take the university in the absence of the person who had hired me,” Stokes said.
But under her guidance, the university created the Office of Civil Rights and Title IX, and she helped establish MU’s Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equality.
Stokes has also had to fill academic leadership vacancies across the institution. MU has 12 deans; Stokes is now in the process of hiring her ninth in less than three years on the job.
William Wiebold, a plant sciences professor and chair of MU’s faculty council, said Stokes has taken a methodical approach to each hire, considering feedback and data at every step and ultimately making “the decision based on what was best for the college and university, not always what was popular.” He praised her performance as a provost and said she has made a lasting impact.
“I suppose every human has flaws or shortcomings,” he said in an email to the Journal. “It is difficult for me to find one in provost Stokes.”
Unlike some of the other finalists for the UNM presidency, when Stokes came to the Albuquerque campus last month for an open forum with the community, she did not outline specific plans or ideas for UNM. She instead spoke mostly about her experience and the lessons gleaned from her administrative roles at University of Georgia, Florida State and Missouri.
Though she has since landed the job, she remains reluctant to offer any sweeping assessments of UNM’s present or its future.
Asked where the university is already excelling, she noted the student success gains — UNM has doubled its four-year graduation rate to more than 29 percent in the last five years — and its efforts to promote inclusivity.
But, she added, “I think that to really answer your question well I’m going to have to get to know the place, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to visit campus and getting started in March.”
Stokes — who said she was not on the market for a new job but was approached by the search firm UNM hired to help find its next president — said the UNM opening appealed to her in part because of its status as New Mexico’s flagship university, but also because it’s a Hispanic Serving Institution. That’s a designation for universities at which least 25 percent of its undergraduates are Hispanic. Currently, 48.6 percent of UNM’s undergraduates are Hispanic.
In addition, nearly half of UNM’s students, like Stokes, are first-generation college students. She said she can relate to their experience but that her own background as a one-time college doubter will also help bridge the gap with those who increasingly question higher education’s value.
“I think what’s convincing is being able to share the kinds of experiences students have on campus, the kinds of things they learn, the extent to which people’s work lives or their lives in general are improved by the experience,” she said. “It’s really letting people get to know the faces of a campus, because what you discover is that, ‘Yeah, it’s a place full of smart people,’ but people with real generosity of spirit, humble natures and just a belief in the value of education itself — and not in any elite sense.”
Mulligan said she’s “extremely disappointed” to see Stokes go, but eager to see what she accomplishes at UNM.
“She’s going to feel like a real breath of fresh air,” Mulligan said.