Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
After 14 months as acting and then interim president of the University of New Mexico, Chaouki Abdallah said he is happy to be returning to “the heart of the university.”
Abdallah was named by the UNM Board of Regents to take up the school’s reins after the board and former President Bob Frank reached an agreement that led to Frank leaving the post on Dec. 31, 2016.
Abdallah will resume his previous position as university provost when Garnett Stokes assumes the presidency later this week.
Stokes has been provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Missouri since February 2015, and takes over at UNM on Thursday.
Abdallah, who jokes he did not know what a provost did when he took on that role in 2011, said he now considers that job perhaps the most vital at the school.
“I am the chief academic officer,” he said Monday during a reception recognizing his work at the university’s helm. “I am responsible for the teaching and research mission, for the faculty, i.e. all that matters at the university.”
During Abdallah’s time as provost and interim president, UNM has made impressive progress in first-year student retention and graduation rates.
Earlier this month, the university’s regents paid tribute to Abdallah’s contributions in the top job by conferring upon him the honor of being UNM’s 22nd president.
So forget the acting or the interim tags. When Stokes starts the job, she will be the university’s 23rd president.
At Monday’s reception in the lobby of Popejoy Hall, about 150 UNM staff, faculty and students gathered to show their appreciation for Abdallah’s leadership. There was cake, a board on which people could write messages of gratitude and no shortage of high praise.
“He leads with a conscience and is very effective,” said Pamela Pyle a piano professor in UNM’s College of Fine Arts and Faculty Senate president. “He communicates both ways – up and down – and he has the best interests of the university at heart. He cares about people. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
David Harris, UNM’s executive vice president for administration, said he knows only too well how tough it is to serve as UNM’s temporary president because he was the university’s acting president from January 2006 until May 2007. He said he believes Abdallah did a better job than he had done.
“I think Chaouki had more of the thunder for the job because he is more comfortable reaching out to the community,” Harris said. “I could not see myself doing that and I’ve lived here all my life.”
Richard Wood, UNM professor of sociology, has been serving as interim provost in Abdallah’s stead and will resume his former role as interim senior vice provost this week. He said Abdallah demonstrated terrific leadership of a university that has been plagued by controversies in the athletic department and nine years of budget cuts .
“He is a graceful leader with a sense of humor, and in a polarized world we need some grace and humor,” Wood said.
Abdallah has needed grace under pressure during his time in the president’s office. He had to deal with revelations that the university improperly used money in 2015 to pay expenses for potential donors on a golf trip to Scotland. And, earlier this month, the university suspended head football coach Bob Davie for 30 days after an investigation into the football program.
At Monday’s reception, Abdallah credited his wife, Catherine Cooper, with helping him through the tough times.
“When I go home, I know I’m going to have someone to smile at me and tell me everything is going to be OK,” he said. “I have learned that the most successful leaders are the ones who solve problems, who take down barriers. The best definition of a leader is one who defines reality. That is the first thing leaders do. The last thing is to say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
He admitted he has learned one more thing. Asked by the Journal if he would consider taking on the presidency of a university after his experience in the office at UNM, he said, “I have learned never to say never.”