ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After her first 6½ weeks as president of the University of New Mexico, Garnett Stokes says she is still getting oriented to the sights of the city and state and just beginning to develop her priorities – starting with building trust with the “citizens of the state.”
“I’m not really sure how we lost it,” she said in a recent interview with the Journal’s editorial board. “But we did.”
To start on that path, she’s advocating for transparency as the university unravels years of controversial accounting practices in the school’s athletics department and revenue shortfalls.
Stokes said she was informed of the troubles in the department during her interview and selection process but was told it would be wrapped up by the time she took the post.
But in March, Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron wrote to Stokes, just about three weeks into her tenure, that the university must submit a plan for correcting the athletic department’s deficit by May 1 or face a denial of the entire school budget.
Stokes has since personally taken the lead in addressing the issue, just last week presenting to the Board of Regents a plan, ultimately approved, to reduce the sports deficit by cutting some sports programs.
“Realizing just how important it was to deal with this, I stepped in and have done quite a few things in working with the athletic director,” she said. “I don’t see this athletics issue as defining my presidency. What I see is the opportunity to demonstrate what I hope is the definition of my presidency, which is about process, that process matters, that transparency matters, that we do things with integrity and we demonstrate that.”
In addition to tackling the sports issues, Stokes says she has identified campus safety as a priority, committing $10,000 to the campus’ Safety Week and approving expansion of safety lighting and security staff.
And she says she wants to make the campus more welcoming and functional for military veterans, noting that in a state with so many military and government outposts, the university doesn’t rank in the top 10 for veteran education.
“One would expect a big, a potentially student veteran population, and we are doing quite a bit on campus to support student veterans, but I really hope to make that a focus as well,” she said.
Stokes said she will also continue efforts begun “by leaders before me,” including a continued emphasis on increasing graduation rates, economic development and keeping educated people in the state.
She said she has numerous listening tours scheduled, including at the branch campuses, since she wants to know more about Albuquerque and the state and listen to the needs and wants of students, faculty and staff at the school and the community that supports it.
“I’ve learned a great deal in a short period of time. I also know how much more there is to know,” she said, especially about some hot-button issues hovering over the campus.
Stokes said she generally supports the integration of the Health Sciences Center, including the medical school and hospital, into the main university campus.
She said the integration is beneficial, because it contributes to a common school identity and can help the departments “leverage strengths” with “increased interaction and collaboration.”
In separate systems, “cultures can develop that aren’t aligned with each other.”
She also said that too much consolidation can cause problems.
So she is looking at possibly creating several positions to manage the responsibilities and functions overseen by David Harris.
Harris serves as executive vice president for administration, chief operating officer and chief financial officer, overseeing “financial, administrative, entertainment, recreational and general student services,” according to the university’s website.
Those categories include: athletics, the bookstore, business services, golf courses, parking and transportation, public events management, ticketing services, the physical plant, real estate, capital projects, facility planning, the controller’s office and the budget office, human resources, government and community relations, the university’s police department, risk management and fiscal oversight of the branch campuses.
Harris has announced that he will retire by the end of the year.
“You can never replace all that expertise in one person,” she said. “I’m positive there will be changes to the structure” of the position.
What exactly that will look like isn’t clear, she said. She is still focusing on orienting herself in her new city and visiting with as many groups and people as she can as she solidifies further priorities.