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UNM president briefs lawmakers on priorities

UNM President Garnett Stokes

UNM President Garnett Stokes

GALLUP – University of New Mexico’s new president told state lawmakers Wednesday that she intends to solicit feedback statewide as she settles in and hones her priorities.

At a Legislative Finance Committee meeting in Gallup, Garnett Stokes also fielded questions about athletics and campus security, and was encouraged not to let politicians interfere with her work.

In her first appearance before a legislative group since joining UNM on March 1, Stokes received a warm reception, with Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, saying her appointment had generated optimism around campus and asking how the Legislature could ensure her tenure is successful.

“What I would ask for is dialogue and continued support for the highest priorities that are truly intended to have our university best serve the state of New Mexico,” Stokes responded, noting that the institution must keep adapting to 21st century students.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, meanwhile, said politicians should maintain a healthy distance from UNM’s day-to-day affairs, saying New Mexico universities have experienced too much micro-management by regents – who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate – and by lawmakers themselves. He said he hopes Stokes is “given the latitude to captain the ship” for the sake of the institution’s health. Stokes is UNM’s eighth president, including interims, since 1998.

“It’s been a constant turnover, and I think we’re looking for stability, but we’ve got to help you with that stability, and the governor has to help you with the stability,” he said.

Barely two months into the job, Stokes said she is still forging her big-picture plans, though she has already identified some immediate concerns, such as campus security. The UNM regents’ Finance and Facilities Committee this week approved an $11 million capital funding request for the 2019 Legislature that emphasizes safety measures – including security cameras – as well as upgrades to classroom spaces. (The proposal still requires approval from the full Board of Regents.) Stokes said she will also concentrate on making UNM more veteran-friendly and addressing campus “climate” issues.

She also said she will continue establishing and refining her goals through a series of listening sessions on and off campus. She told the LFC she will spend much of the summer visiting communities throughout the state to get input.

“I’m looking for the things we are doing well and the ways in which we can serve the citizens of New Mexico better. … The good, the bad and the ugly are things I need to understand,” she said.

A few committee members asked about UNM’s financially beleaguered athletics department, which is evaluating possible program cuts as a way to stay within its budget and start paying back the university for previous years’ shortfalls. Stokes said she believes in the value of athletics to a university, but acknowledged the financial challenges and the tough decisions looming.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, asked what would happen to athletes’ scholarships if their teams were cut, expressing concern that they would be left in the lurch. Stokes said UNM intends to give student athletes advance notice to minimize the impact, but did not know specifically what happens to scholarships in the event a sport is cut.

“We’re still continuing to sort through what this looks like,” she said. “It’s a very complex picture.”