Provost Chaouki Abdallah has had numerous chances to leave the University of New Mexico.
The professor-turned-provost-turned-president has regularly fielded inquiries from other institutions and recruiters, but he has routinely declined the professional advances.
This time, though, the opportunity was too good to dismiss.
The Georgia Institute of Technology, Abdallah’s alma mater, on Thursday named him its new executive vice president for research. Abdallah will direct Georgia Tech’s $824 million research program and start some time in August, according to the announcement.
“It’s better than ideal,” Abdallah said of the position, adding this is how life would play out “if I had to write a script.”
Taking the job means returning to the Atlanta-based institution where he earned his master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering. Georgia Tech is also where his wife, Catherine Cooper, graduated and where the couple’s twin sons will start college this fall.
Abdallah pursued the job after someone nominated him, but said his interest mounted as he advanced in the search process.
“I clicked with the president, with his vision and his personality,” he said. “Initially (the job) was interesting because of (personal connections at Georgia Tech), but it became really, really attractive once I interviewed, and once I met with people.”
Abdallah has an extensive history at UNM. He arrived in 1988 as an assistant professor in electrical engineering, eventually rising to department chair. UNM named him provost and executive vice president for academic affairs in 2011. He stepped into the presidency on Jan. 1, 2017 after Bob Frank stepped down five months before his contract ended amid a dispute with regents. Abdallah held the position — which he maintained he did not want permanently — until Garnett Stokes assumed the job on March 1, 2018.
Stokes in a written statement Thursday called Abdallah a “deeply insightful colleague.”
“He is a talented educator, researcher and administrator, who has built a well-deserved reputation for an unwavering commitment to student success,” she said. “His innovative contributions to the academic mission of UNM have created a long-lasting impact that will be felt for years to come. I wish him, and his family, the very best.”
UNM’s four-year graduation rate nearly doubled since Abdallah took over as provost, rising to 29.4 percent in 2017 from 14.8 percent in 2012. Abdallah has attributed to a coordinated effort that included new initiatives and programs. UNM streamlined its curriculum so most degrees require 120 hours to complete, bolstered its advising services and invested in new programs like the “Math MaLL,” a computer-centric learning center for students working through entry-level math courses on special software.
Abdallah navigated rocky terrain during his 14 months as president, including budget cuts and multiple outside investigations into financial management inside the athletic department. He also suspended head football coach Bob Davie for 30 days following multiple investigations into allegations of racially discriminatory behavior and football program interference into assault cases involving players.
Regent President Rob Doughty said Abdallah is known for his integrity.
“Chaouki went above and beyond what is expected of an interim president; he continued the momentum and advanced the University’s mission,” Doughty said in a written statement. “His open and inclusive style, coupled with his passion for UNM, positioned him to be a great leader and we’re proud he holds a place in UNM’s history as its 22nd president.”
Pamela Pyle, president of UNM’s Faculty Senate, said UNM is “better for (Abdallah’s) stewardship.”
“Leadership during critical times is especially revelatory of a person’s skills and character,” she wrote in a statement. “Provost Abdallah merits high praise in both categories for not only keeping UNM going during a challenging year, but for beginning initiatives that will see us successfully into a better future.”
Abdallah will earn $400,000 annually in his new position, according to a Georgia Tech spokesman. His currently earns $315,087, according to UNM’s sunshine portal.
His departure adds to the turnover in high-ranking UNM positions. Executive Vice President for Administration David Harris will retire by year’s end. Stokes also recently launched a search for the university’s next lead attorney as Elsa Cole retired this month.
Abdallah said he anticipated staying at UNM at least another year and that he and Stokes were working well together, but the Georgia Tech opening arose unexpectedly.
“If this opportunity had not come up right now, I would be here throughout next year and probably beyond unless the right opportunity came in,” Abdallah said. “It was not ‘I need to get the hell out of dodge.’
“That was not the case. It just all came together.”