Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Chaouki Abdallah arrived at the University of New Mexico in 1988 as an assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, expecting to spend seven, maybe eight years in Albuquerque.
He wound up staying 30, making his way to UNM’s highest leadership ranks.
He progressed from a minor administrative position in his department to its chair to UNM provost and eventually to president. It’s a trajectory defined in part by serendipity; he said he never planned this course.
“I’m just lucky,” he said. “I’m the Forrest Gump of administration.”
Abdallah took over as UNM’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs in 2011, funneling much of his attention into improving student outcomes. UNM has since more than doubled its four-year graduation rate, something Abdallah said he’s particularly proud of because the university did it without having to “filter” students it accepted.
“If you get students who are better-prepared academically, you can raise that,” he said. “We did it with the same students, with the same type of students.”
Abdallah also spent 14 months as president, managing the university between Bob Frank’s resignation and Garnett Stokes’ arrival – a tumultuous period of budget cuts, a free-speech firestorm and multiple athletic scandals that led him to make some controversial decisions.
Abdallah, who left in late August for a new position at Georgia Tech, recently discussed his career and UNM itself in a Journal interview. The following is excerpted from that conversation.
Question : You were already an executive vice president, but were there things about UNM you did not realize until you became president?
Answer : The scope of the enterprise. I got to go to New York and talk to the rating agencies. That’s not something you do as a provost. I learned about things within the health sciences side. Again, a lot of issues with the legal. Athletics. Going to the Mountain West and learning other things about some of the challenges. A lot of these things are not really issues that the provost deals with. Some were amazingly informational and impressive, and others were, you know, “I wish I’d never known about this.”
Q : President Stokes has said she’s hearing feedback around the state that UNM is not transparent or communicative enough. Do you think that changed in your year as president? Do you think that was true?
A : Anytime you have a complex organization, transparency is one of the things you need to continuously work on. Let me give you an example: within UNM … I make a decision or there’s a policy change, and I communicate it. I communicate it either via email or the deans or something. Well, a month later when this is coming into effect, people come in (saying), “I didn’t know about this. Why are you doing this?” The point I’m trying to make is people engage at their own speed or at times when they’re interested in something or when it affects them. …
When you say the institution is not transparent, partly it’s on us – we need to communicate better and more often. That’s what I tried to do. … (But) a lot of times, I just could not say … this is what we’re doing because either there is an investigation or there is some confidentiality issue, or there’s some legal issue that we’re dealing with. You know, you can’t really make all your decisions and advertise them before they’re fully baked.
Q : How would you grade UNM’s institutional health right now?
A : Probably a B. … In many cases, we’re so much better than institutions like us around the nation. Our financial health overall is pretty good. Our ratings are pretty good to borrow money. … We’re on a negative outlook, but it has to do with the enrollment. Really the challenges that we’re facing at UNM are challenges faced by many public research institutions.
There are universities where enrollment is not a challenge, but for us enrollment is a challenge to keep right now, but it’s not horrible. … We’re looking at different markets, and we’re doing OK overall. Our focus on student success is paying off, but the one thing I worry about is, can we sustain it?
Q : What specific barriers or resistance do you think UNM encounters or brings on itself that stymie progress?
A : Since it is the biggest name in town and in the state and a lot of people are invested in it, I think you get every single initiative, every single action scrutinized, and people want to get into it – sometimes too early, I think, sometimes second-guessing and so on.
The other thing about this institution is it’s a comprehensive institution. … On the one hand, we compete with the Georgia Techs of the world and the Harvards of the world for faculty and for some of the top students; on the other hand, we want to be open as much as possible, and we want to serve our community. … We cannot forget that we are here to serve the state and our population, which is very broad.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it. I’m saying this is a very challenging thing that public institutions are facing, universities like UNM more so, because of the input that we get. I don’t want to bad-mouth (Albuquerque Public Schools) or anything else, but if you are sitting in Minnesota or Massachusetts or whatever, the schools are graduating a lot more of their kids ready for college.
At a place like UNM or like California or like places in Texas … you have to do a lot more. You have to reach down into the schools. And in recent years, you have to reach beyond when they graduate. That’s the economic development, that’s the Innovate (ABQ). The mission of the university as a whole is broadening. … Universities like UNM, where … they will not say, “OK we’re only going to take the top 5 percent or 10 percent of the population” are going to have challenges to meet their mission beyond what others have.
Again, I’m not questioning that. That’s exactly our mission; I’m saying this makes it more difficult when you’re comparing and saying, “Why are you not graduating 80 or 90 percent?”
Q : UNM’s reaccreditation visit is coming up. Do you have any concerns heading into it?
A : I do, and I’ve expressed them to everybody. … This is a huge thing; last time we got hit (by the accrediting body) on a couple of things; we got hit on governance issues, and we got hit on advising and some other issues. Now, we’ve dealt with the advising well. We may get some questions around the financial things, but I think those are very, very much addressable.
HLC (the Higher Learning Commission) did communicate with us (about the athletics financial issues). There were questions, and we answered them. … The governance issue, frankly, is going to be something that is going to come up, and I don’t know how to address it. I think that’s going to be something that will have to be dealt with, with the president, the faculty, the regents.
Q : Do you think the regents have interfered in daily operations at UNM?
A : You know, I think our regents have been doing a lot of operational (matters) … not necessarily daily, but some regents have been, yeah. The regents have one employee: It’s the president. Anything beyond the president, I think, should be the president’s business, and I think a lot of times our regents – I’m not speaking about just the current board; I’m talking about regents over time – have gotten involved in things where, in theory, they can, (but) I don’t think that’s the right way. My opinion is that that’s not a good governance model.
Q : What are you going to miss the most about this place?
A : Really the people and the weather, the green chile. … I met people here the first week I started, and they’re still my friends. I think I’m going to miss a lot of people.