Battle-tested UNM leader takes on challenges

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s Note: In March, Garnett Stokes became the first woman to lead the state’s flagship university – an institution with a $3 billion budget and a reputation for running through presidents. Her biggest political challenge so far centers on a decision to cut several sports. Stokes sat down to talk about her first nine months on the job.

Before taking the reins as the University of New Mexico’s 23rd president – the first woman to hold the job – Garnett Stokes earned a Ph.D. and served as a dean, provost and interim chancellor at three of the nation’s premier universities.

That’s quite an academic résumé for someone who almost didn’t go to college.

Stokes’ father was an Air Force master sergeant who had returned from Vietnam and was stationed at a base in Indiana, where Garnett attended high school just north of Kokomo. When her parents met, Dad was at Andrews Air Force Base and Mom worked as a secretary for the National Education Association.

It was Dad who stepped in when it came to college for Garnett.

“I wasn’t planning to go in spite of teachers who said I should,” said Stokes, who was on the debate team, thespians and editor of her high school newspaper. “My mom – who later apologized – sat me down one day and said, ‘If your brother decides to go to school, we really can’t afford to send both of you, and it’s more important that he goes.’

“A few days later, my father – who had urged me to take the SAT ‘just in case’ – sat me down and said, ‘I know what your mother told you, but I’m going to tell you to ignore it. If you want to go to school, I’ll help you.’ ”

Into the fray

UNM has been something of a graveyard for presidents, with Stokes being the eighth since 2000.

Stokes, 63, was selected in November 2017 after a national search and took office March 1, embarking soon thereafter on a “listening tour” of the state.

She has a five-year contract at $400,000 a year and runs a university with a $3 billion budget and headaches that include declining enrollment, funding challenges and an investigation by the attorney general into possible financial improprieties in athletics.

It didn’t take long to find herself in political hot water, spurred by her recommendation that regents cut men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing and women’s beach volleyball to address a persistent seven-figure deficit in the athletics department and deal with Title IX requirements on parity in sports for men and women.

Soccer and skiing supporters hit the roof. Attorney General Hector Balderas challenged the openness of the process and directed the regents to re-do their vote and take public comment. Mayor Tim Keller, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, have all publicly pushed for a reversal.

Is Stokes surprised how long the furor over cutting soccer and skiing has persisted? A little.

“Cutting sports is always difficult. … And I think we knew going in that we had a group of people who were highly committed to soccer. There’s a real emotional connection.”

Stokes said the fact “there are people in powerful positions who did not like the decision” has contributed to its staying power. “What got introduced pretty early was ‘we’re going to reverse this decision.’

“That doesn’t usually happen when universities make these choices. You don’t get that kind of involvement from powerful legislators, for example. So I think that has kept hope alive for some.”

Stokes, who remains confident she made the right decision, seems calm and even unflappable in the face of it all – perhaps because she has been battle-tested in controversies at Florida State University and the University of Missouri.

Quarterback flap

Like the blow-up here, controversies at both schools had a sports angle.

Jameis Winston was a Heisman trophy-winning quarterback who had led Florida State to a national championship, and hopes were high for a repeat.

But Winston had become embroiled in several public controversies, including a shoplifting arrest. There had been an alleged rape in which FSU later paid the woman $950,000, and the star quarterback had shouted a graphic profanity in the student union.

Stokes, who went to FSU as provost in 2011, found herself acting president in 2014 when her predecessor left.

After an initial investigation, Winston was suspended for the first half of the upcoming game against Clemson. Stokes, relying on new information, increased the suspension to a full game, which riled the Seminole faithful.

Florida State won in overtime with a backup quarterback, but the incident has forever linked Stokes and Winston on the internet.

“When I came in as interim president at FSU, three things happened almost immediately: … We discovered we were under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights for the Title IX case (the rape investigation), a new athletic logo had accidentally been released and it was horrifically unpopular, and there was a move by a legislator to separate a 40-year joint college of engineering between Florida State and Florida A&M, our historically black college five miles away.”

The third was that contentious and racial issues bubbled up, but “eventually we navigated it and kept the two together.”

The challenge, Stokes said, was to keep the controversies from drowning out all the good things going on at FSU.

Earning trust

The Florida State controversy looks tame compared to what happened at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

“I’ve never professionally experienced that level of turmoil or instability in leadership,” Stokes said. “The political fallout of the racial issues was difficult to navigate, and what we were dealing with I think is the reflection of a divide that continues to exist in our country.”

The blowup that led to both the University of Missouri system president and University of Missouri chancellor resigning included student protesters blocking the president’s car during the homecoming parade.

A graduate student then launched a hunger strike demanding the president’s resignation.

A group called Concerned Students 1950 – the year the first black student enrolled at Mizzou – sprang up and camps were erected on campus supporting the hunger strikers.

“Then our football team joined in support of the students by saying they would not play in next week’s game unless a list of demands were met, including the president of the system’s resignation. The president stepped down and so did the chancellor of the campus – both on the same day.”

Stokes, who had been hired as provost just months earlier, stepped in as interim chancellor.

“We tried to get the student protesters into the student center, because a storm was moving in. Then we started getting word there were riots on campus; that the KKK was on campus … and it turns out we were under a cyber attack. It’s buried in a report somewhere that the Russians were having a little fun … creating false narratives like saying this guy was shot by police and here’s a picture. All of it was utterly false, but it led to fear on campus that was palpable.”

The enrollment drop was dramatic.

“Missouri had to spend a lot of time rebuilding its relationships, and frankly that experience made me realize I needed to do a listening tour in New Mexico.

“It made me realize you don’t build back trust in an organization without building relationships across the state. You can’t expect people to come to you. You have to go to them.”

Getting started

After high school, Stokes enrolled at the Indiana University branch in Kokomo and worked in a department store and an unemployment office.

“I decided I wanted to go away to school, and my dad gave me a list of Southern Baptist schools to choose from – he was a deacon. I had no idea how to go about it, because I had no guidance counselor or anybody to talk to. So I thought about what would be a nice part of the country, and for some reason Tennessee appealed to me. I ended up picking Carson-Newman.”

She earned a double major in political science and psychology.

“My senior year I was regretting I hadn’t majored in business, and a teacher took me aside and said my profile was one of a student who would be successful in graduate school and had I thought about going? No. Of course I hadn’t.

“He convinced me to take the GRE and suggested the field of organizational and industrial psychology. He said there was a wonderful program at the University of Georgia. So I applied.”

Stokes later threw her hat in the ring for a tenure track position at Georgia. She became a full professor in 1997, department chair in 1999 and eventually dean of Arts and Sciences. She was the first woman to serve as head of the department.

Then she became interested in the role of a provost.

“As a dean the expectation was I was always protecting my college rather than creating partnerships where you sometimes give up resources to help do something for the greater good. My thought was that as a provost I would be in a much better position to work at an institutional level.”

Was that true?

“It wasn’t as easy as I thought,” she says, laughing.

Personal side

Stokes met husband Jeffrey Younggren, a forensic psychologist, on an accreditation committee on which both served.

“He was a private practice member, and I was a university department head. We later started seeing each other. We got engaged in 2008 and married in 2012, so we took our time.”

She has two grown stepchildren – a doctor and a lawyer – and four grandkids.

Stokes’ mother has passed away, but her dad is still living.

“Dad was an E9, so everybody thinks drill sergeant type. He really wasn’t, but he believed in elbow grease and had high expectations.”

Stokes has an easy manner. She laughs a lot, loves the outdoors and hiking.

She also has the discipline to make a 6 a.m. spin class – and was the only one who summoned the willpower to turn down chocolate pie at a recent office celebration.

Given the hectic schedule of the past months, there’s been no time to hit La Luz Trail.

“But I walk. I do some strength training, and if I get to go to a spin class – and I went this morning – I’m happy.”

An NM welcome

Stokes says New Mexico has welcomed her – for the most part.

“If you can take away the really difficult decision around cutting sports, my reception has been nothing but warm. People have been truly excited to have what they hope will be a long-term leader. They are ready for that stability. And I’ve been amazed at how excited people are to have the first woman president. I think people thought it was way too late coming.”

Is there an easy resolution to the sports cuts? What if lawmakers were to say, “We’ll give you anything you need to undo this”?

“I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” Stokes said. “There are some saying, ‘Just tell us what you need so we can have soccer back.’

“But I’m going to go back to my belief that as an institution the size of ours, it is not in our best interest to carry 22 sports and if we were to reinstate all of them, we would have to deal with Title IX compliance by adding yet another women’s sport. … I honestly don’t believe it’s fiscally responsible.”

“If in fact we were able to get the large amount of recurring funds we would need to carry all those sports, it would concern me that we had lost sight of the bigger picture of what the University of New Mexico’s mission really is.”

Stokes has a vision for UNM and has shown resolve when it comes to making decisions that aren’t popular. How this plays out in a state where Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace famously said, “All calculations based on experience elsewhere fail in New Mexico,” will make for an interesting next chapter.

President Garnett Stokes’ take on pressing UNM issues


UNM President Garnett Stokes acknowledges crime and campus safety issues make recruitment tougher, and statistics such as leading the nation in campus auto theft hammer home that point.

Stokes says she has moved aggressively on the issue.

“We have more officers on bicycles and a mobile security unit we can move around campus. We have partnered with APD, added security cameras and have a task force working to provide me with a proposal for what our best return on investment will be for safety and perception of safety.”

Still, the proximity of the main campus to Central Avenue is a challenge.

“I did a campus safety walk with a group of students. We tell them, ‘Don’t walk alone at night. … walk with a buddy.’

“We want a campus where one can feel entirely safe … we’ve got some work to do.”

Why not cut football?

“A lot of people ask that question, and I won’t pretend I know what the future of football is in the United States,” Stokes said. “But when we looked at our options and realized the Mountain West was the place for us, we are required to keep football.”

She said the money flow via the NCAA “makes it difficult to even think of dropping football now” and said that while attendance has been falling and below projections, “in reality, football and basketball are the top draws.”

Title IX

Stokes says more women and fewer men are seeking degrees and the gold standard for Title IX compliance is tied to offering opportunities proportionate to undergraduate population.

Having a sport like beach volleyball, without significant support, is an effort to show progress and “in my mind that’s a way to kick the can down the road.”


Stokes wants UNM to be recognized nationally as “veteran friendly.”

She is pushing for funding to consolidate facilities for ROTC – which she calls embarrassingly bad – and has initiated training for UNM employees who work with vets. She is also setting up a system in Human Resources that will ensure that veterans who are qualified are assured of getting an interview for campus jobs.

Under the bus

UNM under Stokes continues to deal with a range of hot-button issues, such as free speech on campus and balancing due process rights of the accused against the need to thoroughly investigate and punish sexual assault.

“I think we have put in place a lot of checks and balances, but I’m certainly open to what might be considered better practices,” she said.

She attributed the recent postponement of a speech by Kenneth Starr at the Law School to “a failure of communication” and a decision made with the best of intentions.

Asked if she had been informed in advance, she said she had not but quickly added, “I am in no way going to throw our dean under the bus.”

The incident, she said, “goes into the lessons-learned category.”


Comments from Regent Tom Clifford linking enrollment declines to “lack of value” prompted a quick and critical response from many university insiders. Stokes was more measured.

“I think UNM has done some really excellent work in improving the way in which things are managed,” including a much improved graduation rate and what she says are better practices in athletics.

Regarding enrollment, she says, “That across the country this has become a highly competitive environment for higher education.

“Our goal is to see UNM in its complexity. Our service to New Mexico with our academic medical center and health system looms large in the eyes of people. Now we see emerging some of our academic programs like nursing and engineering.”

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