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Stokes vows safety, diversity in State of University speech

University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes delivers her State of the University address on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Continuing efforts to make the university campus safer, improve student outcomes, champion diversity and research pressing issues in the state were just some of the pledges University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes made Thursday during her State of the University address.

She acknowledged challenges the university will face in carrying through those efforts. Statewide polls show that the percentage of people who think a college degree is necessary to succeed in the workforce has declined to just 35%, and the university’s total enrollment has dropped more than 18% since 2015.

Stokes said that in New Mexico and the country there’s a “crisis of confidence in higher education” but that she remains optimistic about UNM’s future.

“Higher education, including research and innovation, have never been more necessary in order to understand the world in which we live. We are dedicated to tackling the most challenging problems facing society today,” she said. “… Cultivating the capacity for clear and critical thinking is more vital than ever. While empathy and compassion aren’t something you find in a university course catalog, I sincerely believe that higher education promotes values of tolerance, fairness, curiosity and mutual respect.”

In front of a crowd of several hundred in the university’s student union, Stokes delivered a nearly hourlong speech on various UNM matters — from the more than $300 million in research awards the university received in the 2019 fiscal year to efforts to balance the athletics budget.

In many ways, it’s a new era at UNM. Students just returned to classes this week to start the spring semester. March 1 will mark Stokes’ second anniversary as UNM president.

And there’s a new Cabinet of sorts who have all come to UNM after Stokes. She has hired people to lead university legal, finances, academics, equity and inclusion and enrollment departments. There’s also a new CEO at the UNM Foundation, the university’s fundraising arm.

“I’m actually sort of feeling less like the newest cast member of an established ensemble,” she said.

Regent President Doug Brown said, “I think we truly have reached a point of stability here in terms of getting the right people in key positions and working well together.”

In addition to administrative changes, the university has undergone recent physical changes, and more are coming.

In October, the university opened a new Physics and Astronomy and Interdisciplinary Science building. A $35 million Johnson Gym renovation is close to being finished, as is an expansion of the Student Health and Counseling building.

Later this year, renovations will begin on Clark Hall, home to the chemistry faculty. There are also several major construction projects that have either already started or are planned for UNM’s Health Sciences Center, including a new tower project.

Stokes said some of the refashioning at UNM is aimed at improving campus safety.

UNM in 2016 and 2017 had more automobile thefts on campus than any other college or university in the country, although there was a 40% decrease in that type of crime in 2018.

Stokes said that in recent years the university has added six officers to its campus police force and 80 surveillance cameras around campus. There are plans to add another 170 security cameras to parking lots and garages.

And in coordination with a campus security task force she created, Stokes said, the university is planning to soon announce small changes to the campus near Central and Girard and Central and Yale that will promote “safe pedestrian patterns and behavior.”

Those modifications are still being considered by the task force and will be discussed with students and the nearby community before anything is done, she said.

Last year, a university-commissioned study on campus safety that included details of a possible fence or wall around campus provoked numerous questions during public meetings and forums.

“My impression is that the campus security task force is not focused on looking at a big perimeter fence. They are looking at what are the most critical spots on campus and what do we need to do to make campus safer,” Stokes said in an interview after her speech.

In addition to public safety, Stokes said her other priorities are equity and inclusion and improving student success.

UNM hands out about 50% of all college degrees in the state, and the school has more than 200,000 alumni.

“By consistently increasing our retention rates and graduation rates, as well as offering new and innovative pathways for nontraditional learners, we are producing more lifelong Lobos,” she said.

She said the university’s four-year graduation rate has increased 23 percentage points since 2010, which is among the best gains in the country. The school’s six-year graduation rate is now over 50%.

Stokes said university officials will continue to advocate for more scholarships while also trying to continue to make gains in student success.

“I expect a UNM diploma to not be financially out of reach,” she said. “Opportunity is priceless, but it shouldn’t be cost prohibitive.”

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