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One-on-One with Tracy Hartzler

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tracy Hartzler barely had time to warm her seat at CNM before she was forced to completely overhaul the community college’s operations – a huge undertaking that was accomplished within two weeks.

Tracy Hartzler (Courtesy of CNM)

The global pandemic has been Hartzler’s trial by fire, although she says it helped to have worked at Central New Mexico Community College for five years before becoming its president on Jan. 1.

“It’s pretty weird,” Hartzler says. “It’s not what I expected, but I have to say my time at CNM before assuming this role was built on relationships, working with people across the college and that’s helped.

“I’m as prepared as anybody could be through this bizarre time.”

On March 13, CNM announced it would move almost all of its courses online in compliance with state orders governing the containment of coronavirus. That meant reformatting more than 1,800 course sections, affecting 14,500 students and 900 faculty members, “500 of whom “hadn’t participated or weren’t familiar with teaching online,” Hartzler says. (Other classes, in the trades and certain healthcare programs, were canceled because they require in-person instruction.)

Also, computers had to be loaned to students, Wi-Fi hot spots set up in campus parking lots for those without internet access, emergency financial aid increased and academic advising and tutoring services moved online.

Two weeks later, “we had made all the transitions,” Hartzler says “The students knew what they were doing, the faculty knew what they were doing and to think we did that is amazing. Now we know how fast we can move.”

Hartzler, 50, says she has always wanted a college leadership job, although she didn’t get there until after law school and stints with the New Mexico Legislature and the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“My career is definitely not linear, but I do think everything I’ve experienced has led me to where I am now, in the right spot,” Hartzler says.

In your career, have you experienced anything similar to this global pandemic?

“I think what I’ve learned is that my experience, whether it was in the U.S. Senate working on programs leading up to TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) and ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) legislation during the Great Recession or. … working with the Legislative Finance Committee as the state started to recover. … is to remember that we’re all working toward a common goal. We all want to go back to work. We want to be fiscally responsible. We need to pilot activities that we wouldn’t have thought we were going to do before the circumstance arises. You know, you just have to be courageous and take a leap in some areas. But this (pandemic) is very distinct. It’s very different for higher education than it has been in other settings. Normally, if the economy shrinks, community college enrollment goes up in many career technical and educational programs. Well, I can’t offer those because of physical distancing requirements. This is uncharted.”

What was your childhood like?

“Well, I appreciate green, flat agriculture spaces differently now, being here. I never realized that the world doesn’t have black dirt and rain. I have family members who live in central Illinois. We have a family farm. I was a pretty boring kid, which I think any parent would appreciate. I did well academically. I played volleyball, softball and basketball.”

What do you do in your free time?

“Cooking, walking. I like to have small dinner gatherings, which of course are not being done right now. Tennis is probably the most interesting thing that I do. I’m pretty competitive, and that’s a pretty healthy outlet. I like playing on a team. I played in Santa Fe, and I now play on a team out of Albuquerque.”

Tracy Hartzler gets a round of applause from Central New Mexico Community College staff and others as the college board names her as the school’s next president in November 2019. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Do you have any cooking specialties?

“I make bourbon balls, which now have a kind of cult following. I’ve had to change my packaging and the numbers (of them) that I share, so that’s interesting. And then I make mac and cheese. If you’re lactose-intolerant, you can’t have this. At times like this, it’s what we need.”

What’s your most embarrassing moment?

“There are many; it’s not like there’s only one. Falling. I don’t fall a lot, but I fall enough. I sprained my ankle a few weeks ago. I wasn’t doing anything dramatic. I was taking out the recycling, and I missed a step. Fortunately, no one saw me. It’s that kind of stuff. I’m sometimes a klutz.”

Do you have any regrets?

“I don’t have many. I think I learn from mistakes, and I move on to the next one. I think that’s very, I daresay, a Midwestern approach. And I can think of my family members who are very stoic in that way. But I think there are times where I’ve either reacted too quickly without more information and perhaps without the kindness or the graciousness or the generosity that probably the situation warranted. The times I regret is when I couldn’t go back and refine the decision.”

What makes you sad?

“Knowing that I will make decisions that will make people’s lives difficult. … We have not laid anyone off, and I will do everything I can to make sure that does not happen. And yet I know that the world has turned. There are circumstances that we will all be challenged to meet. I know that I will make difficult decisions consistent with our vision and our values. But I know some of those decisions could be hard and that they will impact people.”

What will the new normal be like once we emerge from the coronavirus crisis?

“I think we’ll value the personal connections differently than we did before. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly we have amnesia about meetings and the need to have personal meetings. Now, I think we all want in-person meetings. We’ll see how long that lasts. But I think what we will value is that down time. You go from hour to hour to hour versus a walk across campus, (which) gives you time to process what you need to do to get ready for the next conversation you’re having. So I think it will bring an interesting sense of mindfulness.”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

“I think what’s most memorable to me now is to be generous and kind. I think the roles I’ve had, including this one, it’s easy to be in a bubble. Recognize what you see on a daily basis from another person, your colleagues, your students. You’re only seeing a snapshot, not a panoramic or the whole picture, so be generous, which I think approaches a glass half-full perspective. And so be generous because it brings people to you. It helps open people up. It helps you explore what another is going through as well. I think particularly at this time that seems to be front and center for me.”

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