Chaouki Abdallah, the man who will run the state’s largest university for at least the next five months, has a disarming sense of humor.
In 2012, a cartoonist at the University of New Mexico student newspaper, the Daily Lobo, drew the provost as a vampire biting the neck of a student, a theme that was repeated throughout the cartoonist’s career at the paper.
These days, Abdallah keeps a box of Count Chocula cereal and several toy versions of the cartoon vampire on a shelf in his office.
That sense of humor will likely serve Abdallah well as he takes on a university with more than 27,000 students, roughly 1,250 full-time faculty and about 3,000 staff. A university that’s facing a severe budget crunch and trying to recover from months of antagonism between the board of regents and outgoing President Bob Frank.
Abdallah’s colleagues and associates cast him as a quick study and voracious reader with an ability to “calm the waters.”
‘Magnitude of the task’
It’s Thursday, a day before the semester ends and just days removed from the announcement of Frank’s impending departure at month’s end. Abdallah sits in an office he temporarily will vacate while the dean of the Anderson School of Management, Craig White, takes his place as acting provost.
Abdallah, 57, says he’s honored to lead the university he has called home for nearly three decades. He said he is entering the office with a compass; support from his wife, the board of regents and faculty; and a little trepidation.
“I am kind of worried about what comes,” he said. “I am thinking about the magnitude of the task.”
He also talks about his plans for the school, which he hopes a new president will run in five months.
Until then, “I want to do a good job for the university,” he said.
One of eight children, Abdallah grew up for a time in Lebanon during its civil war. From 1975 to 1990, the war would claim a quarter of a million lives.
His father worked as a stonemason, a chicken farmer, really anything that would pay the bills. Neither of Abdallah’s parents went to college, but his mother impressed upon the children the value of a college education.
Abdallah initially attended college in Lebanon, but the war prompted him to leave for Ohio, where he had relatives. It took him about 2½ years to graduate from Youngstown State University in Ohio. His mother was financing his education, he said, and at times she had to borrow money from their Lebanese village of roughly 300.
After finishing his undergraduate work, Abdallah attended the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he would earn his master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering. In 1988, he took a job as an associate professor at the University of New Mexico.
He has served as the head of the electrical engineering department, the faculty senate and was named provost in 2011 by then-President David Schmidly.
Abdallah has created a home in Albuquerque with his wife, Catherine Cooper, their twin children, Carter and Calvin, 17, and a goldendoodle named Murphy. Family pictures adorn every wall.
He fell in love with the mountains, he said. They remind him of Lebanon, which he still visits once or twice a year.
As provost, Abdallah has focused his efforts at UNM on the internal workings of the school, such as the managing of budgets at the different colleges, hiring faculty and ensuring that students graduate.
He and others said the role of the president requires a greater focus on external factors, such as the state budget.
Though new to the presidency, Abdallah did serve as the executive vice president during Frank’s administration, so he has some familiarity with the issues that face the university.
Abdallah’s hope, he said, is to leave the presidency within six months, though he said he would stay on longer if needed. He also has said he is not interested in serving as the permanent president of the university, and he said Thursday that he hopes to return to his position as provost. The board of regents has launched a presidential search and hopes to name someone by spring.
Abdallah said he sees his main role as calming the campus community and preparing it for the next president, who will be the 22nd to run the university since its inception in 1889.
And he said he doesn’t foresee making major changes in the way the university is managed, but he acknowledged it faces serious financial challenges as state revenues continue to shrink.
“I need to prepare the grounds for the person who is going to come in to lead the university for hopefully 10 years,” he said.
Since Frank took the presidency five years ago, and with Abdallah as provost, the school has experienced increased graduation and retentions rates.
Frank is leaving the post at the end of the year after weeks of tensions between him and the regents. But he effectively will be gone by the end of this week because most of the university will shut down on Friday and won’t reopen until Jan. 4.
As described by his employees, Abdallah is a voracious reader. He reads both printed and electronic books, and he is currently working through “Reengineering the University: How to Be Mission Centered, Market Smart, and Margin Conscious,” a book about the higher education system.
A good fit
Those who have worked with Abdallah said he is well-suited to lead the university.
Pamela Pyle, president of faculty senate, said she believes Abdallah has a “genuine” concern for the university and actively communicates with those on campus.
“My sense is that he will be able to sustain a long-term vision for the university while maintaining an interest in the daily workings of our community, ensuring that our flagship will move smoothly through this transition,” Pyle said in a statement to the Journal .
And Regents President Rob Doughty said the provost is well respected within UNM and the wider community.
“Chaouki Abdallah has shown exceptional leadership as Provost, and demonstrated integrity, mission-driven collaboration and emotional intelligence, all of which are critical to the role of interim President,” Doughty said in a statement.
Doughty added that changes in leadership may be difficult, but that UNM remains, “an institution that is committed to its students, faculty, the campus community and, of course, New Mexico.”
Greg Heileman is an associate provost and a professor in the electrical engineering department, both departments where Abdallah has worked. He started in the same department within two years of Abdallah’s arrival.
Heileman said the provost and soon-to-be president’s strength is his ability to learn quickly.
“He will learn everything he can about this,” he said.
And Heileman said the fact that Abdallah is a faculty member will endear him to other professors.
Virginia Scharff, a history professor and an associate provost, said Abdallah is affable, sociable and a “champion of student success.”
“He’ll calm the waters to the extent that is possible,” she said.
That perhaps is apparent in the provost’s weekly emails to the campus, particularly in a message after the presidential election. UNM had seen graffiti comparing President-elect Donald Trump to Nazis and a report of an incident of a student trying to remove the hijab of a Muslim female student.
In his message, Abdallah shared his experience of fleeing from his war-torn country, his love of freedom of expression in America and his hope that students face the nation’s challenges in “a thoughtful and independent fashion.”
“We say we protect the pack, and that goes for everyone, including those who disagree with us, and those of us who came here from elsewhere attracted by American values and better lives,” he wrote.