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Bob Frank: ‘It just breaks my heart’

UNM President Bob Frank stands outside the university house last week. Frank is in his final days as president. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

UNM President Bob Frank stands outside the university house last week. Frank was one of the first presidents to live in the university house in quite a while. “It’s a privilege to live here,” he said. “I’ll miss it.” (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

University of New Mexico President Bob Frank with his dog Coach in the university house on Dec. 19. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

University of New Mexico President Bob Frank with his dog Coach in the university house on Dec. 19. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

In the last week of his presidency, after finals for the fall semester have concluded and the campus emptied, Bob Frank is in a sport coat, tie and dress slacks for an interview in his home. Staff members seldom see him in jeans in or outside the office, and it’s an effort to get him to put down his work email when he’s away from the job.

A 2-year-old yellow Labrador, Coach, bounds and barks in a separate room of the president’s university-owned home on the University of New Mexico campus. It is a small but vivid insight into Frank’s personal life outside an institution that has dominated most of his waking moments for 4½ years.

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Coach was sprayed by a skunk earlier this year, but thankfully the scent has passed. That makes things more aromatic in the home Frank shares with his wife, Janet. The couple have two adult children.

Frank has largely been absent from the public eye since his relations with the UNM Board of Regents took an ugly public turn several weeks ago.

The former Lobo student and athlete who came back to be president of his alma mater had aspired to a second term as president. But there would be no second term. In its stead was an acrimonious departure that included leaked documents critical of Frank’s managerial style.

The regents at one point considered suspending or terminating Frank’s contract for cause. In response, Frank, speaking through an attorney, threatened legal action.

The two parties reached an agreement that sidestepped a court battle: Frank will leave the presidency at year’s end – five months early – replaced by his provost, Chaouki Abdallah, who will serve as interim president. Instead, Frank will take a five-month paid sabbatical at his president’s salary of $362,136, and he has the option to take a $190,000 tenured faculty position at the Health Sciences Center, a position that initially was offered at $350,000.

Frank has talked about finding another job.

Heartbreaking

The fracas hasn’t left Frank bitter. But he is aggrieved and worries about the university’s ability to hire someone new, given the way the board handled his ouster.

“Anything would have been preferable,” he said, to the way he is leaving.

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“It just breaks my heart,” Frank, 64, told the Journal in an interview last week. “There’s no question my employee rights have been violated. I think everyone in the community has seen that. It’s just a fact.”

Despite the circumstances surrounding his departure, Frank did share some positives of his time as president, including improved graduation and retention rates, the creation of a private-public partnership meant to drive economic growth in the city, and several multimillion-dollar construction projects that will change how UNM looks. He also has been commended for his fundraising efforts.

All the while, he continuously praised efforts of faculty, staff and students at the university.

Frank also reflected on unexpected challenges, such as a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the way the school handles sexual misconduct. UNM is only the second university in the nation to attract the federal agency’s attention.

In another surprise, the regents pushed to restructure the board of the Health Sciences Center. And sharp cuts to the state budget mid-year meant the university had to scramble to deal with deficits.

“It feels like a century,” said Frank, reflecting on the beginning of the year.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry takes a photo of himself with UNM President Bob Frank at Innovate ABQ in March. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry takes a photo of himself with UNM President Bob Frank at Innovate ABQ in March. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Lobo

Once a collegiate swimmer at the university, Frank earned his three degrees at UNM during the 1970s. Before coming back to New Mexico, he served as the provost at Kent State University from 2007 to 2012, and prior to that he was a dean at the University of Florida.

Frank had often been an administrator, but his position at UNM marked his first as a president of higher education institution.

In the past 4½ years, new initiatives, including the reformation of remedial English and math classes, have boosted the four-year graduation rate from 15.8 percent in the 2012-13 school year to 21.7 percent in the 2015-16 school year. The rate of freshmen returning for their sophomore year has risen from roughly 74 percent in the 2011-2012 school year to nearly 80 percent in the 2015-16 year.

Outside improved graduation and retention rates, one of Frank’s most high-profile projects is Innovate ABQ, a public partnership among the city, the county and private partners to foster economic growth. Construction at the Downtown location started earlier this year, and Frank is sure of its success, even though his role in the project in the future will be diminished.

a01_jd_26dec_frank-timeline“I sort of feel like I am abandoning my children, and I am not going to get to see them grow up,” he said. “I just feel so sad I am not going to be there when they reach maturity.”

Frank said some of his lesser-known accomplishments include $180 million in construction projects that are set to change the profile of the campus. Those include a new building at the Anderson School of Management and a new physics and astronomy building. That one will be built on the northern section of campus, and some have said it will be the new face of the university.

Less massive, but still iconic, Frank was responsible for the life-sized bronze statues of Lobos around campus. And outside his main job, Frank said he found working with student government leaders a welcome surprise.

DOJ probe

One of the biggest challenges Frank faced was the sudden announcement that the DOJ planned to investigate the way the school handled sexual misconduct cases.

That was in December 2014, on the heels of a high-profile case in which a student claimed three men, two of them football players, raped her. They denied raping the woman, and District Attorney Kari Brandenburg’s office eventually dismissed the cases, citing a lack of evidence. The woman subsequently filed a lawsuit.

For the next 16 months, the federal agency conducted its investigation. And then one Friday morning, the DOJ issued a scathing 37-page rebuke of the school’s handling of sexual assault and harassment.

Frank initially went on the offensive, saying the DOJ’s findings didn’t represent UNM as a whole. By October, Frank didn’t mention that criticism when the federal agency and the school came to a three-year agreement that will see UNM increase sexual assault prevention training among other measures.

Frank also oversaw the university as the regents made the decision earlier this year to restructure the board that oversees the Health Sciences Center and brought its chancellor more clearly under the authority of the president.

Three years earlier, Frank had criticized the divide between Health Sciences and the main campus, saying the HSC was not efficient and lacked regent oversight, but eventually relented.

He said he didn’t play a role in the regents’ recent decision to consolidate, though some suspected Frank’s role regardless. That criticism would continue when Frank tried to get the HSC employees to drop their old email domain address – salud.unm – for the shorter .unm. Following an employee campaign to keep the address, Frank dropped the push.

“When you become a president, one of the things you learn over time is you can win some battles, but that the cost is so high that it’s not worth winning,” he said.

UNM President Bob Frank talks about the university's accomplishments during his tenure. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

UNM President Bob Frank talks about the university’s accomplishments during his tenure. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Packing up

This week, Frank will pack up his spacious office.

He still has yet to see the report on his management style, authored by an outside attorney, Alice Kilborn. The report cited interviews with eight people and likened his management style to bullying.

Frank said the report now wouldn’t make much of a difference, but he disagreed with excerpts made public that accused him of creating a workplace with “shades of a hostile working environment.” He said a similar review in July had an “entirely different outcome.”

“So it’s just unimaginable to me that this selective sampling bias that was used could be validated in any form or shape,” he said.

The Kilborn report also cited some who supported Frank and said most of their interactions with him generally were affable.

The report was leaked to local media, including the Journal . Frank’s legal team in a letter notified the board of his intent to sue the regents and suggested one of the board members had leaked the report in violation of state law and UNM policy. He has since dropped that claim.

Frank gave two reasons last week for that action: first his love for the university, then his unwillingness to hold a grudge for two or three years.

In a statement, board of regents President Rob Doughty didn’t specifically address Frank’s claims, saying instead the board and Frank came to a mutual agreement.

“I wish President Frank and his wife the best in their future endeavors,” he said.

For Frank, that future is still unfolding. The outgoing president said he still would like to serve as a university president and that he will search for new jobs, though he questioned if he would get hired given the recent events.

Since 1998, the school has had six presidents. None has had a contract renewed.

Meanwhile, an exit agreement calls for him to leave his home on campus by March. Frank is one of the first presidents to live in the university house in quite a while. Others lived elsewhere, and the house was used as a venue for entertainment.

Frank’s contract required him to live in the house because “the President residing on campus embodies the spirit of the university.” He seemed happy with the decision.

“It’s a privilege to live here,” he said. “I’ll miss it.”

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