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University president uses calm approach to tackle challenges

November 25, 2018

In this Nov. 15, 2018, photo University of New Mexico, President Garnett Stokes, center, speaks with Mary Clark, UNM sustainability manager, before an award presentation at the university in Albuquerque, N.M. Since becoming the UNM's first female president, Stokes has traveled thousands of miles, visited more than three dozen cities and met with about 1,300 people on a "listening tour" designed to learn what people think of the university and what it can do to meet their needs. (Gabriela Campos/Santa Fe New Mexican via AP)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — When she was a child, Garnett Stokes told her mother she wanted to be an airline stewardess.

“That probably reflects my desire to travel,” the 62-year-old University of New Mexico president said.

Since stepping on campus March 1 as UNM’s first female president, she’s done just that. By her own account, Stokes has traveled more than 4,000 miles in the state, visited 38 cities in all 33 counties, and met with about 1,300 people on a “listening tour” designed to learn what people think of the university and what it can do to meet their needs.

But no one ever said travel didn’t have its bumps, even if that means a walk from one UNM facility to another. (She logs about 15,000 to 20,000 steps a day.)

Almost since the day she arrived in Albuquerque, Stokes — like others before her — has found that the job of UNM president is not a smooth, magic-carpet ride.

“It’s like she gets caught up in these dust devils all the time,” said Rob Burford, a UNM alumnus and 23-year employee at the university who serves as its Staff Council president and is a supporter of Stokes. “She’s always getting thrown into all these different things, and then she comes out of these dust devils to focus on what she needs to focus on.”

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‘Tough decision’

The biggest windstorm in Stokes’ first six months on the job was her July decision — backed by the UNM Board of Regents — to eliminate men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing, beach volleyball and the women’s diving team as of next year in a cost-saving measure to trim $1.2 million from the athletic department’s annual budget.

After the state Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion that the regents violated the state’s Open Meetings Act because the agenda was not specific enough, the board reconvened — and voted again to cut the programs.

The emotional and controversial fallout — men’s soccer is approximately a $700,000 line item in an athletic budget of $33.5 million and a university budget of close to $3 billion — has been oddly immense, with legislators planning to reinsert money for some of the programs for an athletic department that rarely meets budget.

If the move to cut sports has diminished her political capital or dented Stokes’ enthusiasm for the job, she’s not letting on.

“It was a very tough decision,” Stokes said last week. “People attached to the sports that we cut are hurt and upset by that decision, and that’s understandable.”

There have been other problems as well.

In September, UNM announced enrollment was down from the previous school year by more than 7 percent, a drop that will cost the university nearly $10 million, according to regents who spoke of the problem at a recent meeting. That day, the board voted to approve an array of measures, including drawing upon one-time discretionary funding of $3 million, to bridge that gap.

Stokes told the board the declining enrollment numbers — from 26,278 in 2017 to 24,393 this year — are UNM’s single biggest problem.

“It impacts everything and everyone on campus,” she said.

Stokes convened a task force to study the reasons behind the drop and come up with a solution.

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Calm demeanor

Still, watching Stokes move from one event to another on campus, you might get the feeling she believes the sheer force of her energy, focus and drive will move the college forward with her.

“Getting everyone on board and moving in the same direction is just one focus,” she said. “It’s essential that any leader of a university meet and listen to the people both inside and outside of that university’s communities. I think people need to know me . and I need to get to know them.”

Interviews with students, governing board members, and staff and faculty leaders on campus suggest they see Stokes as the right person for the job, even as she gets embroiled in conflicts and controversies that, they say, she handles with an even-tempered sense of humor and calm.

“Despite some very unpleasant interactions with individuals who failed ‘basic public decorum 101,’ she’s thoughtful and does not take such attacks personally,” said Marron Lee, the Board of Regents’ vice president. “She takes every concern and weighs it in her head before making a decision. I think people already understand that she’s not going to jump on the bandwagon.

“She’s not a politician; she’s a leader,” Lee said. “She’s been given a job to run the institution, and I think she is going to do it the best way she possibly can. If that means making hard decisions . she will take the heat because she knows what she did is right.”

Regents President Robert Doughty agrees. “She’s very methodical on how she comes to decisions,” he said. “She listens to those around her, and each decision comes with a logical explanation. I have not seen her react with an emotional response to any challenge.”

That demeanor may help her address other challenges that continue to mount: In the spring, she will have to replace many outgoing and retiring administrative leaders — plus deal with campus security and big-picture projects like getting various research departments to work together on tackling local, national and even global problems.

There’s also this: Stokes likely will have new bosses. Terms of five of the board’s seven regents expire before the next legislative session, which starts Jan. 15.

Doughty said her biggest challenge will be to “make UNM a destination university as opposed to just being the be-all and end-all choice for everybody living within the state.”

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First in her family

Stokes was born in Washington, D.C., to a mother who worked as a secretary and a father who served in the U.S. Air Force as a flight crew member. (Both her mother and maternal grandmother had the first name of Garnett.) Since her father traveled from base to base as part of his job, she went with him, moving from Alaska to Arizona to Florida, as well as other states, through the years.

As a teen, she maintained a vague notion of following the path of one of her television idols, Marlo Thomas, who portrayed the title character in the popular television series That Girl. The heroine’s adventures in New York City laid it all out for Stokes: She would study acting, move to the Big Apple and find just the right boyfriend.

Though she did act in a few plays, she never pursued theater as a career. Still, Stokes does give off a theatrical sense, appearing before large groups of people with poise and stage presence and calling upon a handy sense of humor to handle surprise questions and awkward encounters.

For example, once asked to immediately answer what book she would like to have on hand if she were stranded on an island, she replied she’d like a book that would tell her how to survive there.

Upon graduating from high school in Indiana, Stokes had no initial desire to attend college. But her father encouraged her to take college prep tests, and soon she was taking courses at the University of Indiana, where she developed an interest in psychology.

“That decision to go to college was life-changing for me, though obviously I didn’t turn out to be what I intended to be,” Stokes said. She was the first member of her family to attend college.

That experience led her to realize just how valuable a college degree is, even beyond its potential to land a graduate a job. “A four-year degree provides a challenge for students to acquire knowledge, to acquire skills, to solve problems creatively and consider dilemmas and differences,” Stokes said.

She said it’s up to university leaders to highlight and prove that point to people who may not see those advantages.

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Unexpected career

Following her graduation from college, Stokes worked her way up the ranks at various colleges, from professor to chairwoman of a psychology department to dean of an arts and sciences college, taking on more responsibility because she wanted to be the one to effect change.

She served in leadership roles at Florida State University, the University of Georgia and the University of Missouri before the UNM regents tapped her to replace interim President Chaouki T. Abdallah early this year.

She was not necessarily looking for a new job but liked the idea of perhaps capping her career in New Mexico, a state she and her husband, Jeffrey Younggren, enjoyed visiting.

Lee said the regents liked what they saw in Stokes because she is a “consensus builder. She’s careful but not scared. Her breadth of knowledge is amazing. She’s constantly reading, constantly learning.”

With more than four years left to serve on her five-year contract (at $400,000 per year), Stokes said she has more to learn. And she knows unforeseen obstacles will pop up, perhaps pulling her back into a dust devil.

“Some of it is unrelenting,” Stokes said as she prepared to briskly stroll across campus to another event late in the day. “I have to agree that there is sometimes a sense of, ‘Well, here comes another major challenge; what is the solution to the next storm?’

“But I love it. The best thing about being a university president is the time I get to spend with faculty, staff and students.”

To Younggren, a forensic psychologist and retired colonel in the U.S. Army, it seems Stokes finally has found a match for her talents.

“Her patience is a good quality for this university,” he said. “She’s not afraid to change, and institutions like the college, in my view, need to change.

“It’s always fun for me to look at her and say to myself, ‘For a girl who wasn’t going to go to college, she now runs a major university.’ That’s a little ironic.”

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Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.santafenewmexican.com

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