Chaouki Abdallah is the acting president of the University of New Mexico. Abdallah began serving UNM as Provost in July 2011, but stepped up when then-President Bob Frank was forced to leave his post.
Abdallah sat down with the Daily Lobo to discuss the controversial events that have rocked campus recently.
DL: How is the security fee for the Milo Yiannopoulos event being handled?
CA: So what happened is, as our practice, we have a policy that gives a lot of leeway to the chief of police to make the decision about what it costs and so on and so forth. When the first group that wanted to invite Milo, when they approached us, they go through the SUB and talk to them and they tell them. In fact, every chartered student organization has that information.
If they want to have speakers and so on, it does give them that. Maybe they don’t read it carefully, but it is there. So then the police chief met with them, and there was a change in sponsoring organizations — it started out with the Young Americans for Liberty and then went to the UNM College Republicans — then they met with them and told them it was going to be about $3,400.
Then they went out and said this was a surprise and it became a concern and came before the Board of Regents. The regents asked, "Why are you charging people?" And we described to them the process and they asked us to review it. They said, "This sounds strange."
So I asked our legal office to review it. They reviewed it, and within a few days they came back and they said, "Look, it won’t pass muster legally if you charge based on the content of the speech. You can charge the security fee and other universities have and do, but it cannot be based on the type of speech." You can charge it based on the size of the audience, based on a lot of different things, but they didn’t finish their review.
They are looking at legal cases, precedence and so on, so they said the best thing you can do right now is to say, "Okay, we’re going to suspend it, pending review," and that’s where we are. So they’re still reviewing it, they’re supposed to give me some recommendation on what to do.
A couple of things could happen: They could say you cannot charge it based on this, here’s a modified policy that would pass muster and then we’ll review everyone that we charged based on that criteria. We would go back and review those organizations that we charged, based on the content. There are two legal concerns — one is the type of speech, or charging based on the type of speech, and the other concern was you have to have a process where it’s not up to one person to just determine what it’s going to be.
We will look at the policy, we will make sure it satisfies everything. If it turns out we could not charge for whatever reason, we’ll go back. If it turns out that the policy says we cannot do it, then we’ll go back and review the people that we charged before and make sure that they’re treated the same.
DL: So the Board of Regents is doing the policy review?
CA: No, the Board of Regents doesn’t do it. What happens is they ask us to do the review, we have our legal office do it, and we have a policy process within UNM.
UNM Spokeswoman Dianne Anderson: It’s called the Office of University Council. That’s our lawyers. Then we have the policy office. So the lawyers will review and then they’ll go through the policy office, which has an entire process that they vet the policy through.
DL: So this could take a long while?
CA: It could take months, because they put it out for comments and they get a lot of people to do it. This is the process for changing policies at this University.
DL: What was the total cost of the event?
CA: We don’t know that yet. The UNM police are getting those numbers for us. But I can guarantee you it’s more than $3,400. I can guarantee you it’s a lot more than that, but I don’t know.
Once we made the decision to have the event, then it became up to the police and the police chief to determine how to keep people safe. That was the only thing I asked for. Since we cannot not have it, what we need to do is make sure that things are safe.
So (UNMPD) put the plan together, worked with the folks from Milo’s security team, with police chiefs elsewhere, with other universities. We were monitoring this all the way to the date and minute it happened, and then (UNMPD) took over and made sure it happened and that people were safe.
DL: What is your response to the immigration/travel ban, and how would you address the fear of those on campus who are affected?
CA: We have a lot of resources right now, the Global Education Office is doing a lot of things to try to reach out to the impacted students today. We don’t know how wide this is going to be eventually. It may be other countries.
Right now, we identify the students who are affected from the seven countries and then we contacted students who were out of the country at the time. We’re working with them. Within the University, I said we’re going to make sure that everybody feels welcome. We work within the law. The University of New Mexico cannot say, "Okay, we’re going to violate the law." The law today as it exists is suspended, you know. This travel ban is now in the courts again.
For those students who are here, we’re advising them not to leave because we cannot guarantee what the law will be when they’re coming back. We have resources for them to talk to the Global Education Office, immigration lawyers and other people who can help. We are monitoring this thing very carefully, along with other universities and companies now that are concerned about this, who are signing letters and so on.
So basically what we’re arguing and supporting is the idea that students and people who are in the University legally right now should be celebrated, protected and helped rather than saying, "You don’t belong here." And that’s what we’re trying to do.
Today there was a Global Education Office event to say, "You’re welcome here." We’re doing a lot of these things that are personal touches, trying to get people to feel like they’re welcome here. At the end of the day, of course, the law is what we go by, and we’re trying to make sure through our organizations, the higher education organizations, legislators and so on, to support the idea that the executive order should not be implemented as is.
This is the position of what the universities are saying. Whether it’ll happen or not, eventually we’ll have to obey the law.
DL: Is UNM planning to become a sanctuary campus? What would that entail for the University?
CA: "Sanctuary campus" doesn’t really have a legal definition. It doesn’t mean anything legally and it’s not up to the president to declare a sanctuary campus. It has to go through the Board of Regents.
When you look at what the steps are for a sanctuary campus, we are actually doing a lot of them. In fact, there’s a letter from (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that says ICE agents will not come to certain locations, and universities are one of them. So they don’t come to campus, unless somebody has committed a felony and they have an arrest.
In the last few years, I think they’ve come to campus maybe once and there was an actual arrest. I don’t know that for a fact, that’s what I was told. A lot of protections and things that (fall under "sanctuary campus") are really not enforceable. You can say you’re a sanctuary campus, it means nothing.
What we’re doing instead is really trying to figure out how is it that we can implement or support the students who may be at risk for that. So there are two types of students. There are the undocumented and the DACA students, the ones who declared the deferred action. The DACA students are actually a much higher risk because they declared, there’s a DACA number for them. If somebody were to change DACA, those people would be the most affected.
The undocumented, we don’t know who they are. So as far as we’re concerned, we don’t ask and don’t tell, and that’s been the practice of all universities. DACA is where we’re working with legislators and others. There is a bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate and House to make sure it’s extended until the whole issue of immigration reform is brought to the table. So we’re supporting those.
I signed, on behalf of the University, many letters with many different organizations and universities, to try to make sure that we support these bills that are going through to make sure DACA students are protected, which I think are the most at risk right now, again because there’s a number associated with each DACA student.
DL: Can UNM protect students from these seven nations, and those who hold green cards and/or visas?
CA: So when you say "protect," the University as an entity — we’re not law enforcement. Having a green card or visa, you have legal status in the United States. If the president or an executive order said, "Okay, those people are no longer legal status," that’s a different story.
But he didn’t say that. He said if they’re out of the country and coming back, then potentially he left something basically up to immigration officers. Now that was stopped. The original executive order had a lot of leeway but the courts stopped that. So now today, if you are at UNM, or within the country, whether you’re at UNM or not, and you have a green card, you have all the rights and privileges, except you can’t vote or run for office. Pretty much anything else.
In fact, that’s what I went through when I became a citizen. I had a green card, then I became a citizen. If I’m from one of those countries and I’m out of the country, you know, I travel — that’s why we’re advising people, "Don’t do anything yet, because it’s changing daily." Everyday, it’s changing.
They’re going to stay on it, and then that judge basically froze it all over the country, then it’s going through the appeals process. It will go to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, we’re advising people, "Don’t leave the country if you are of legal status," meaning green card or valid student visa or any kind of visa.
Now the law says you’re fine, but tomorrow if the law changes and says everybody that has a green card needs to go register some place and so on, UNM cannot say, "We’re not going to tell people not to register.”
DL: Talking law brings me back to the First Amendment. Do you feel like Milo was perpetuating hate speech?
CA: “I don’t give any statements on anybody in particular; all I can say is that’s a legal question. Everybody says, "I’m for the First Amendment, but..." and then they decide what the "but" is. The courts have decided on a lot of these.
Milo, in particular, without making my own judgement on the content of his work, he’s got lawyers who basically tell him exactly how far he can step to the line. If people felt that it is hate speech, they can sue and they can get to that point.
Now, what happens is universities have speech conduct, which is a different thing from what the legal terminology is. We have things at the University, you can’t say this or you can’t say that, and I believe in this case, you can argue it both ways. He did say things that would violate the University speech conduct, but the First Amendment trumps the speech conduct in many of these cases.
So whatever it is, I don’t believe, based on how careful he is and how he’s been doing this everywhere, that a court will find him in violation of anything. I don’t believe it. Now somebody else could do it, take it and have at it, but the point I want to make on free speech is this: I think free speech is our defensive weapon right now against a lot of things that are going on. By giving up on free speech, we’re self-disarming. We’re self-disarming because the conversations that are taking place around the country are going to be difficult on all sides, and if one side says, "Okay, I’m going to censor this kind of speech," then the other side would come in and censor this speech and pretty soon we won’t be able to have a conversation.
So as a University, I feel like our job is to make sure that we can have conversations around all the difficult topics. I wish people would sit around a table and have a civil conversation around it versus each one going and presenting their own point of view to their own people and preaching to the choir.
But our job is not really to say, in my judgement, that we’re going to censor this speech. The University cannot survive by saying, "We’re going to start censoring," because it gets tighter and tighter until eventually we’re not having conversations about real topics. Free speech is dear to me. I said it in a couple of my messages is that I came from a place when I was growing up, where I could not speak my mind when I was 16, 17 and 18, outside of a small group. I was afraid if I spoke outside, the other political party could harm me or harm my parents or harm something else.
So I feel like one of the most important roles that we have as a University is to keep it in place for the ugly speech, the hurtful speech, because otherwise I think you’re going to end up in a place where somebody else will be in power someday at the University. That’s the slippery slope I think that people are really not as aware of.
The (American Civil Liberties Union), they defended the rights of the Nazis to march. They’re not supporting the Nazis. I don’t think anybody, or very few people support the fact of Nazis to do something, but at the same time, they supported the right of Nazis to march as free speech.
I think that’s what makes it so precious. It’s not for the speech that everybody agrees on, it’s for the hurtful speech. The courts have ruled on what is hate speech. You can go to those and see that if you tell somebody at school you want to kill so and so, there’s a difference. You’re inciting violence. Not specifically about Milo, but I think people are aware of what the limits are right now until somebody litigates it and changes the law. It could be that the courts will rule, if somebody wants to take him to court and say, "You can’t say that," that’s fine.
At that point it becomes another limit, but for the time being, I’m pretty sure his lawyers and others have kept him within the lines and at the boundaries of what constitutes hate speech and free speech, again, without personally making any statement or any opinion about the content of his presentation.
DL: If things had escalated here the way they did at Berkeley, would you have considered cancelling the event?
CA: Public safety was the one reason. The police chief had all the power to cancel, to limit the event. The only thing I told him was, "Nobody gets hurt. I don’t want anybody to get hurt. Whatever it takes. If you need to bring people, bring people. If you need to cancel the event, cancel the event."
We were both lucky. But I also think our people, our students and people who were inside and outside, I think they expressed their opinions. We had a little bit of just pushing, but at the end of the day it was a good outcome that nobody got hurt.
It did cost us a lot of money, but at the end of the day it wasn’t Berkeley, and nobody got shot. We didn’t take these things lightly. If the police had said, "I cannot control it," we would have said, "Yes, cancel.”
DL: What do you feel UNM’s biggest obstacles are, moving forward?
CA: I think the national dialogue, environment and climate right now is very tense. As a University, as a place where different ideas clash, I think that by itself is not bad. I think it’s great. Universities should be a place where different ideas come and clash.
Hopefully the cream rises to the top, but because people are so much on edge in terms of the economy, in terms of some of the political aspects of what’s happening, I think it’s going to be a difficult time for us at all universities. UNM in particular, we have very engaged student groups, faculty and external groups. A lot of people outside reflect their opinions on what the University should and should not do. So that’s a big challenge.
The other big thing is, of course, the budget, the economy, the financial aspects of the University. Again, if we have millions and millions to spend, we could do a lot more things to try to address many of the concerns that people have in one area or the other. The state is not doing well financially, and it reflects on us.
So we’re having to navigate a difficult financial situation when a lot of people are on different sides of many of the concerns that we have, social and political. While at the same time, we must keep our eyes on making sure the University continues to move in the right direction, in terms of student support, student success, graduating and so on, and calm things down to find a new president.
So we shouldn’t have too many exciting things that scare people on the outside from wanting to come and be at this fine institution.
DL: What are your hopes for UNM moving forward?
CA: Well, I hope in a year from now we have a new president in place who is able to rally everybody and continue to move the University into a better financial as well as leadership place in the state and outside.
I think a lot of people look at UNM from the inside or they see some of the negative aspects that they’ve been dealing with in terms of social unrest or maybe financial cuts and so on. This is still one of the best universities, not just in the United States, (but) in the world. In some areas, we’re top five by any metric.
But it has a very special mission. The University of New Mexico serves a very broad population. We don’t filter people out. We try as much as possible to get good people and support them. And yet we have a research mission which is very high in density. We do research and we compete with the best and the brightest everywhere, and we win.
We’re a public institution. We have a duty to solve public problems. Popejoy serves a great mission to support the arts. The hospital does a lot of healthcare delivery. The athletics department, we provide entertainment and something to carry.
So it’s a very broad mission, unlike a smaller school which is focusing only on one thing. Or like a community college, focusing on training people for jobs. We have PhDs as well as programs that take people that are barely making it to the university and graduating them with a bachelors, masters, or PhD.
The other thing is, frankly, we have students who are barely being accepted, or being able to start the process and we have to bring those people into the mainstream. But then we have people at the upper end who need to be challenged. We need to make sure those people do not get bored.
So my hope is that we can continue to fulfill that and become more efficient, more effective in delivering our mission. Our duty is to teach. We’re privileged to be a research university, but out of the research comes a lot of great things including drugs that will save lives, technical solutions to problems; it could be clean water, better cars, helping solve a social problem that has been a problem for the state.
So all of that, in the research area, are things that we are privileged to be able to do. The research could take years and years to get a company going, for example. But eventually, that’s what I think makes the role of the research university special. It’s not that we’re training for the jobs of today, we’re creating the knowledge and potentially the companies and the jobs five, 10, 15 years from now. That’s something that people are not really as aware of.
Sarah Trujillo is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sarahtweets_abq.