Starting March 1, Garnett S. Stokes will begin her five-year contract as the next president of the University of New Mexico — the first female president in UNM history.
She has held the position of provost, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and interim chancellor at the University of Missouri, according to the UNM Newsroom. Stokes also held the positions of interim president, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Florida State University. Her positions at the University of Georgia also included: dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and head of psychology.
The Daily Lobo sat down with Stokes to discuss her experience, where she thinks the University stands and her plans for the road ahead.
Q: What are some personal goals you have for your time as UNM President?
A: One of the reasons I wanted to become UNM’s President is that I have really strong beliefs in the importance of public research universities. One of my goals is to help lead this University in what are tough environments for public universities — tough financially and in terms of the public’s valuing of public education. A couple of my goals really are related to the student experience at the University of New Mexico, making this the place where students can expect to be successful, and to also strengthen the ties of (UNM) with other (universities) around the state, in both rural and urban areas.
Q: From what you’ve seen so far, what do you think of the UNM campus?
A: I think this is a gorgeous campus. It was a pleasant surprise, because before my campus interview, I had not actually been on the University of New Mexico campus before.The architecture and the natural spaces — (it was) all very pretty. I’ve always loved the Southwest. I’ve travelled to Albuquerque and other parts of New Mexico previously, so it’s been a city I’ve always enjoyed.
Q: You’ve worked at several different universities over your career. What about UNM stands out to you that you don’t find at other colleges?
A: I’ll still have some things to discover. What is different about this University, compared to my other three universities, is the tremendous diversity. An attraction for me to come to UNM is the diversity of (its) population. My previous universities are what are often called “predominantly-white institutions.” To be able to come to a university that is rich in its diversity and is designated as “Hispanic-serving” is something that is different and was one of the reasons I was interested in coming here.
Q: Are you familiar with the Lottery Scholarship?
A: I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know the specifics of it.
Q: Basically, (the state government takes) 30 percent of the money accumulated from lottery ticket (sales), and it goes to help fund student scholarships in state. It used to cover about 90 percent of tuition…but now covers around 60 percent. What ideas do you have about making finding full-time funding solutions to make college more affordable in general?
A: I recognize how important it is, especially as a public university, that we make college affordable for our students who can’t afford to get that education otherwise. The scholarship you just mentioned sounds very much like what we had in Georgia; it was called the Hope Scholarship. It was funding for students who had a certain high school GPA. And that was a tremendous help…I recognize how crucially important scholarship dollars are. I see it as something that’s really important to pursue via private donations. For donors, scholarships, especially need-based scholarships, are a powerful way that donors are able to make a difference. I see focusing on scholarships as a major priority for fundraising. It is possible to get industry and for-profit companies to see the value of investing in students. Now, I am speaking about this without know what is available, but…it can be a priority for fundraising.
Q: Your tenures at both the University of Missouri and Florida State were surrounded by controversy. How do you think dealing with those high-pressure situations will help you in this new position?
A: I think that having dealt with those really significant, in-the-limelight controversies has helped me understand better the importance of building relationships with all the major constituents of a public university. When you’re dealing with controversy, it is critical that you have those that care about the well-being of the university listen to the truth. Sometimes the truth is not out there, and you have to be willing to support the institution. I think I recognize the importance of communication effectively, being transparent (and) building relationships that are built on trust.
Q: Say a student organization at UNM wanted to invite a controversial speaker, like Milo Yiannopoulos, that could potentially pose a danger to the University. How would you handle that situation?
A: I think I’d have to do a great deal of homework on any situation like that. One thing that I need to know is what are the policies of the institution, (as well as) the board. I want to make sure that I engage the campus on what is going to be in the best interest of the University. Universities vary in the ways in which they choose to deal with controversial speakers. There’s a lot about the specifics that turn out to be important in determining which direction to go.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing the University?
A: It would be impossible not to recognize that public universities are struggling financially…there are others, however. There’s the public trust in higher education, in some respects that’s tied to finances. Building that trust in the state of New Mexico is one of this institution’s challenges.
Q: What is one way that we could make the athletics department more profitable and more financially responsible?
A: I think we have a wonderful new athletics director (Eddie Nuñez). Without knowing more details, it would be hard to know what we are going to do to be more profitable. It is really important to see where increasing revenues might be possible, figuring out where there’s room for greater efficiency and of course having winning teams and programs that operate with integrity are crucial to the success of a major athletics program.
Q: I don’t want to oversimplify your time here (as president), but obviously you are the first women to hold this position at UNM. How does it feel to be the first to break that milestone at this University?
A: I’m happy to be in that role. It’s such a great message to say to women that these opportunities are available. It’s not the first time that I’ve been “the first.” I was the first woman head of psychology at the University of Georgia and the first woman dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia, the first woman provost at Florida State University (and) the first interim president at Florida State.
Q: Being president (of a university) obviously doesn’t allow for too much free time, but when you’re not working, what are some things you like to do?
A: I love hiking. I already have a “Hiking Trails of New Mexico” book. My husband and I love to bike. We like to do some travelling. We don’t get the opportunity to do a lot of personal travelling, but we do enjoy it…Of course, I read, but honestly, lately it seems most of my reading is more work-related rather than it is for pleasure.
Q: Let’s say I am a recent high school graduate. Why should UNM, or a college education in general, interest me?
A: My parents didn’t go college, and I didn’t plan on going to college myself. Just by accident, I started taking classes at the local branch of Indiana University, and I found that I enjoyed them. I had a lot of misconceptions about what college was. For some students that aren’t interested in college, in part, there’s not an understanding of what college is and what the opportunities are. What led to the success of our parents is not what is necessarily going to lead to success for future generations…a university education has become more essential for achieving whatever an 18 year old might be looking for.
Kyle Land is a news editor for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kyleoftheland.