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Acting UNM prez holds second town hall, reiterating many messages of the first

UNM acting President Chaouki Abdallah held a second town hall in the Domenici Auditorium on North Campus on Monday, reiterating many of the same messages that he had in his first town hall last week. 

Abdallah reiterated his three areas of focus as acting president, a position he will hold through the end of the semester: campus climate, student academic success and the financial challenges facing the University.

Unlike the previous town hall, people sent in questions for Abdallah online beforehand. It was better attended than the previous forum.

This town hall again focused on budget issues, although the questions had a broader range, from the state determined Education Retirement Board-Defined Benefit Plan to the memorandum of understanding that is currently being negotiated between community organizations, the University and Bernalillo County.

Abdallah said the ERB is not under its control, and that he has no information about the MOU other than that it is still under negotiation.

Many questions were submitted online about retirement benefits and pay raises. Abdallah said every year he asks for cost of living adjustments from UNM regents, but the only times he’s been able to approve a pay raise was for equity adjustments.

He said the business model for the University needs to be restructured, because the only place the school can grow revenue in its current model is with higher tuition or more students.

Abdallah also reiterated that budget issues are a problem at universities across the U.S., echoing statements he made at last week’s town hall on Main Campus, and said he would love to re-engineer the University around a model that can survive the next 25 years.

An audience member asked what security measures are being taken in light of the murder of UNM student Juan Romero, to which Abdallah responded that all the University can do is advise people on how to avoid becoming victims and continue to follow the processes in place when a crime is reported to UNMPD.

“It turns out the UNM crime rate is average for universities our size,” he said. “Again, one is one too many. What we do have are a lot of programs to help students and to help staff and others to try to minimize the likelihood of being a victim of crime.”

Abdallah pointed out that the shooting took place off-campus, and invited UNM Emergency Manager Byron Piatt to talk about the Lobo Guardian app and the campus escort service.

Abdallah was asked about what a united UNM means to him and the progress on the rebranding initiative.

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He said that while all the processes are not the same for every department, it’s important for all groups to work together and everyone can do better in areas like research.

Abdallah said the rebranding initiative is being marketed nationally and internationally, and the University is looking out for potential donation and enrollment spikes that may be a result of the campaign.

A question was also asked about what contributes to strained relationships between the Board of Regents and the president. Abdallah said that he always tries to be direct with the board, informing its members of his limitations and promising them that he would not surprise them with something.

“You need to be able to work up, and manage up and manage down,” he said. “I think in many of the cases the challenges happen because a president was not able to manage up.”

He added that he believes they can work with whoever the new president is.

He was asked what University values the school should be developing in students, and said that the number one role of the university is the pursuit of truth — even when that becomes uncomfortable or a challenge.

A student asked how UNM would cut what they called its ties to white supremacy. Abdallah responded by saying the changes to the University, like changing the University’s official seal, have to come from discussion and therefore might take time, but he will do anything he can do at his level.

“To me, at the end of the day, this revolves back to the first thing — the search for the truth and education,” Abdallah said. “In a lot of ways, the ideas that are emerging right now, people were not considering them before. The seal did not seem like a big deal to a lot of people until somebody called attention.”

A representative from the Queer Straight Alliance asked how Abdallah plans to push forward the preferred name initiative — an initiative working to allow students to use their preferred names in the MyUNM system — and asked how he plans to protect queer and undocumented students.

Abdallah said he does not currently have any proposals or courses of action about what he should do to help the preferred name initiative, and that it is probably in the power of the Provost’s Office at this time. He added that campus policies exist to protect people, but that unfortunately it takes time.

Again echoing the previous town hall, he also said free speech is precious, and when the president of the United States says that the press is the enemy, it is not a time to self-disarm by limiting free speech.

Michelle Melendez, who was at the town hall representing five community organizations involved in negotiating the memorandum of understanding, said she was pleased Abdallah conducted the town hall.

“I have no access otherwise as a community member to really speak with the president or to speak with (Health Sciences Center Executive Vice Chancellor) Dr. (Richard) Larson on this topic or (Dean of the School of Medicine) Dr. (Paul) Roth,” she said. “We’ve written letters. We’ve been to the county commission meetings. They know the situation that we’re in. So it’s becoming very dire now, where community organizations are thinking about what do we do if this is delayed further.”

Abdallah said the administration will definitely solicit questions online again for their next town hall, and future town halls will be held as needed.

“I think we’re probably looking at a little bit after the session ends in Santa Fe to have people figure out what the budget is looking like, and we don’t know that until then,” Abdallah said.

Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily. 

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