Richard Wood has been a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico since 2002. However, in the past couple of years that he has served in his biggest role yet — Interim Provost & Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs.
During nearly one year in the position, Wood has faced a host of issues at UNM, including budget cuts, decreasing enrollment and retaining faculty. He recently sat down with the Daily Lobo , just before his replacement, James Holloway, fills the position in July.
Q: How does it feel that your time as interim provost is coming to an end?
A: I find myself very reflective about what we’ve been able to do. It’s great to have had the chance to do this.
Q: What do you think is your biggest accomplishment as provost?
A: Probably the biggest thing is to have built a culture and a conversation on campus that links equity and excellence. UNM for a long time has talked about both those things, but I think what we’ve been able to do this year is really talk about the ways we become the place creating the next generation this country needs.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge you’ve had as interim provost?
A: There’s two of them. One is the real structural fiscal deficits. Demographic falls that are decreasing enrollments and state budget pressures that are defunding higher education. That’s creating a crisis for higher education and especially flagship universities. That’s been a true crisis, and is not one we’ve solved this year. The second one is some parts of the University still have real challenges about organizational culture, just dysfunctional leadership or dysfunctional personnel that are making life impossible for faculty and staff in some units. We’ve made some progress on that, but that’s still the case in some places.
Q: How does that specifically affect your office when you have those challenges?
A: What the provost does is try to drive the academic mission forward, really make the flagship university everything it can be. But to succeed at that you need two things — you need resources and you need a smoothly functioning organization. We have a scarcity of resources right now, and some parts of the organization are really good. But there are some units that aren’t, and that takes up a disproportionate amount of leadership’s time.
Q: What advice would give a future provost taking up this position at UNM?
A: Stay in real dialogue with faculty/staff/student leadership. Build ties in New Mexico. Understand the ways New Mexico is a really unique place, yet really can learn from other places. Double down on that excellence and equity work. That’s our best future. And I’m not being pollyannaish when I say that. Every national foundation, the Google folks, the Netflix folks — they’re all looking to fund that excellence in diversity and excellence in equity simultaneously. If we get that right, that helps us solve our fiscal challenges too.
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Q: Have you talked to your replacement, Dr. Holloway yet? How have those conversations gone?
A: I have. It’s only about a week old, all on the phone so far. I think he’s going to be very good. He’s asking the right questions. He wants to get to know people and the situation here. We’re kind of laying the groundwork now in pretty good systematic way already.
Q: What specific issues did faculty bring up to you?
A: Transition of leadership. Issues of workplace relationships and how authority works inside the University. It’s acute conflicts between individuals sometimes. The hardest stuff is when problems have festered in a local workplace for a while, and by the time they come to this level (they’re) so at loggerheads that it’s really hard to find a way forward. And sometimes, everybody’s been willing to lay down their arms and try to come to a solution together. Those are really satisfying conversations. That’s when this work is really satisfying.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I’m going back to being a professor of sociology, teaching undergraduates and graduate students. I love that work. I’m a sociologist of religion who also teaches about contemporary political life in America, struggles for justice in America. But I’ve also got a book I want to write, that I’m about a third of the way through. These next few months I’ll be finishing that book. It’s about how people’s spiritual commitments carry them into work for justice, and how does work for justice and spirituality dovetail in ways that build meaningful lives. I look forward to that.
Q: How do you think your spirituality plays into being interim provost?
A: I think for all of us, wherever we find spiritual meaning or secular meaning, you use that for vision when times are good, to know what direction you want to lead in. When times are hard, you lean on it for sustenance and courage and trusting that there’s a way forward when it’s not always clear where the way forward is. I would say my time as provost I have used it for both those things.
Q: Would you ever consider pursuing another administrative job at another university?
A: I can only answer it partially now. What I know is that I love this university and I love being in leadership at this university. Right now, I’m going back to being a professor and lead in the classroom and in my writing. I don’t know right now whether I have the appetite for that kind of leadership somewhere else. It’ll be some weeks or months before I know the answer to that. Right now I’m very happy at UNM.