SUB — As University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes launched into her State of the University address, she did so with dramatic context.
“In our country, and even here in New Mexico, we are experiencing a crisis of confidence in higher education and it’s value,” Stokes said.
She cited national polls and surveys — like a 2018 Pew Research survey that found six in ten Americans believed higher education was going in the wrong direction — as evidence of public skepticism that college isn't worth it.
Those people, Stokes told dozens of administrators, faculty, staff, students and reporters, were wrong.
“I think those surveys reflect an unfair cynicism about higher education, one we must work to overcome,” Stokes said. “Higher education, including research and innovation, has never been more necessary to better understand and improve the world in which we live.”
In her second State of the University address, Stokes spoke about campus safety, the Athletics Department, various campus construction projects and administrative turnover, in addition to acknowledging and highlighting student and faculty success. All of which she spoke to in a“crisis of confidence” context.
Stokes is firmly entrenched as UNM’s president, two years into a five-year, $400,000 contract. Her short tenure has seen a number of monumental changes, many of which have their origins in a previous presidents’ tenure.
“I’m actually starting to feel less like the newest cast member of an established ensemble,” she said in her speech.
Among the biggest challenges facing UNM, the safety of staff, faculty and students was one that Stokes has promised to improve from the beginning of her presidency in 2017.
In 2015, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) began a three-year oversight of UNM after a series of high-profile sexual assaults and a year-long DOJ investigation into the University’s handling of sexual assault investigations.
“In interview after interview, UNM students expressed reluctance to report sexual assault to UNM because they feared retaliation or because they lacked confidence in the University’s response,” the 2016 DOJ’s report read.
Late in 2019, UNM was released from that oversight after the DOJ said the school had “funneled new resources into campus training, investigation and advocacy regarding sexual assault.”
Despite that, UNM’s annual safety report said 24 people reported being raped while on main campus in 2018, the highest in five years. UNM officials attribute that increased number to increased awareness of reporting resources. In short, in spite of the increased amount of reported sexual assaults, UNM sees progress.
“As a result, our investigations into sexual misconduct are stronger, more proactive and more transparent than ever...and it must be reflected in everything we do,”
Stokes said that going forward, she would “formalize and institutionalize all the work we’ve been doing for the past three years, smooth out remaining bumps and serve as a model for other institutions across the country.”
Otherwise, the president touted a 40% decrease in auto thefts on UNM property. She attributed the decrease — from record high numbers in 2018 — to additional police officers, more security cameras in parking lots and increased coordination with the Albuquerque Police Department.
Stokes described the athletics program at UNM as a critical part of the University experience.
“Lobo Athletics has the power to anchor us to the community, bring people together who may otherwise never connect, and provide opportunities not available anywhere else,” Stokes said.
While Stokes’ spent just under two minutes of her 45-minute speech on sports, the happenings in the Athletic Department dominated the news cycle during Stokes’ presidential tenure.
Stokes approved a recommendation by UNM Athletics Director Eddie Nunez to cut four sports from the department to improve the budget outlook and better comply with Title IX regulations, according to the athletics. The decision was met with community backlash at several UNM Board of Regents meetings in 2018. Despite the backlash, the decision stuck and the four sports, including the popular Men’s Soccer program, remained cut.
In her speech, Stokes highlighted successes in the department, such as runner Weini Kelati, and emphasized unity.
“It’s larger than any single player, coach or sport, and it’s never about the final score,” she said.
During winter break, two men’s basketball players were removed from the team. Carlton Bragg was taken off of the team after allegations of sexual assault and DWI charge. Bragg has not been charged regarding the sexual assault claims. JJ Caldwell was suspended indefinitely after the point guard was accused of domestic violence.
Bragg and Caldwell joined UNM quarterback Sherion Jones in prominent athletes being suspended. Jones was suspended after the quarterback allegedly masturbated in a parking structure while a female student was walking by. Jones allegedly followed the student in the garage until she notified police.
After Stokes’ speech, she told the Daily Lobo that Athletics leadership was dedicated to building a culture of integrity.
“I recognize that our students can be challenged in a lot of different ways. I think that we as leaders have a responsibility to promote the high expectations expected of any student-athlete,” Stokes said.
Associated Students of the University of New Mexico (ASUNM) President Adam Biederwolf and ASUNM Senator and Committee Chair Ryan Regalado attended Stokes' address.
“I think the state of the University is in a strong place,” Biederwolf said.
Biederwolf added that he feels the administration is incorporating the student's voice and the optimism among new leadership at UNM was appreciated.
“I felt that President Stokes delivered an optimistic address,” Regalado said in an email to the Daily Lobo. “I went in to the address not knowing what to expect and walked out actually feeling really well about the status of the University. I really feel like President Stokes has been really transparent with students and has definitely be open to students’ ideas, and I feel like this was shown in her address today.”
Justin Garcia is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at editorinschief@dailylobo