The University of New Mexico is one of Albuquerque’s and the state’s greatest assets. And it’s not because of the football and basketball programs, which don’t need to be de-emphasized but put in their place as tiny parts of UNM’s overall impact. In most practical ways, UNM’s importance to the Middle Rio Grande Valley and northern New Mexico far outreaches that of Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, even though UNM partners in various ways with both. But UNM as a force for good in our state seems stifled somehow these days. Over the last decade or so, fiscal crises, draconian penny-pinching, faculty and staff demoralization, and a general defensiveness in the face of constant political attack has seemed to estrange UNM from the city and its environs.
But that could change. From what I can tell so far at a distance, UNM’s new president, Garnet S. Stokes, might well aggressively champion the university’s renewed partnership with city and county governments, tribal and other jurisdictions around the state — a bond that will prove especially useful in the years ahead of drastic heat, water scarcity, fires, and a generally fraught and anxiety-ridden mood that often accompanies rapid and chaotic change.
It’s rare that I agree with the Albuquerque Journal. But its institutional editorial last week giving a thumbs up to President Stokes, in her first weeks in office, was right on. She’s both socially sensitive and battle-hardened from her tenures at Florida State with its low minority enrollment and the overt racism arising at the University of Missouri. She seems to have no affinity for being intimidated or in the dark. She didn’t shy away and pass the buck on UNM’s Athletic Department’s pit of debt. She’s proven herself already savvy, responsible, accessible and apparently liked by most factions on campus. With Mayor Tim Keller now in office, the City of Albuquerque and the university might have a chance for a renewed and deepened relationship. Keller is a person with a deep wellspring of energy and people power, as I’m beginning to learn, one who spends much of his time every week on the go, visiting with myriad community organizations.
Now might be the perfect time for a Stokes/Keller summit aimed at giving UNM a more visible, living role in Albuquerque’s life again, and giving UNM perhaps a powerful political ally in Santa Fe as well as a laboratory for exploring contemporary issues, one that would expand UNM’s many existing and excellent community outreach efforts.
As the major university in the poorest state in the nation, UNM has done an admirable job serving the varied constituencies of its statewide community, doing so basically on financial fumes and the altruism of its students, faculty and staff. UNM has a strong influence in water management, community and regional planning, sustainability studies, urban studies, habitat preservation, public health and other efforts that have performed remarkably well during the eight years of the anti-intellectualism of the Martinez administration, which displayed little or no sympathy for the positive presence that higher education plays in a state like ours.
Go to UNM’s Community Engagement Portal online, and you will find an astonishing number of important programs UNM administers across the state, programs you’ve probably never heard of — everything from the Arsenic Outreach Program for Small Communities and the Center for Latin American Resources and Outreach to Learning Disabilities Accessibility Services to the Rural Entrepreneur Institute, and as many as 250 more, including the Pueblo of Cochiti Keres Language Revitalization Program, the Galisteo Watershed Restoration Project, the Endorphin Power Company working with homeless, Envision New Mexico: a statewide pediatric quality improvement program, the Institute of Public Law, New Mexico Land Grant Study Program, New Mexico Area Health Education Centers and Sustainability in Action: community participation in energy development at a “local small scale.”
UNM gets little public credit for such efforts, many of which have been carried out for decades, through fiscal thick and thin, often with little or no support or recognition from state government, not to mention from the sports- and crime-crazed mainstream media.
A Stokes/Keller summit might bring fresh public luster to both institutions. Perhaps it would occasion the presentation of both Stokes’ and Keller’s long-range goals and plans for the future. At a summit, the first task ought to be creating a think tank with a mission directed at helping the Middle Rio Grande Valley adapt to the impact of climate change on water supplies, local agriculture, public health and the impact of increased energy consumption in an environment of ever-rising heat in which we’ll see, for instance, 90-degree temperatures in early May this week.
Perhaps such a summit, if it were well publicized, could help people understand that UNM is more than just a jock shop. As a former Lobo athlete myself, Lobo sports are dear to my heart, especially track and field and cross country. But we have to face the facts — athletics are icing, not the cake. And we all need to find a way to re-emphasize the truly indispensable role that a university can play in any community, but especially one as stressed and under siege as ours, a community impoverished by ideology that makes a virtue of being wealthy and a virtual crime of being poor, a community that will be ever more drained of energy and spirit by rising heat and our government’s lack of preparedness to not only meet that challenge but identify its entangled issues and troubles.
A Keller/Stokes summit might also help Keller solidify his base and expand it through the university community, give him a platform from which he could communicate his long range goals, and associate him more deeply with the rich possibilities for innovation and forward thinking that UNM represents.
Now really is the time for the university’s huge international body of alumni, and all those who support its intellectual contributions to the well-being of New Mexicans, to focus attention on UNM as a force for social good, professional excellence and environmental sanity.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it