When UNM President Garnett Stokes announced her Grand Challenges competition last year, I have to admit I didn’t pay it much attention. It was billed as a cross-disciplinary, inter-departmental, team competition in which the president asked UNM’s “best thinkers” to come together and suggest projects that would serve New Mexicans.
Teaching at UNM for more than 30 years, I hadn’t seen much team work, much camaraderie, or much of a sense of higher community purpose, except perhaps in obvious places like the Med School, Law School, UNM Press, Sustainability and Peace Studies and on the part of individual activists and researchers. But higher purpose as an institution? I wouldn’t have used those words. But the more I learned about the Grand Challenges Initiative, the more intrigued I became. And when I put the initiative together with a recent issue of the UNM Alumni Mirage Magazine, new Board of Regent appointments and the president’s courageous stand against being pressured by sport fan legislators to compromise the mission of the university, I became actually optimistic.
In retrospect, my days at UNM, spent mostly in the Honors Program and in Architecture and Planning, both mission-driven initiatives, and for a stint on the Alumni Board of Directors, had taken place in a time of extended dormancy when leadership was a chaotic jumble of departing presidents, when the Legislature couldn’t quite get what UNM was all about because UNM wasn’t clear about itself, when internecine warfare for money and prestige sank morale to a state of frigid paralysis and when the personality traits of various presidents — among them anger and extreme lack of social grace — sucked up the attention the university deserved.
Those of us who love UNM, and I’m one of them, knew something would have to change when Governor Martinez’s term of office expired. It seemed a fluke to me that Garnett Stokes was hired as President under Martinez’s reign. The governor’s years of malign neglect left their toll of atrophy and demoralization. I really didn’t see the possibilities ahead. But they are becoming very apparent now. And relative to the past, they are inspiringly hopeful.
When Governor Lujan Grisham announced her nominations to the UNM Board of Regents, I found myself nodding with surprised approval. The governor was building a Board of Regents that seemed to mirror in many ways the distinguished Boards of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when UNM was headed by presidents Tom Popejoy and Ferrel Heady.
Lujan Grisham’s new Board is filled with people who are honored in their own communities and well-respected statewide. It appears there isn’t an ideologue or axe grinder in the bunch. I’m particularly delighted with the appointment of Rob Schwartz, longtime UNM Law School professor and a nationally known expert on bioethics and the law. From my experience on the New Mexico ACLU Board of Directors, which he chaired from l995 to 2000, Rob Schwartz is a tireless public servant who has served New Mexico, UNM and his profession with compassion, persistence and wisdom for decades. He’s the perfect choice for the Board of Regents.
President Stokes’ Grand Challenge Initiative is, from my perspective, a move of genius. An idea that’s worked at other universities around the country, Grand Challenge Initiatives are designed to solve two major problems shared by most academic institutions — departmental balkanization and growing “town/gown” splits that result in universities being detached from their communities.
“Research, innovation and collaboration are part of our institutional DNA,” Stokes remarked. “By addressing Grand Challenges, we will effect meaningful changes for our communities, our state and the world. Grand Challenges broaden our student and faculty perspectives to better serve New Mexico and provide opportunities to collaborate through interdisciplinary research and problem solving.”
The three winners of the Grand Challenges this year go a long way in moving UNM closer to its community than it has been in quite a while. One winner involves helping to make the climate-change ravaged Rio Grande watershed more resilient by 2030 and better able to support “a thriving economy, healthy landscapes and aquatic ecosystems, and vibrant communities that celebrate the region’s unique culture and heritage.” Members of New Mexico’s highly activated “water world” will be keeping a close watch to see what UNM can come up with.
Another winner is a project to make aging in New Mexico a less dangerous and depressing condition and will focus on “independent living” or “aging in place,” stimulate and support lifelong education and “innovate in basic science and technology to support senior safety and autonomy.” The third winner focuses on one of New Mexico’s and the nation’s great public health issues — “substance use disorders.” The project aims at reducing “alcohol, opioid and other substance mortality by 50%” in 2040.
UNM alumni can sense the university is moving in positive new directions again. An important sign is the Spring 2019 edition of Mirage Magazine, which is sent to all of UNM’s vast alumni population around the country and the world. Edited by former Albuquerque Journal writer Leslie Linthicum, the Spring Mirage gives an informative overview of what a university is really all about. As Linthicum writes, “Across UNM’s campus, in big labs and tiny cluttered offices — and sometimes on a bike path or sitting in traffic — faculty members and students puzzle through problems that plague society, from curing disease to improving solar cells to creating apps that make harried 21st century life a little easier.” Universities exist to serve students. But they also, Linthicum writes, ask questions, challenge assumptions and grow the world’s body of knowledge, working toward “scientific breakthroughs, innovative products, novel theories and start up companies.”
The Spring Mirage displays UNM’s enterprising spirit in essays that cover everything from bioengineering, moisture sensing in plants and decoding equine genetics to making tools that sequence DNA faster, more accurately and at a lower cost, to a “caravan lab” to help New Mexicans solve local problems, operating the Lobo Rainforest, a residential space downtown that holds UNM’s Innovation Academy, and mapping the brain to help the diagnoses of mental illness.
What really impresses me the most these days about UNM and its new president is what some people are calling an early misstep, dropping men’s soccer, women’s beach volleyball and men’s and women’s skiing. Of course, no one wants the young athletes in these sports to be left high and dry. And, yes, I’d personally love to see men’s soccer, with its winning tradition, replace the endlessly losing and endlessly expensive football program.
But athletics is not the issue. When state legislators try to force the university to reinstate dropped sports, and threaten to cut funding if they don’t, they misunderstand the mission of the school. President Garnett Stokes certainly does not. The Associated Press reports that Stokes made it known that to reinstate the three sports, funding would have to be cut from academic programs. The reinstatement money the Legislature allocated is not enough to meet Title IX requirements and other long-range obligations to keep the reinstated sports up and running.
It’s outrageous that members of the NM House of Representatives have threatened to pull $4.6 million from the University’s $7 billion in state money if the soccer and the other sports are not reinstated. Those are bully moves, worthy of petty blackmailers. The university’s academic budget has already been cut by some $7 million since 2013, resulting in many faculty and staff layoffs. Dr. Stokes and her administration are right to resist such irresponsible pressure coming from lawmakers.
The university’s mission is not to be an entertainment venue for New Mexico sports fans. Its job is to educate, to research and expand knowledge and to contribute to the well-being of the citizens of our state.
Sure, reinstate soccer, beach volley ball and skiing. But give the university enough money to do it, and don’t take a penny more away from the school’s indispensable academic service to the children, communities and businesses of New Mexico. And if it’s a choice between funding sports or funding learning, for heaven’s sakes fund learning first!
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it