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ENMU-R presidential candidates answer public’s questions; Forums give staff, community chance to meet finalists

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Hilda Pacheco-Peeples, director of adult basic education at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, far right, and Carolyn Arias, coordinator with the Small Business Development Center located on campus, talk after the conclusion of Wednesday forums introducing the public to the five finalists for president of the Roswell university. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Five finalists from across the country and representing a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences talked to Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell staff and community members Wednesday about what they would want to bring to the role if chosen the head of the local university.

About 50 to 60 people, mostly ENMU-R employees, were in the audience during the five forums held in the Performing Arts Center. Each finalist was given about 30 minutes to introduce themselves and answer some audience questions.

The finalists are Eloy Chavez, dean at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma; Carlee Drummer, president of Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson, Connecticut; Robert Munoz, vice president of the Trinity River campus of the Tarrant County College District in Forth Worth, Texas; Sean Powell, vice president of Casper College in Casper, Wyoming; and Richard Sax, provost and vice president of the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College in Rio Grande, Ohio.

“It has been going great,” said ENMU Director of Human Resources Benito Gonzales during the forums. “We have a lot of great candidates, and we were able to work out a really good schedule for all their interviews.”

Some community members present included Lesa Dodd, superintendent of the Dexter Consolidated School District; Dr. Ann McIlroy, the new superintendent for the Roswell Independent School District; Roswell City Councilors Savino Sanchez and Steve Henderson; Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. President John Mulcahy; and ENMU-Ruidoso President D. Ryan Carstens.

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After Wednesday’s forums and campus and community tours, candidates will interview today with senior university administrators, including system Chancellor Jeff Elwell and Interim ENMU-R President Steve Gamble. They also will interview with committees of faculty, staff, students and community members.

Elwell is the one to make the selection and has only a short time to do so. The goal is to have the new president on board by Aug. 15. The position is expected to pay about $130,000 a year, Elwell has said, with adjustments able to made based on the hired person’s years and level of experience.

The audience, which was given an opportunity to fill out a survey about the candidates, asked such questions as whether candidates could speak Spanish, how they foresee working with public schools in the area, how familiar they are with allied health programs, what they think about social science programs, the nature of their leadership styles and whether they have experience with aviation-related educational programs or working with the aviation industry.

Finalists appeared in alphabetical order. First up, Chavez talked about growing up in New Mexico, his experiences as an NCAA Division I basketball referee as well as his time as dean of the College of Extended Learning and Continuing Education at Northeastern State. He said the school operates in a “highly competitive” higher education market in Tulsa and that his work entails serving Native American communities. Speaking at times in Spanish, he described “3 Cs” as key to leadership: communication, consistency and compassion.

Drummer, the only woman among the finalists, told the audience she is leaving her current position as a community college president in Connecticut for the past four years because the college system is consolidating into one institution and will no longer have presidents at branch campuses. She said that, under her leadership, her college created new degree and certificate programs such as cybersecurity, metrology and mechatronics automation to keep up with employers’ needs and job growth. “We have to be nimble,” she said, which she said is a challenge to higher education, as it tends to follow a model created 100 years ago. “The jobs that are in the future don’t exist right now.”

Munoz, who also indicated his bilingual abilities in response to an audience question, stressed his “down-to-earth” mindset and familiarity with the Southwest. He said he grew up in El Paso and has had an unusual career for a higher education administrator, including time as a restaurant server after being laid off from an oil services job. He said he is able to relate to students who are struggling but that he also has a great deal of experience working with business and the community on allied health programs, a pilot training program, and dual-credit, early college and other public school programs. “We are the Wal-Mart of higher education,” he said about community colleges. “And that really describes who we are, that what we do touches a lot of people.”

Powell has been with Casper College, a comprehensive community college in Wyoming, for 11 years and now is its vice president for academic affairs. The college has 200 full-time and 175 part-time staff and faculty and serves about 3,500 students. He is a retired Air Force flight engineer, a former public schools psychologist and the director of the first Youth Challenge program in Wyoming. He said that program learned a lot from the New Mexico Youth Challenge Academy, an educational and life skills program based at the ENMU-R campus and participating in ENMU-R courses, although it is overseen by the National Guard. He told the audience that what drew him to the job was reading the portion of the university’s mission statement that talked about striving to create a “fulfilling work environment” for employees. He said he follows the “3 Fs” as a guide to his leadership: fair, firm and friendly.

Sax clearly showed his roots and his continuing endeavors as an English professor, as his time was spent sharing anecdotes about his career and his life, including that he was one of three sons of a pediatrician mom who expected them all to become medical doctors. Two did, while he got his doctoral degree as he worked his way up the ladder of higher education. He also presented the audience with a handout of data concerning educational attainment in New Mexico and demographics of the population. He said he believes that data-driven decision-making is key to institutional success and that he sees a lot of opportunity in serving the poor and those segments of the population, including Hispanic men and women, who often get left out of higher education. “Talent is equally distributed through the population. Opportunity is not,” he said. He said the institution for which he now works, which is both a private liberal arts college and a public community college, is a member of the Hispanic Association of Universities and Colleges.

ENMU-R is searching for a new president after Dr. John Madden announced his retirement in early March. Madden had been president of the Roswell university since August 2008 and had been in higher education for 35 years.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.