Full Interview: Dr. Wells
A Bigger, Better Tech: The Full Transcript
By Melba Aguilar
September 7, 2016
On August 31, 2016 I had the chance to sit down with the President of New Mexico Tech, Dr. Stephen Wells. President Wells took over the office after Dr. Daniel Lopez retired earlier this year, only two months ago. To prepare for the interview I solicited questions from Tech students, hoping to formulate a light hearted, student oriented dialogue. However, to a one, the questions I received were serious inquiries into his plans for the future of our school. No “What’s your favorite Pokémon?” in sight, though Dr. Wells did mention he knows where the best Pokéstops on campus are (come by his office for details, he says). I suppose this is an apt reflection of the ethos at Tech - we are academics, after all.
After consolidating the questions (and skimming off of the more argumentative details), I set off to interrogate our president, recorder in hand. I was daunted by the prospect of asking questions such seemingly impertinent questions, but some combination of my journalistic shield and Dr. Wells’ unbelievably gracious affect made for a serious but enjoyable conversation. I hope you find the results interesting, and feel that I’ve done the student body justice. Please note that these kinds of interviews are usually done by email; Dr. Wells kindly allowed me to interview him in person, and none of his answers are prepared.
I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but my feeling is that Dr. Wells is an intelligent man of great integrity. His vision for Tech is ambitious but pragmatic, and consistent with my understanding of the values of our institution. As a student and alumni, I look forward to watching my alma mater grow from a “hidden gem” into a widely recognized, rigorous institution under President Wells’ direction.
For the somewhat more concise article, see Paydirt (September 7, 2016 edition). What follows is the full, unabridged transcript of our conversation (minus a few minutes on each end of the interview). Your feedback is welcome - comment below.
Melba Aguilar, Paydirt (MA): So, let me start with some simple stuff… where are you from?
President Stephen Wells (PW): Where am I from? Well, I came from my last position, [which] was as president of the Desert Research Institute, in Nevada. I’d been president for 17 years… that’s one of 8 institutions of higher education in Nevada, but its main focus is research. We didn’t offer degrees there, but we had 500 employees; we always had somewhere between 50 to 65 students at the graduate level, and we supported outreach programs for undergraduates and K through 12 as well. We did work around the world.
MA: That’s fantastic.
PW: And prior to that was at the University of California Riverside, for 5 years. And prior to that I was at the University of New Mexico from 1976 to 1990.
MA: Very nice. Was the research at Desert Research Institute focused on a particular goal?
PW: It was pretty diverse. Broadly, it covered Atmospheric Sciences, Atmospheric Chemistry, Air Quality, uh, then there was Hydrological Sciences, that ranged everywhere from ground and surface water to ice core analysis. We ran the National Science Foundation for Ice Core Drilling in Antarctica, for example… to human health, water resources in west Africa. Then the third division was Earth and Ecosystem Sciences. That included geologists, geographers, soil scientists, biologists, ecologists, and archaeologists.
MA: Wow. That’s a lot of diversity.
PW: So the research went from basic groundwater resources all the way to cancer research.
MA: Quite diverse, yeah. So that makes you a good fit for here then.
PW: It does. Absolutely.
MA: What achievement at Desert Research Institute are you most proud of?
PW: I think there are two. One is, prior to the great recession, we were able to, and still we’ve held it, double its research revenue. So, we went from about 20 million to 40 million plus research revenue. And I’m very proud of that. The faculty worked hard for that, and we worked with our legislation and our delegation. So, doubling the research revenue was something I was proud of. Another thing, which I also believe is something I can do for Tech, is I marketed the institution, so that it became known across the state, nationally and internationally, as a premier research institution. If you… we didn’t fall into the normal academic institution categorization, or rankings, but if you did it just based on research competitiveness, the amount of grants in the environmental sciences, which is where they lumped us, we ranked in the top 5 to 6 percent, for ten years.
MA: That’s excellent, yeah.
PW: So, I was very proud of using that to talk about how we were a successful, and very unique, institution - pretty much the way Tech is right here. So I plan on doing similar types of marketing.
MA: Ok. You’ve talked about, in nearly every interview I think, your plans for fundraising here. What specific initiatives would you like to enact?
PW: Well, I think generally I want to work to have greater industry partnerships. I think that is a good opportunity for us to not only have new resources for research, but to give students greater opportunities for internships and, hopefully, working with industry. I want to raise the opportunities for philanthropic giving – drawing closer ties with our alumni and empowering them to be more effective, to help us grow as an institution. So, those are two of the primary areas I’d like to grow and diversify our fundraising. The third one, I’ll say, is I believe there’s a really great opportunity for entrepreneurial activity here. I believe that through supporting young entrepreneurs as faculty, or even students, that we’ll be able to benefit financially. The whole point of commercializing intellectual property is to bring greater value to that service or product, so I’m hoping we can… [trails off]
MA: It seems like there’s been a lot of push in that direction in the last year here. Dr. Anselmo’s work, especially.
PW: That’s right. And I think Dr. Lopez saw that, embraced that, he really has done some great things in providing seed support. We had last year a workshop on entrepreneurialism and invention. We’ll do the same thing this year, we’ve already started setting that up, except we’re going to involve students more on this one. So, I think that just shows the capability of this institution.
PW: What I’ve learned is, when I go around visiting departments, individually and research centers, is how much interest there is in moving forward on the entrepreneurial front.
MA: Absolutely. It’s kind of thing of the moment, nationally.
PW: Well, I think it’s going to be more than the thing of the moment. For me, the future student, who will have the greatest leveraging, is an engineer or scientist, who doesn’t necessarily have to be an entrepreneur or business person, but understands that world. Because, chances are that you will use that, as soon as you get out. I think one of the things we can do, for our undergraduates in particular, is somehow, without adding significant burden to their already busy curriculum, infusing the business sense and entrepreneurial sense in the classes.
MA: So do you foresee changing curriculum, or objectives within curriculum?
PW: I’m going to ask this year for us to look at what might be the best way of doing that. Whether, having an addition within each department and the ability to infuse that way, all the way up to perhaps having a certificate that gives you recognition for the work you’ve done. So, we’re still working on how we’re going to do that… but we want to do it in a way that excites the students, but doesn’t burden them. So, that’s the academic challenge.
MA: Absolutely, ok. So, there’s been a lot of buzz recently about the state mandate to reduce the total credit number. How do you think we’ll address that?
PW: I think our previous Vice President of Academic Affairs has done a really good job of addressing that. I think the challenge for that is in the engineering college, where reduction on that impacts the quality of education. I think he’s done a good job with the department of higher education to explain that difference, so I’m hoping there will be some kind of understanding that, overall, we can do that, and achieve that goal, which I think we can… it’s clearly of financial benefit to the students and their families. But, in some areas we need to have some flexibility to allow the quality and the integrity of the degree to remain high.
MA: Ok. So, there were several questions about space… not outer space, mind you, space allocation.
MA: So, first of all, once the chemistry building is complete, do you know what you’d like to see built, and where it would go physically?
PW: There’s a very nice plan that’s been worked on by the faculty and by the administration to move people around in a way that brings Mechanical Engineering into two buildings. So, that will be a great step. There’s been great progress on that.
MA: Sure, they’re a big department.
PW: The two capital projects that are up there are the student wellness center, and support for the MRO. As far as I know, those will stay there. I firmly believe in building support for a student wellness center. I want to see if I can find other sources beyond just going to the state for that.
MA: I know there’s a project going on right now to build a Diversity Center. Would that be part of that?
PW: I’m not sure what that Diversity Center is. It may be one that’s not been, uh…
MA: It may be that it just hasn’t come to fruition yet.
PW: Is it a physical center, or virtual center?
MA: Good question. I think it’s supposed to be physical. But I’m not sure about the space allocation.
PW: I firmly believe in diversity, but I’m not sure I’ve seen that plan, or that concept, yet. So why don’t we hold on that one, but maybe I’ll find out what that is.
MA: Fair enough. Changing tracks, is there any research you’re especially excited about right now?
PW: [laughs] You know, it’s hard to say because if you do it looks like you’re playing favorites. But, the research that’s being done is really cutting edge. I think the research that has the greatest ability for excitement, for the state, is that which has the ability to be commercialized.
MA: Of course, yeah.
PW: So, in that excitement I’m looking for opportunities to grow and start businesses in Socorro, and allow students and faculty to build businesses here. I think that helps the local economy. Overall, that helps the State of New Mexico. So, I know in the biology department we have some great work on cancer.
MA: Oh yeah, Dr. Snezna [Dr. Rogelj] is wonderful.
PW: Dr. Snezna is amazing. So, hers I think is a very exciting application. There’s also some remarkable basic science being done, in Astrophysics for instance. Dr. Grow in mechanical engineering is blending mechanical engineering with medical technologies, which is also exciting… there’s a gold mine in every department.
MA: Do you think basic science is valuable?
PW: Oh, absolutely. Can I ask you why you ask that question? Because I just mentioned applied?
PW: None of the applied science would occur without basic science. Dr. Snezna got there because she did some really creative basic science. What I believe is that it should become seamless.
MA: It can be difficult to demonstrate the monetary value of basic science… I think that was what I was getting at.
PW: I think you can, by demonstrating, for every product out there, how did it get there? You had to have creative basic science for that product to get out there. That’s just fundamental. Without basic science, none of the applied would occur. You don’t start with applied and work backwards… well, sometimes you do [laughs].
MA: You mentioned economic development. I know that’s a big subject of concern right now, for a lot of people. How do you see Tech’s role in that? You did mention the entrepreneurial stuff. [flustered] But I know there’s been a lot of talk on both the K through 12 education side, and the economic side… in terms of Tech being more involved in the community, and making Socorro a better place for faculty and students to live.
PW: Well, let’s start with the economic side.
MA: Yeah, that was several questions, wasn’t it. [laughs]
PW: I think the state firmly understands they have to diversify their economy. I came from a state whose predominant economy was based on tourism and gaming revenue. They knew they had to do that, and they set about a very specific plan to do that. The state is in a situation where it really needs to focus on building that capacity. The role we play, I think, is turning out remarkable students as…
MA: Highly skilled workers?
PW: Yeah, an advanced work force in STEM. There’s hardly any economic plan that you can envision that wouldn’t include an advanced work force equipped with STEM skills. I think, for our students, having good job opportunities here in the state is really a critical thing both for our students and the state. On the local front, I think the more successful we are in growing opportunities locally… I mean, you know, we are essentially the industry of Socorro. We owe it to Socorro to partner in the most effective ways that we can. The outreach programs that came out of the strategic plan, I think are phenomenal.
MA: Yeah, Sharon Sessions especially has done an excellent job.
PW: Sharon has done a remarkable Job. Bill Stone, they’ve really taken those kinds of things seriously. Lilian Armijo… they’re out there, working with the community, and I think there’s a real opportunity, from what I’m seeing, to enhance the education in our local school systems here. I’ve met with the superintendent. I talked about opportunities to partner together in creating space that they can use and we can use, collaboratively. I think there’s a lot of opportunities for us to work, and I’m very optimistic that we can help Socorro through helping the university. But I think the university can also do some things… I think a real interesting opportunity might be, on a Saturday the students stick around and help us address something in the city, whether it’s cleaning up weeds, or painting a building, or cleaning things up… that we have a Socorro Day, that students organize. And we’d give you pizza if you did that. [laughs]
MA: Well, students will do anything for pizza. I often say this, but over the years, and I’ve been here awhile, various organizations will decide that they’re going to, you know, go help out at the homeless shelter every Friday, or they’ll tutor over at the schools. The problem is that when it’s student led, and not reinforced by the institution, there’s no continuity.
PW: You know, I’ve talked to our vice president of student affairs, and she’s very supportive of trying to build that and help grow that as well. I think there may be a way of getting that institutionalized. Student bodies can also make that institutionalized as well, through their organization.
MA: Oh, absolutely. [pause] So, kind of a related topic is professor and staff satisfaction and retention. I know that’s something a lot of students, and actually many people in town too, are pretty concerned about. There was a scathing opinion piece in the paper a few months ago, about professors choosing to leave town. But, as long as this is a somewhat difficult place to live and raise children, that will be the case. What can we do to increase talent retention?
PW: Well, you know, you can’t say ‘You’ll live here.’ [laughs]
MA: Oh no, of course not.
PW: You set an environment that makes people feel inspired to be here, especially on weekends, and be part of the community. You do that by, I think, well like that things tech is doing to help build a new physics program in high school, or…
MA: Oh, that’s cool.
PW: Yeah. Just enhance those kinds of opportunities for the school. But, you have to do this together, and you have to remain optimistic. I think that’s the really key thing. It’s a state of mind as well. If you exist like, well, you know, everything’s going down, we’re all in trouble, you’re never going to move forward. But if you see optimism, you see the path forward. You have empty buildings… well, can those be repurposed and utilized for a Maker space? That brings in the schools, but also allows the students here at Tech to use it.
MA: Yeah, I think it was Lego League [FIRST Robotics] that got a big grant to build a space like that recently. That’s pretty cool.
PW: Yeah, we’re actually looking at acquiring a property to do that. So.
MA: Ok. [pause] Do you have kids?
PW: Yeah, I do. I have two. I have a daughter that’s married, and lives in Reno. My son lives in Reno as well.
MA: Was it difficult to move so far?
PW: Well, no, they’re adults. [laughs] 29 and 33. But we remain in contact of course. I’d love to see my son in law come here for his degree. So we’ve tried to attract them, but their careers are there.
MA: Of course. [pause] I had a somewhat related, very specific question from a student, which is a topic I care about as well. I hope you don’t mind addressing it. There’s no infant child care anywhere in Socorro, including at our child care center, and this can be a significant obstacle for our increasing number of non-traditional students. She was wondering if there’s any plan in the works to change that.
PW: There may be, I don’t know. I’ve been here two months; I don’t know if there’s been a discussion on that or not. I think it’s a research question, something I can talk to my administration about. But I’ll be very honest with you, as always: I just don’t know.
MA: That’s alright. I appreciate people who can say ‘I don’t know’.
PW: In fact, I don’t know how many students that impacts. I think that would be very useful for me to know. Is it 2? 20? Is it 50?
MA: Perhaps 20. Of course, there’s also faculty.
PW: Yeah. So, I can’t answer that question. I don’t know if there’s a plan.
MA: Ok. Let’s see what I have left… I received multiple questions about politics at tech. What can we do to make tech less political, and more open and transparent? I think many graduate students especially felt very stymied by politics.
PW: Politics? So, what do you mean by politics?
MA: Ah, good question. I’m not exactly sure…
PW: You don’t know? You’re talking about internal politics?
PW: Yeah… I have a very low tolerance for internal politics. I think everybody has to stand shoulder to shoulder on things. Transparency has been sort of a hallmark of what I’ve done. When I was president at Desert Research Institute, one of the first things we did was just make the budgeting process very clear to everybody, how we budget. And well, you can see it anyway, we’re a state entity.
MA: Absolutely, it’s public information.
PW: So, you know, I don’t like to hide things, unless I’m required to because they’re confidential personnel issues. I try to be fairly transparent. And sometimes, when funding gets stressed, infighting occurs. I think if people understand that we’re all pulling together, understand how we’re going to achieve cuts, or achieve fair increases, depending upon the situation… the less politics there will be. But, I would love to talk to the graduate student body to find out more about what they mean.
MA: Ok, great. I had heard the plan about the sign out back, to make Brown more approachable. I think it’s a nice symbol.
PW: Oh, well, the comment was, and it’s a good one, the students said ‘well, Brown Hall faces outwards, and it’s not very welcoming’ and I said, well, it may face outwards, which is part of the original design for the community, but we all look inwards to support the students and faculty.
MA: Great response.
PW: But we are talking about what it would make to put some signage out here to show what it is. I’ve even talked about whether we can do some kind of Pokemon or golf tournament inside the building for the students. I do know where one of the premiere prizes are for campus, so if students come into the building, I can give them hints. [laughs]
MA: Oh, that’s fun. I’ll have to let them know. [laughs] Changing topics, what global big picture issue are you most passionate about, do you feel is most urgent?
PW: You know, one that I think is talked about but hasn’t been taken seriously is water. It is the most valuable resource, that makes this planet so unique. We don’t look at it as a bank account, where we’re always checking our reserves and make sure we don’t overdraft, and I’m talking about that on a global basis, but when you look at the number of people that we’ll have, in say 2020, that don’t have access to safe water… that’s political instability. I’ve traveled to that part of the world, and I understand what a single water well in a community brings to, let’s say, West Africa. The women are able to work and provide an additional income to their children, they can spend more time with their children… so, I think water is critical, and if you even look at feeding on a global scale planet, of 10 billion people, that’s all water.
MA: Absolutely. Very interesting answer.
PW: Tech has a lot of great people working on that.
MA: We do. So, have you met any of our interesting clubs?
PW: Well, I went to the fair, and had all sorts of interesting conversations with them.
MA: We have some crazy clubs.
PW: You do, but they’re wonderful. I did walk around and saw a few, and hope to learn more about them. I’ve been offered to go with the off-road vehicle club, and I told them, ‘as long as you don’t flip me over, I’ll go’. [laughs]
MA: Sounds fun, absolutely.
PW: You have some great clubs here. I think my question to the students is, what can we do to make your life less stressful? Have an opportunity to stick around, on the weekends? What does it take?
MA: Do you view that as a core aspect of student retention?
PW: I do, yeah. I do. It shouldn’t be just a commuter campus, it should be one where there’s a lot of vibrant student life on the weekends. Some colleagues and I call those “sticky campuses”; you make them sticky for the students to stick around for retention, but also over the weekends to enjoy things. So, I would be curious to hear from the students what they think might be beneficial. I know a fair number of students leave over the weekend.
MA: Definitely, and I think it’s been on the rise.
PW: So, what does it take? Other than me bringing in some significant rock groups or something? [laughs]
MA: Sure, yeah. Let’s get it on the agenda!
MA: Well, I think I just have one last question. So, tech is unique in many ways - our rural-ness, other things - but I think we’re one of the only institutions that’s simultaneously trying to be a rigorous, world-renowned research university and a state school where 70% of students are from our state, which recently fell to 50th in the nation for education. That has to be an enormous challenge, and obviously it has an enormous effect on graduation rates. What can we do to increase graduation rates, and better support incoming students? How much of a challenge is this for you?
PW: Well, retention and graduation rates are critical, especially for a Hispanic serving institution such as ours. For me, I’ve been looking around, and one institution, South Dakota School of Mines, has retention and graduation rates that are in the high 80’s and low 90’s.
MA: And that’s a fairly diverse campus.
PW: Yeah. So the question is, how do you do it? They have some really interesting mentoring programs. They have juniors and seniors, who mentor sets of students through their freshmen and sophomore years, and get paid to do it. They think that’s one of the best things they’ve done to retain students. So, that’s something I’m looking at. I’ve been talking to our staff here. How do we implement, aside from our living learning communities for the freshmen, how do we extend that, and make it more inclusive for people? That kind of mentorship is definitely worth trying. But also, I’m proud of the fact that, as a Hispanic serving institution, which is highly ranked in engineering and the sciences… well, that speaks volumes about our campus and the people who come here. Is that what you were looking for?
MA: Yeah. I’m a big believer in mentoring. I had a mentor my freshmen year who sort of carried me through. It made all the difference.
PW: Well, one of the most important things for me personally was when I was a junior. At the time I was asked to do an undergraduate research project, which had just been implemented at Indiana University. I stayed over in Montana where I had been training as a field hand. So I did that project. But when I came back for my senior year they actually put me in the office with graduate students. The mentoring that went on just in one year changed my whole professional career.
MA: Yeah, just naturally. What a wonderful experience. [pause] Well, I think I’ll wrap up now. I’ve made it through most of my questions.
PW: I hope… I want dialogue with the students, I want to hear from them, what excites them, what their concerns are, how we can do things better for them. I really do.
MA: Tech is such a special place, and I think it’s really unfortunate that we have such serious issues with student satisfaction. There just aren’t many places like it.
PW: Well, I’m trying to, once I get settled in here, probably in a couple of months, I’m looking at trying to get over to the Fidel center to sit down and have lunch. Then if people want to come talk to me, they can. I’ll sit out there at certain times. I’m going to try to schedule that. So, if students feel comfortable they can come up and talk to me.
MA: Great. Yeah, being accessible will make such a difference.
PW: I hope so.
MA: Well, thank you for meeting with me.
PW: No, thank you for the opportunity. I’m sorry we were running a little late.
MA: No problem at all. Thank you again.