A Bigger, Better Tech:
A new school year is upon us and, for the first time in 23 years, we’re beginning it with a new President: Dr. Stephen Wells.
A geologist by training, Dr. Wells is a long time academic with 40 years of experience in higher education. After earning his PhD at the University of Cincinnati, he immediately began teaching at the University of New Mexico, where he stayed for 15 years, culminating in his appointment as department chair. From there he advanced through steadily more prestigious positions, the most recent of which was at the Desert Research Institute (DRI), where he was president for 17 years. DRI is one of eight institutions of higher education in Nevada; it is not a degree granting institution, focusing instead on research. About this time, he says he is most proud of his success in fundraising and marketing, including doubling research revenue. He plans to do similar things for Tech.
How exactly does he plan to fulfill his promises to radically increase fundraising? He has three goals: to increase industry partnerships, to increase philanthropic giving, and to develop what he says is the university’s great potential for entrepreneurial activity. He emphasizes this point through multiple questions – even improving student outcomes: “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.” He plans to work with departments to infuse this philosophy into the curriculum, but promises he won’t burden the students in the process.
The local economy is a subject the weighs on many minds in Socorro, and it’s clear this is a concern of his. From student retention, to faculty satisfaction, there is no other issue that is so central to the challenges his administration will face. It’s clear that the problem is a complex one, starting in the schools and ending somewhere in support for small business. What is not clear is what role the university, and its president, should play in its resolution. Remarkably, he is undaunted - and he thinks you should be too. “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. 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.”
As to his plans to address the economy, he turns again to the power of entrepreneurialism. “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… We are essentially the industry of Socorro. We owe it to Socorro to partner in the most effective ways that we can.” As an example, he describes the work that has been done to turn a derelict vacant building in town into a maker space for FIRST Robotics. This impressive project is the result of collaboration between Tech, local schools, and the City of Socorro, plus a hefty $50,000 grant. It should be noted that Dr. Wells was chairman of the Nevada STEM Coalition for the last eight years of his time at DRI. This experience in outreach is sure to be useful as Tech expands these sorts of outreach efforts.
It was previously reported that one of Dr. Wells’ primary goals as president is to grow the size and reputation of New Mexico Tech, a position that is not universally supported by the student body. However, in the short term he seems much more concerned by student retention and graduation rates. His plan to address this is two-fold. First, make Tech what he calls a “sticky campus”, where students choose to live and spend their leisure time in addition to their studies. “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. I think my question to the students is: What can we do to make your life less stressful?”
Second, he wants to increase mentorship, which he says has been the key to success at similarly diverse and rural schools, and made a profound impact on his own life: “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.” He suggests this might be accomplished by expanding the Learning Living Communities to be more inclusive and last through sophomore year.
Also on his mind are plans to improve the way students and administration interact. His views on infighting will be a breath of fresh air for many. “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.” This is aptly symbolized by the new signs going up behind Brown Hall, an action he initiated after hearing that many students found the back of Brown uninviting. Also on the agenda are plans to host student oriented activities within the building, including a Pokémon tournament. He wants to be the sort of President you might chat with over lunch in Fidel… or while mud bogging. “I told them [NMTORC], ‘as long as you don’t flip the car over, I’ll go.’”
We at Paydirt hope you hold him to that.