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Q&A: Chancellor Arvizu discusses his approach and inspiration in leading NMSU

On June 1, 2018, just weeks after New Mexico State University hosted its Spring 2018 commencement and celebrated the retirement of former chancellor Garrey Carruthers, the Board of Regents announced Dr. Dan Arvizu as NMSU’s newly appointed chancellor.

Of the five finalists who were selected as potential candidates for the position of chancellor, Arvizu was the only New Mexico native and NMSU alumnus. Another finalist, John Floros, was appointed university president by the Board of Regents. Arvizu and Floros will work together in their leadership positions to serve the New Mexico State University community.

We sat down with Chancellor Arvizu last week to find out more about him, his history and his plans on leading NMSU.

Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, I know that the students, faculty and NMSU community will be interested in getting to know their newly appointed chancellor a little bit better. So what encouraged you to take on the position of chancellor at a university?

Chancellor Dan Arvizu: “Well, the main reason was that I have a passion about energy, education science and I’m an alum of New Mexico State University. I thought this was a marvelous opportunity for me to come back and apply what I’ve learned in my experiences and my skills to my alma mater and I feel very passionate about wanting to help in any way that I can.”

Can you give me a brief overview of what a chancellor of a university typically does?

NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu in his office Friday, Aug. 31. (Photo by Baylee Banks/Kokopelli)

DA: “A chancellor at the university system is essentially the CEO of the overall enterprise, so you have a number of responsibilities — fiduciary responsibilities — to make sure the operation runs well. I think, like any CEO, the primary mission and objective is to set a strategic direction, articulate how we will achieve the objectives of our, in this case, a land grant Hispanic-serving institution. My job is to make sure that we perform on that to the very best of our ability, so that means lots of things. It means recognizing that we are in service of the communities in which we reside, so, in other words: we are accountable to the people of New Mexico, we are responsible for educating, we are responsible for providing research and scholarship and then ultimately having an impact on our communities. They call it service and outreach but essentially think about it in today’s vernacular as economic development. So, if we are doing our job well, then we have been the catalyst for wealth creation, economic development and prosperity, and we have a place where our students are provided with the skills and the capabilities to get good jobs and have an impact in our society right here in New Mexico.”

It’s interesting that you correlate your position as NMSU’s chancellor with that of a company CEO. What exactly led you to this position?

DA: “So I am the poster child for someone who has lived the American dream. My parents were immigrants — my family comes from Mexico. My dad was born in Mexico and my mother was born in Arizona but all her brothers and sisters were born in Mexico, so I am the first generation child to ever get the opportunity to go to college. I grew up in Alamogordo, but I went to New Mexico State as my undergraduate school and it provided me with a foundation that was phenomenal. My career path took me first to Bell Labs in Colorado and then to Sandia Labs — I spent 25 years there. I went to the private sector for another seven years at CH2M Hill and then I was recruited in to be the director of the National Renewable Laboratory. I had the opportunity to turn an organization around. Long story short, I was able to attract over half a billion dollars of capital investment and double the budget, double the staff, hired over a thousand people and it is now an institution that I am very proud of. It’s made an impact nationally in the area of sustainable, renewable energy, energy efficiency, transportation and a variety of areas. I retired from there and then I took a job in San Francisco only as a sabbatical. I was teaching at Stanford University — that’s where I got both my masters and my PhD. Then I got recruited by Emerson Collective, which is what I’m calling a ‘social equity company.’ It’s a company whose purpose it is to have an impact in peoples’ lives and to actually help the underserved part of our demographic achieve their full potential. I went to work for them as first their Chief Technology Officer and second as their STEM evangelist because I had this passion about education. It was then that New Mexico State University said ‘Hey we’re looking for a new chancellor, would you be interested?’ I thought about what I was doing and what I wanted to do with my career and I thought ‘Wow, a perfect platform in which to do the things that I was already passionate about and that I could hopefully have some sort of an impact on.’”

What challenges do you feel that you’ve overcome in your life, whether that be in your work or your personal life, that have helped lead you to where you are today?

DA: “I’ve always been self-motivated and independent and that has helped me overcome a lot of barriers, like lack of awareness. I didn’t have role models. I wasn’t prepared to go to college. I was in my second semester of high school and I didn’t even know if I was going to go to college. I played in the band in Alamogordo and my friend and I drove over here to New Mexico State and we said ‘Let’s go by the band room,’ because music was what we did. So we walk into the band room and we walk into the band director and the band director said ‘Where are you guys from?’ and we said, ‘We’re from Alamogordo,’ and he goes ‘What chair are you?’ and I go, ‘Well I’m first chair,’ and he goes ‘Do you want a scholarship?’. That’s how I came to New Mexico State — I had a music scholarship. I didn’t know that I had to be prepared and so I overcame that because I had a lot of people to help me along the way, people here at New Mexico State.”

That’s incredible, what did you learn from that experience that you were able to take with you in your careers in energy and as chancellor?

DA: “I think that the thing that I found most helpful for success was taking a chance, not being afraid of the unknown. What you find is that when you take chances, the world opens up to all these opportunities that you never thought were possible and that, to me, was particularly inspiring. The more you do that, the more courage you have to do it again. You just put your nose to the grindstone and you take it one day at a time and you get things done.”

So, I’d like to turn the conversation toward concerns within the NMSU community; what issues would you like to focus on and address first as chancellor?

DA: “We’ve got a lot of work to do. In the state of New Mexico, we are lagging, we are at the bottom of all the states in terms of K-12 performance and we’re very poor in things like the number of idle teenagers and the amount of unemployment. We just don’t do well in any of these things. Here is a university system that has the opportunity to impact a lot of peoples’ lives … if you can turn around a state like New Mexico and create opportunity for economic impact, create a new level of impact to help create those who are underserved then that would be a phenomenal thing to do. That’s kind of why I’m here. I’m here because I saw that we’ve got probably more challenges than many places in the country, but it’s my alma mater. I grew up 60 miles from here, all of those things I’m passionate about. And we’ve talked about student success, and, as a university, student success, elevating research and amplifying our outreach and partnership efforts are the mechanisms by which we will make a difference. In order to make a difference, you have to have something to sell. I think about it as a business, right? You have to have something to sell so that people will invest in us. What do we have that they need that we can deliver?”

Aside from addressing issues, it seems as though your job holds a number of responsibilities. Of these, what do you look forward to the most about being chancellor?

DA: “I’m inspired by the opportunity to touch so many peoples’ lives. [It’s] not just our students that I get inspired by — every time the [Pride] band plays I get chills. I just love the environment; it’s so inspiring to me. If I could do it all again, I would, because I like the notion of being able to explore the unknown, and I see that in our students. I also see the level and challenge of poverty and frustration around our state where people have lost hope and they don’t have the awareness, inspiration or motivation to do something different than what they’re doing. I like the idea that we can touch those people and that they can aspire to be all that they can be and reach their full potential. We have a lot of unlocked potential in our community that we need to unleash and its really that which inspires me.”

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