Former UNM President Talks Goals For OU During Third Presidential Forum

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ATHENS, Ohio — The former president of the University of Mexico said he would focus on improving retention rates, corporate partnerships and pushing the university’s brand if selected to serve in the same position at Ohio University.

Robert Frank (University of New Mexico)
Robert Frank (University of New Mexico)

Dr. Robert Frank answered questions from the public Friday afternoon during the third open forum for OU presidential candidates.

Frank said he is interested in the position partially because of the institution’s stability.

“I think the university is in great shape. I’m very impressed by it. These are very tough times to be in a university but this university is solid from what I’ve seen. ”

Frank stepped down early from his position with UNM –effective Jan. 1–after announcing in September he would not seek a new contract. He had served in the position since 2012 and his contract was originally supposed to run through May of this year.

Before working for his alma mater, he served as Kent State University’s Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs for four years.

He was previously dean of Clinical and Health Psychology in the College of Public Health and Health Professions for the University of Florida for eight years. He held several other positions during this time, including director of the Florida Center for Medicaid and the Uninsured and Vice President for Rehabilitation and Behavioral Health at Shands Healthcare System.

He received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, his Master’s in Psychology and Bachelor’s degrees in Psychology all from UNM.

Ohio University’s significant drop in national rankings, such as the U.S. News and World Report, was the subject of a series of questions.

“I’m not a big believer in these rankings but they’re real,” Frank said. “Students out of state use those to make decisions and if we want to better inform the world about the university, you’ve got to pay attention to them.”

He proposed putting together a work group of faculty to look at the variables these rankings analyze and have them determine where the university can become better.

Improving retention rates at OU (which are currently around 79 percent for first-year students) would be high priority for Frank, as the statistic is important to both the university’s success and standings in national rankings.

“Higher retention means your students stay longer, which improves your finances. But it also means you’re doing something that makes you competitive,” he said. “I think that number could go up.”

Before Frank took over as president, UNM’s retention rate was 74 percent. In 2015, the rate had increased to 79.5 percent, with an 80 percent rate for hispanic students boosting the numbers, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

Another aspect of OU that appealed to Frank was it’s proximity to a number of Fortune 500 companies in Columbus, whereas New Mexico has no such companies in the entire state.

“This is one of the significant ways that universities will find their way forward in the future,” he said. “Partnering in ways that either bring back students to [corporations] to be employees or help them develop products that they’re interested in.”

Equally, if not more important than the rankings, is creating a brand that would attract out-of-state students to Athens.

“This university has got the student body, you’ve got the faculty, you’ve got the sense of place, the culture, the history,” Frank said. “All those variables can be brought together in a very powerful story.”

Frank’s interactions with faculty and staff has been a point of controversy in his previous work and was referenced in a question from the audience.

The Board of Regents at UNM hired a job coach two years into Frank’s presidency to assist with his communication skills.

Franks said on Friday that he welcomed the instruction and benefited from it.

“She helped me learn how to slow my pace down to match the marathon that you’re in as a president. She also helped me learn better how to express things and not say things that could be taken the wrong way.”

An outside investigation of Frank’s treatment of workers and spending habits was ordered by the Board of Regents in 2016.

The report concluded that UNM was not a hostile work environment but there were “shades of a hostile working environment,” according to The Albuquerque Journal.

“Frank’s treatment of faculty and staff is not appropriate and may rise to the level of bullying,” the report read.

Frank threatened to sue the University of Mexico and the Board of Regents for defamation.

“While the work in the president’s office is fast paced, and at times intense and stressful, it would be inaccurate to describe it as a hostile work environment,” Frank wrote in a statement to the Albuquerque Journal.

The board and Frank reached an agreement that he would step down before his contract expired and take a position as the director of the Center for Innovation in Health and Education within the Health Sciences Center.

While Frank did not sue the university, he expressed disappointment to the crowd Friday in the state of the president’s position at UNM.

“I think I told the search committee that [the Board of Regents] eat presidents for lunch and spit them out,” he said. “I was a very tasty morsel.”

No new UNM president in the past two decades has lasted longer than a five-year term.

A student in attendance asked a question regarding how Frank would handle sexual assault and harassment on campus.

“This is a timely and important dialogue right now in America about how we make campuses safe,” he said. “It’s something we need to be talking about more openly.”

UNM adopted several initiatives during Frank’s tenure to address the issue that were rooted in a nearly two-year Justice Department Investigation into the school’s handling of such cases.

The findings of the investigation included students, faculty and staff lacking basic understanding about reporting options, duties and obligations, as well as where to turn for help.

UNM fully cooperated in the agreement with the DOJ and worked to streamline policies and offer training to improve on faculty knowledge of sexual assault and harassment.

UNM released the results of a 3,000 student survey last year that found approximately 25 percent of students said they experienced sexual harassment within the the past year. Also, 10 percent of surveyed students reported a non-consensual sexual experience in the same time period.

However, 80 percent of of those surveyed said UNM “takes sexual misconduct complaints seriously.” Three quarters added that UNM does a “good job” of providing services for students who have experienced sexual assault.

The fourth and final open forum is scheduled for Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. in the Baker University Center Ballroom. Dr. Pam Benoit –who has served as provost and executive vice president of OU since 2009– will be the final participant.

Read Susan Tebben’s report on all four finalists to learn more about the candidates. A recap from the forum with Dr. Duane Nellis can be read here and a recap from the forum with Dr. Dean Bresciani can be read here.