Chancellor Mary Gutierrez faces immense challenges -- and opportunities -- as she takes the reins at the University of New Mexico-Taos during the continuing battle with the COVID-19 pandemic.

She hit the ground running on her first day, Monday (Aug. 2), saying, "I came to campus with my UNM-Taos mask, and I put that on as soon as I come through the door."

Gutierrez has replaced Cindy Rooney, who served as interim chancellor of UNM-Taos while continuing her role as chancellor of UNM-Los Alamos. She had replaced Patrick Valdez, the previous chancellor, who stepped down at the end of 2020.

Personal history

Gutierrez was born in Radford, Virginia, where her father was a graduate student and teacher at Radford College. The family moved to Las Cruces, NM, when he completed his doctorate.

She graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1980. "I was really fortunate to have had a pretty phenomenal high school experience," she said.

Gutierrez earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in English from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership from San Francisco State University, where she had also served as an instructor.

She served as dean of language arts at Skyline College in California, and as associate dean of student learning at Cascadia College in Washington.

More recently, Gutierrez served as the vice president of instruction at Diablo Valley College in California, where she provided leadership and administrative oversight to the college's instructional programs, including curriculum, academic departments, learning resources, career and technical education, distance education and continuing education.

Her husband, Chris Gutierrez, leads data science and data engineering teams. The couple has two poodle-mixes named Data and Barclay.

Questions and answers

Taos News spoke to Chancellor Gutierrez on Wednesday (Aug. 11) to learn about her priorities and her approach to the challenges ahead.

What do you find to be the greatest strength at UNM-Taos?

"There is a very clear sense of commitment to serving our students - our community - and to constant improvement in the institution," said Gutierrez. "I have seen all kinds of examples of that willingness to innovate, to partner and to take a hard look at ourselves, so that we're honest about the ways in which we're being successful, and the ways in which we need to improve."

Are there certain weaknesses that you would like to address?

"For all higher education institutions right now, enrollment is a major concern," said Gutierrez. "We have all worked very hard to transition the way we are providing educational experiences and services for our students. This is really an indication of how committed we are to serving our students under the conditions that COVID-19 has produced.

"What we're attempting to do now is to get folks back into more face-to-face contact. We are excited to get students back into work-study, back into classes. Our community needs our students to be back in the workforce as well.

"All of that's really important to us - helping students continue to pursue their goals, their dreams, their careers," she said. "To not put their future on hold."

With spiking case rates across the country, and here in New Mexico, what are you doing to safely prepare for the fall semester?

"We're doing tracking for contact purposes - we have to report that - so when folks come in the door, they're taking their temperature, they're making sure that they aren't experiencing symptoms, they have their masks on," said Gutierrez. "That will continue throughout the academic year."

She said the university is also changing protocols for large-group indoor activities to make them safer.

"We may have planned for faculty orientation to be a full day event. And we would have had 50 people in a room together having lunch." Gutierrez said that now, events will be shorter, and lunch will be socially distanced or grab-n-go.

"UNM has a policy requiring all of us to be vaccinated, or to process the request for an exemption," said Gutierrez. "UNM is paying close attention to our demographics on vaccination. We're proud of the levels of vaccination that we have here in Taos. But we also are able to see that, as we break that down by age group, we have some work to do, in terms of encouraging our students to get vaccinated or to demonstrate that there is good reason for them not to be."

"We're doing a lot to promote vaccinations for our students, to help protect their community," she said.

How many students will be coming back to school this fall?

"We're continuing to enroll students right now," said Gutierrez. "So, I would not be able to give you a number that would be up-to-date. I can say that we're ahead - in terms of our headcount - of where we were last fall. So we're happy about that."

"Part of what we know that happened locally - and nationally, as well - when students were finishing up high school during COVID, there was some reluctance to learn online. And so we have students that have taken a break from higher education for the moment," she said. "We want to make sure that we're getting them back into their education, and into their career path and into their future."

Speaking of the future, what do you see as emerging fields you would want to welcome to the UNM-Taos campus, to educate the workforce of the future?

"The State of New Mexico has data on our fastest growing fields, and at UNM-Taos, we're paying attention to that data," said Gutierrez.

"We have programs in some of the areas that are high demand, including hospitality, culinary arts, childcare, early childhood education - education, in general. Nursing and allied health fields are also very important for us to meet the needs of the region."

"Areas that are more emergent for us - technology, IT, data science. But we can also look at business analytics, and a whole host of related fields that are important for us to be helping our students become part of the workforce," she said.

"What's exciting about that for students, now, is - it doesn't necessarily mean that they need to leave Taos to be working in those fields, because the remote workforce is really an important part of the workforce," said Gutierrez.

Other emerging industries in New Mexico that she mentioned were the creative economy, digital arts and digital media.

"Our construction program is very important to the region. And I think we all know that, right now, it's a very in-demand field. We have very specialized content for folks who are learning construction technology here at UNM-Taos. And I think that we have the opportunity to really contribute to the heritage of construction in this area," said Gutierrez. "I'm excited we're part of helping preserve that, and train that for the future."

One last question - do you have any introductory thoughts that you want to give to the community as you start your tenure as chancellor?

"Oh, most definitely. One of the things that was so impactful for me in my interview process was that the community was so present. It was just abundantly evident that the community cares about UNM-Taos, and is ready to partner with UNM-Taos, so that what we are able to do together is what will make the difference for Taos -- for individuals and families in Taos," said Gutierrez.

"One of the big takeaways is that education, partnered with employers, partnered with the community, really has the potential to change lives."

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