Lessons from the Provost of the University of New Mexico Chaouki Tanios Abdallah.
So how did a kid from the small town of Rachana become the chief academic officer of a flagship research university in the United States? It has a lot to do with Rachana, with my family, with Lebanon and with the United States. When I was growing up, Rachana was a cauldron of creativity and ideas. The artist Michel Basbous and his friends brought both international fame and culture to the small town. My parents instilled in us the qualities of hard work and grit. My mother showed us the value of empathy, and always stressed that education is the one possession that can never be taken away. My father showed us the value of honest work. Of eight children, four of the sons, including myself, are engineers, my other brother is a doctor. One of my sisters is an architect, another became a pharmacist and the third studied law but didn’t finish. Growing up in Lebanon during peaceful then tumultuous times, I also learned to be proud of my Lebanese heritage, yet humble and hard working. When I came to Georgia Tech from a much smaller school, I had to dig deep to find the confidence that I could compete with better-prepared and more privileged students.
“Growing up in Lebanon during peaceful then tumultuous times, I also learned to be proud of my Lebanese heritage, yet humble and hard working”
When I landed in the cold JFK New York airport before Christmas 1978, I had no idea that the United States would be my HOME for the next 37 years. I had come to the U.S. to study engineering and to wait out the Civil War. My older brother preceded me by six months, and I joined him at Youngstown State University, a small public school in northeast Ohio. I spoke no English (I was French educated) and my first few months were spent in intensive English classes, watching TV, and meeting with Lebanese relatives and friends in the area. Almost immediately, various American students and families welcomed me. I finished my undergraduate degree and, as war was still raging, I decided to pursue my master’s degree at Georgia Tech, a premier engineering school. I did really well in my first quarter and was offered an apprenticeship, to complete my master’s, which I finished in about nine months. The situation in Lebanon had still not improved and my academic advisor wanted me to pursue a PhD, which I had started but cancelled to go work in Florida. I went back to Georgia Tech and completed my PhD in 1988. I then joined the University of New Mexico, which had a strong team and research program in the area of control systems and robotics. I started out as an assistant professor and progressed through the ranks to associate, full professor, then became the associate chair of electrical and computer engineering for graduate affairs, then the chair in 2005.
As a chair I led an excellent and large department, but wanted to step down in 2011. At that time, the university was searching internally for a provost, and I was nominated for the position. I was selected as an interim provost under one president, and as soon as the new president was selected in 2012, the two of them decided to make me the permanent provost, the position I currently hold. As provost, I lead the academic enterprise and manage a budget of more than $330 million, more than 1,000 regular faculty members and the research enterprise of more than $200 million in research expenditures each year. I met my wife, also an engineer from Georgia Tech in 1986 and we married in 1990, and are now the proud parents of two amazing young men, aged 16.
New Mexico is a large sparsely populated state. The Lebanese community here tends to be older (the Maaloufs, the Budaghers, etc.) and very well established or younger and mobile. I have recruited many students from Lebanon to pursue their graduate degrees at UNM and have been proud of every single one of them, as they competed for prizes and awards and won most of them.
My two boys are finally learning Arabic in school, and we go back home as often as we can. I am building a house in Rachana in the hope that one day, I will be able to sit on its balcony and gaze upon the deep valleys and the Mediterranean and to have fun with my childhood friends, while continuing to read, learn, and help give back to my village and my native country.