August 12, 2021
As Highlands University embarks upon the new school year, university president Sam Minner called on the Highlands family to hold fast to their hopes and dreams and invited them to engage in conversation about their big ideas for the coming year.
Minner referenced the poem “Dreams,” by Langston Hughes, as he laid out his own hopes and dreams for Highlands. Noting that the pandemic has been challenging for everyone, Minner said he was concerned about the mental health of students, faculty, and staff, and wanted to guard against the potential loss of personal and collective aspirations by inviting everyone to dream big.
“I am going to try to take time to reflect a little more than I have,” said President Minner in his university address to faculty and staff on Aug. 12. “Instead of just reflecting on the immediate issue before me, I want to reflect on bigger ideas and dreams.”
Minner called on the Highlands community to engage in conversations about their big ideas and noted a number of his own dreams for the coming year. Among them, Minner said he hopes to create two big programs that will draw lots of students, to expand sustainability efforts on campus, and to institutionalize diversity.
“I want to support continuing efforts to make Highlands a place where human diversity is more than tolerated,” Minner said. “Where diversity is welcomed and honored as something that adds to the richness of life.”
Noting the challenges presented by the pandemic, President Minner also reiterated his goals to increase the power of engagement with students in face-to-face learning. Additionally, he said he hopes to match or exceed the university’s private giving goals—something that Highlands managed to accomplish last year despite the challenges so many institutions faced with fundraising nationally.
As a part of his invitation to faculty and staff to engage in conversations about their hopes and dreams, Minner asked his colleagues to collaborate in brainstorming one “really big idea.” As an example, he suggested students might take one course at a time—a model that has seen success at other colleges and that he feels might benefit Highlands’ student population. But he said he is eager to hear other ideas, as well.
“Is there something that would make us distinct from the other regional comprehensives in the state—and generally?” Minner asked. “Are we up for a big idea?”
As Minner noted, the pandemic had a dramatic effect on higher education across the U.S., which led to a decline in enrollment and retention, early retirements among faculty, staff, and administration, a decline in fundraising, empty campuses, delays in research, and struggles for teachers and students with shifting to online learning, among other factors.
Despite these national challenges, Minner said Highlands has managed to avoid some of these setbacks. In addition to surpassing their private giving goals last year, retention at Highlands remained at an all-time high.
“This institution is more than 125 years old, and we don’t have data for every year, but we think it was a record for fall-to-fall retention,” Minner said. “I’m really, really proud of that.”
Highlands also completed a number of facilities renovations and launched several important programs over the course of the past year, including three new master’s programs in Criminology, Cultural Resources Management, and Educational Leadership with a mathematics concentration, as well as a new option to complete a master’s in social work online.
Minner said New Mexico residents pursuing a four-year degree at Highlands will also now qualify for assistance from the state’s newly expanded Opportunity Scholarship. The scholarship previously covered the tuition and fees for two-year degrees at public institutions that not covered by other aid or awards. Following the 2021 legislative session, the scholarship was expanded to include four-year degrees at public institutions.
“Many students in the state of New Mexico, including our own, will attend for nothing this year—that is to say, no tuition, no fees,” Minner said. “That’s an incredible thing. The spike has been going up for decades now in terms of overall costs, and those costs in many cases will now be zero. New Mexico is leading in that movement.”
Representatives from the student body, staff members, and faculty all had the opportunity to share their aspirations for the coming year.
Speaking on behalf of the faculty, professor of social work Beth Massaro said she hopes to continue work on solutions for injustice, building deeper connections with students and creating a transformative environment on campus.
“We’re here to serve our students and participate in our community,” Massaro said.
Veronica Black, speaking on behalf of the university’s staff senate, said she’s excited to champion the staff and possibilities in the new year, and to celebrate the university’s many accomplishments.
Student body president Chris Ulibarri said he hopes students will feel secure and safe this year and outlined a number of specific goals he’d like to achieve, including increased dialogue among students, staff, administration, and faculty, and increased support for nontraditional students. Ulibarri also echoed Minner’s call for greater diversity on campus.
“I’d like to see us become a Native American serving institution,” Ulibarri said.
Looking forward, President Minner said he is excited about the return of team sports events and arts events on campus this fall. However, he noted that with the increase in the Delta variant, the university is positioned to pivot as needed to keep the campus community safe. The board of regents also met on Thursday and issued campus-wide safety measures including universal masking and the option to either vaccinate or participate in regular testing. Social distancing measures will also be implemented.
“I’ve had many phone calls and the most common preface to those discussions is ‘I need to get back and work with my students, I need to see them,’” Minner said. “Thank you for that my colleagues. That’s such a beautiful sentiment, and I couldn’t agree more.”
Although the 2021-22 school-year was meant to be Minner’s last as the president of Highlands University, he said he’d accepted the board’s invitation to extend his term by two additional years, which will conclude the spring of 2024.
“The driver for me is our mission. It speaks to me so powerfully,” Minner said. “It’s such a beautiful thing to help students achieve their dreams.”