Rio Rancho Observer
By MIKE HARTRANFT
PUBLISHED: Sunday, January 3, 2016
The woman who took on the challenge of getting UNM West up and running in Rio Rancho’s City Center has retired after a nearly three-decade career with the university.
Elizabeth Miller, director of outreach and strategic initiatives the past two years, stepped down Jan. 1, wrapping up a seven-year stint at UNM West, where she began as interim director and oversaw the campus’s development from its very early stages.
But she also ended a 29½-year association with the university that started at the UNM branch in Gallup, where she steadily rose from faculty member to the branch’s executive director before transferring to Rio Rancho.
The mother of two adult sons and devoted grandmother of three girls and a boy, she will still stay in Rio Rancho, as she plans to keep the town home she purchased near the country club when she was still in Gallup.
She counts travel and any number of other pursuits — she’s a Rotarian and a member of a women’s organization that helps women get their degrees; she volunteers at her church and is in the bell choir; she’s also a longtime piano player who’s learned to play the dulcimer — as possibilities to fill her retirement years.
But she expects to devote the next few months on “a lot of stuff at my house I need to do that accumulates over time.”
She’s also been reading Jane Pauley’s book, “Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life.”
“She’s talked to various people from various parts of life who’ve retired and have just kind of reinvented themselves in ways they never thought they would, whether it’s a job or volunteering or whatever,” Miller said. “So I’ve been reading this book and it’s like, you know, there might be some interesting things coming along.
“And then somebody else told me, instead of thinking retiring, think of re-firing.”
In her most recent position at UNM West, Miller focused on expanding the school’s curriculum and programming in ways that students could apply what they learn in the classroom in the business community.
“And hopefully, in some cases, that would lead to a job or, at least, the students seeing there are opportunities here in Rio Rancho for them to pursue employment when they graduate,” she said.
Interns from UNM West, for instance, have worked on projects with the county, Sandoval Regional Medical Center and Sandoval Economic Alliance. The Observer hosted an intern last summer.
“We’re trying to just kind of help grow the economic base for the community,” she said.
UNM West CEO Wynn Goering holds Miller’s talents and work at the campus in high esteem.
“I first met Beth a number of years ago when I was the interim executive director of UNM-Taos and she was named to the same position at UNM-Gallup,” Goering said. “It was clear then and still is now that her first love and dedication was always to the students served by institution.
“Since coming to work with Beth at UNM West, I’ve been impressed with the degree to which she’s made herself a leader and integral part of the Rio Rancho community. I’d guess people would be surprised to know that she’s only lived here a few years — she seems to know everyone and everyone seems to know her,” he added. “It’s also a big reason why we’re not going to fill her position when she leaves, because I can’t imagine anyone else that can represent both the university and the city the way she has.”
Education has filled virtually all of Miller’s career.
She grew up in Liberal in southwest Kansas. After graduating from high school, she attended Cottey College, a women’s college, in Nevada, Missouri, for two years before transferring to Kansas State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. She later earned a master’s and then doctorate in education administration, the latter at UNM.
She taught at the high school and community college level before coming to New Mexico.
“I had taught part-time in the community college where I lived, in Liberal,” Miller said. “I had another full-time job, but I taught there part-time. I was a single mom with two children, but I just really wanted to be able to use the education I received.”
A posting about a job in Gallup caught her attention and in 1986, she and boys were New Mexico-bound. Son Brent was entering fifth grade and Andrew second grade.
“Just from moving and life happening, I really hadn’t been able to stay any place for a long period of time and do what I really wanted to do,” she said. “So taking this job was an opportunity to do that.”
She started at UNM Gallup as a business department faculty member and subsequently became department chair, dean of instruction and then, in 2002, executive director. Most students at the Gallup branch are Native American.
“It is very different,” she said. “The students were wonderful to work with. The challenges for them are very immense and I have great respect for those students who stick it out and go on.”
As she would do when she came to Rio Rancho, Miller involved herself in the community, serving on the hospital board for nine years and working with the local chamber of commerce. She has great affection for Gallup.
“I understand people sometimes saying, how did you live out there? I said, ‘I have great friends from Gallup,” Miller said.
Her career took a new turn in the summer of 2008, when she transferred to the fledgling UNM West and was tasked with a giant mission: Then-UNM President David Schmidly asked her “if I’d get the place open.”
“I had quite a career out there (in Gallup) and I did have some experience building, so it was fun to take this over. But it was very different, because going from the community college culture, if you will, to the research university, is just kind of a different step,” she said.
“There was not only the building going on, but what is it we’re going to teach out here? What are we going to do out here?”
By the time of her arrival, UNM owned the site of the UNM West campus and was already offering classes in a building behind Don Chalmers Ford. Early on, the understanding was UNM West would be doing offering just upper-division courses, while CNM, which was about to open its own campus in Rio Rancho, would offer lower division.
“It was kind of challenging to get going and to make a case for our being able to offer lower division courses, but along the way there we established this local community advisory council and that really benefited me because I didn’t know a lot of people in the community,” Miller said. “I needed to be able to talk to people about what the campus should be doing.”
Miller said part of her task was meeting with deans from the various colleges at UNM (business, education, nursing, arts and sciences, among them).
“They needed to understand why we’re here,” she said.
The new campus opened in January 2010, but with the still-tottering economy and budget cuts facing higher education facilities across the state, enrollment didn’t quite measure up to community expectations.
Miller said she knew, though, that the community of Rio Rancho was committed to higher education, having approved a gross receipts tax for higher education. It also had supported a property tax for CNM and a mill levy for two hospitals.
“In a short amount of time, this community said, ‘These are priorities and we’re willing to help get you there,’” she said. “That was very impressive to me.”
Over time, the enrollment picture at UNM West has brightened, growing from between 600 and 800 students in 2010-11 to 1,400 to 1,600 this year.
“As we’ve moved along, we’ve tried to put specific degree plans for students in place, especially in the liberal arts area,” Miller said. “We’ve made some agree with some of the colleges, like with education to bring their dual-licensure program here and to get some full-time faculty out there on a rotating basis.”
She thinks it would be “fantastic” if the recent proposal by UNM’s Health Sciences Center to add programs and an additional building at UNM West moves forward, in light of two hospitals in Rio Rancho, the level of interest expressed by local students in health-related careers and the emergence of the affordable health care act.
Former state legislator Pauline Eisenstadt, who chaired the UNM West Advisory Council until last month and worked with Miller for 5½ years, credited Miller’s leadership for solving some of the early problems, including working with the university to be able to begin offering lower-division classes.
“In the beginning, it was starting slow and we understood that,” Eisenstadt said. “But Beth Miller made a tremendous difference. Her accomplishments were outstanding on a lot of the issues.
“She attended meetings. She brought information. She joined groups that were working in economic development,” Eisenstadt said. “I think people in Rio Rancho understand and appreciate the fact there is a university campus there and she was always there to provide information they needed.”
Miller, though, is quick to spread the credit.
“I think the day we had our dedication, I asked them (other officials) to stand up and be recognized,” she said, “because it did take a village. We had a huge number of people working to get this campus going.”