By Wendel Sloan
At its April 12 meeting the Eastern New Mexico University Board of Regents selected Dr. Jeff Elwell, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, as the new president of the ENMU system, which includes campuses in Portales, Roswell and Ruidoso.
He becomes ENMU’s 10th president since its 1934 opening. Dr. Elwell will replace Dr. Steven Gamble, who has been president since 2001 and will retire at the end of June.
Accepting the appointment, Dr. Elwell said, “I am thrilled and excited beyond belief. I look forward to leading the Eastern New Mexico University system into the next decade.
“My wife, Edwina, and two rescue dogs, Molly and Mindy, are also looking forward to this next exciting phase of our life.”
Since 2012, Dr. Elwell has served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Prior to this, he was provost and special assistant to the chancellor at Auburn University Montgomery from 2010-12. From 2004- 10, Dr. Elwell served as the founding dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication at East Carolina University.
He was an administrator at the University of Nebraska (1999-2004), Marshall University from (1996-99), and Mississippi State University (1989-96).
Dr. Elwell holds a Ph.D. in speech communication/theater from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, a master’s degree in communication/theatre from the University of Southwestern Louisiana, and a bachelor’s in English from California State University-Bakersfield.
He said being named president of ENMU was the “fourth best day of my life. Meeting my wife, getting married and having a son were the other three.”
Dr. Elwell was attracted to ENMU by its “size, reputation and location. I grew up in Southern California, and graduated from Cal State Bakersfield. I find the desert attractive, pleasant and interesting.”
The high school and college cross country and track athlete says his goals and aspirations for ENMU are to “stand on the shoulders of Dr. Gamble and other leaders before him. I want to make ENMU even more prominent and increase its reputation.”
In his current position, Dr. Elwell successfully dealt with a substantial budget reduction in his second year “in an open and transparent way.” He has increased fundraising by 882 percent—from $296,000 to $2.6 million. His college has also increased distance education 1,248 percent from 1,188 student credit hours to 14,080.
A track scholarship helped the athlete pay for college.
“You learn so much as an athlete: about winning, losing and how to deal with disappointment,” he said. “You learn how to improve and what it means to be part of a team.”
He says winning is important for many reasons, but it’s not THE reason for varsity athletics.
“If you’re winning in the right way, it’s great. If winning is the objective and you start taking shortcuts that hurt the reputation of the athletic program or the school, then it’s not that important.”
“If you’re doing really poorly, like going 1-10 in football three years in a row, you have something going wrong there and you need to address it.”
Dr. Elwell has had a number of plays produced professionally in various genres. “Escape from Bondage” about the early life and times of Frederick Douglas was produced in New York.
As a doctoral student at University of Illinois at Carbondale, he wrote nine plays in two years, with six of them produced.
Born in Brooklyn across from Ebbetts Field, he moved to California as a toddler.
There, he played beach volleyball against Wilt Chamberlain, spotted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar towering above a fence, and saw John Elway play Pop Warner football.
“It was common to see famous athletes and actors,” Dr. Elwell said.
While waiting for a doctoral loan check, he met his wife at the financial aid office at Southern Illinois Carbondale.
He had to “wait a bit because they messed up my check. It gave me a chance to flirt with Edwina. When she handed me the check for $5,000 I asked her out and she said ‘yes.’”
Their first date was on March 5, 1983, and they married in December of 1984.
Their son, Preston, just finished his junior year at Winthrop University, where he went on academic and track scholarships and is majoring in Spanish and minoring in political science.
Asked about his hobbies, Dr. Elwell said, “I’m pretty boring. I work a lot. I enjoy attending college and professional sports events. We like to travel and meet new people, have new experiences and learn about history.”
His philosophy of life is, “If you don’t ask, the answer is always No. If you’re willing to work hard and make the sacrifices necessary, there is nothing you can’t achieve. You can’t measure grit or motivation.”
Dr. Elwell is “looking forward to coming here and meeting people, and working with everyone to make Eastern New Mexico University the best university it can be.”