New Mexico State University's new Executive Vice President and Provost Daniel J. Howard is experiencing some of the same excitement and sense of challenge he felt as an eager young NMSU faculty member some 25 years ago.
As a new assistant professor of biology at NMSU back in 1988, the evolutionary biologist was thrilled to become part of a biology department that had a national reputation and a university that was the home of one of the first four Long Term Ecological Research sites in the nation.
"I regarded it as a gem in the desert. It was a place I really wanted to be," Howard said. "We had a great national reputation for the quality of our biological research. It was a very, very good place to be."
That was the start of a stellar faculty and research experience at NMSU for Howard, who was able to continue and enhance his primary research project, which received strong support from the National Science Foundation throughout his career at NMSU.
Howard's research focuses on closely related cricket species. He and his teams of student researchers have steadily chipped away, year after year, unlocking secrets surrounding the question of how two species, while intermingling in their respective ranges, manage to retain their distinctness, generation after generation. His laboratory was one of the first to document the importance of postmating, prezygotic isolation in limiting gene exchange between closely related species.
Back in 1988, Howard arrived at NMSU with academic training that included a bachelor's from Stanford and a Ph.D. from Yale, as well as a postdoc at Michigan State University and a stint as curator of zoology at the Museum of Northern Arizona.
Now, he brings not only his 20-year career at NMSU that included attaining the positions of Regents Professor, head of the Department of Biology and interim associate dean for research for the College of Arts and Sciences, but also five years (2008-2013) at the helm of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the largest college on the downtown campus of the University of Colorado Denver, Colorado's premier research university.
Being back in Las Cruces is a familiar, welcome feeling for Howard and his wife, physician Jenifer Lichtenfels. He said they enjoyed their lifestyle in Denver - living in the city and sometimes riding their bikes from place to place - but the rural lifestyle they left behind in Las Cruces was never too far from their thoughts.
While in Las Cruces, their two daughters grew up and the family enjoyed their farm in Mesilla, where they were busy with a three-acre pecan orchard and another two acres that housed seven horses, eight dogs and two goats. Later, they moved to the mountains where their seven-acre home allowed them to enjoy the beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert and have close encounters with golden eagles, coyotes, quail and rattlesnakes.
"We're happy to come back to a place where we can adopt a rural lifestyle," he said.
Howard was eager to get "back in the saddle" at NMSU, too. When the opportunity to become a candidate for NMSU president arose, he was encouraged by friends and colleagues to seek the post, and when Garrey Carruthers was chosen instead, Howard did not have to wait long for an opportunity that was almost as enticing.
"When Garrey asked me to consider the position of executive vice president and provost, it didn't take me long to say yes. I thought, 'If I can't be NMSU president, being NMSU provost is nearly as good,'" Howard said. "Both positions are critical for the health of the institution. My skillset is well-suited for provost. I'm an academic through and through. I bring a real faculty perspective. I understand the institution well. I understand the challenges."
Howard has embraced his new role in his first few weeks in the position.
"I'm here to be the provost, to support Garrey, and that's what I'm going to do," he said. "We're both working toward the same thing - to advance the institution."
The new provost is looking forward to interacting again with NMSU students.
"I identify with them," he said. Like many of the university's students, Howard came from a modest family as the son of an Army soldier. His father worked his way up from high school dropout to Chief Warrant Officer, and earned a college degree when Howard was a boy. That experience had a big impact on the youngster.
"My father understood the importance of higher education," he said.
Howard's childhood, growing up at Army posts around the world, also gives him a perspective that helps when interacting with NMSU's international students, staff and faculty members.
"NMSU is a place for everybody," he said
For Howard, it's a place where, once again, his skills, his interests and his eagerness for making a difference are lining up just right, at just the right time, much like they did in 1988.
"Back then, NMSU felt like a place where I could be happy for a long time," he said of his first impression of the "gem in the desert," and now he has a second chance - from enjoying the Southwest rural lifestyle to working on solutions to challenges facing the institution - to make that happen.