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UNM audit prompting concerns

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The agency that grants the University of New Mexico its accreditation says it has “concerns regarding the University’s financial oversight” in light of an ongoing special audit by the state Auditor’s Office, and it wants an explanation from UNM.

In an Aug. 15 letter to interim President Chaouki Abdallah, Robert Rucker of the Higher Learning Commission asked UNM to describe why it is being audited, what actions it faces from the state auditor and other state agencies, how the audit impacts the school and any corrective action UNM has taken in response.

The audit raised questions about UNM’s compliance with accreditation criteria, Rucker wrote. He requested a UNM response by Sept. 14.

State Auditor Tim Keller alerted the university on May 31 that his office had designated “UNM and its component units” for a special audit due to questions about athletic fundraising and expenses. UNM had acknowledged the previous week that it used about $25,000 in public funds to pay booster expenses on a 2015 golf junket to Scotland.

Rucker’s letter said it considers “reports, findings, and actions taken by state offices” to determine a university’s compliance with its policies.

UNM needs accreditation so its students can tap into federal financial aid resources and so their credits can transfer to other similar institutions.

The commission last completed a comprehensive evaluation of UNM in 2009; its next site review and evaluation is scheduled for March 2019. The university years ago began preparing for that process.

Now it is also working on a specific response for Rucker, calling the request “a top priority.”

“While it is not uncommon for HLC to request additional information as part of the lengthy accreditation process, UNM considers a response to this request to be of utmost importance to clarify that the University is financially sound, as shown by all recent independent University-wide audits, and to alleviate any concerns,” UNM said in a written statement Wednesday.

HLC’s letter to UNM, first reported by independent journalist Daniel Libit, credits the New Mexico Higher Education Department for alerting it to the audit. HED notifies the commission “as a courtesy” when it learns of such audits or investigations by state agencies, according to the department.

The letter, provided to the Journal by UNM, also cites information gleaned from media coverage for its current concern, citing reports that the auditor has expressed “more general concerns regarding financial management practices at the University.”

Keller said he expects to have a completed audit report by early fall.

The letter does not cite specific media stories, but the school’s athletic department has generated a series of headlines for money-related problems. In addition to the Scotland trip revelations, UNM has recently acknowledged it inadvertently overpaid some head coaches and that it had failed to collect about $400,000 in Pit suite rental fees over the past seven years.

The situation prompted Abdallah to temporarily embed a main campus administrator in the department to improve internal controls.

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