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Editorial: UNM regents getting too good at erasing red ink

Hey, it’s only money.

Forget for the moment that it is $4.7 million that was intended to be used for the core mission of the University of New Mexico, which is to educate students and pay the faculty members who teach them.

Because that’s the only way to rationalize a suggestion by Regents President Rob Doughty to simply “forgive” the debt owed by the Athletics Department to the university’s reserve fund.

Doughty put the idea forward last week – even though the Athletics Department has pledged repeatedly over the past couple of years to pay back the money and to live within its means. It hasn’t done either.

The UNM budget office put forth a plan last week calling for athletics to make $350,000 annual payments on its debt and stay within budget going forward. Indeed, just breaking even would be an accomplishment for a department that has finished in the red eight of the past 10 years.

Doughty’s rationale essentially is that it’s just too hard to pay back the money and that a clean slate would be great for new Athletics Director Eddie Nunez. Indeed it would, but Nunez took the job knowing the department was in the red after years of operating deficits under Paul Krebs. Despite the deficits, athletics just went right on building budgets based on unrealistic projections for income items like football attendance.

And why not? It benefitted from a $1.3 million gift from UNM’s reserves back in November courtesy of the regents that the department will not have to pay back.

It’s worth noting that New Mexico State University in Las Cruces started with an even bigger debt owed by its Athletics Department – exceeding $10 million – and has whittled that down by more than half. NMSU projects it will pay off the rest within four years, and made a $1.35 million payment in 2017.

It’s also worth noting that as far back as October 2016, UNM COO and CFO David Harris told a regents committee “our top priority here is to benefit academic programs. … So we don’t really have the capability to backstop Athletics in ways that we have in the past.”

The persistent financial problems around Lobo athletics also prompted the state’s Higher Education secretary, Barbara Damron, to place the program under the agency’s “enhanced fiscal oversight program” last fall. Would that oversight go away if regents simply wiped that debt off the books?

Doughty, who described the debt as more of an “internal accounting decision,” also suggested similar treatment of $7 million owed by UNM Press. This month, UNM appeared to remove the debt from the Press’ ledger as part of a reorganization that put UNM Press under the university library system.

Regarding athletics, Faculty Senate President Pamela Pyle had said she needed more information and wanted assurances the university is holding athletics to the same “stringent (fiscal) measures as its academic departments.” Excellent question – was it asked about UNM Press?

Perhaps the regents could continue to wipe out athletics’ red ink with a simple vote. But it would be a bad idea on many fronts. The main one being that it would send the wrong message to the university and the community – that the regents are prepared to finance the athletics deficit on the back of the university’s academic mission.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.