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Editorial: Today is the day to hold UNM athletics accountable

Will today truly be a day of reckoning for UNM’s athletics department? Or will it be business as usual with the university’s leaders essentially rewarding the bad behavior that has left Lobo athletics with an accumulated $6.7 million deficit?

New University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes is scheduled to present an athletics budget proposal to the Board of Regents Finance and Facilities Committee today. The presentation is expected to include a plan to eliminate the department’s debt and satisfy the state Higher Education Department enhanced fiscal oversight program. It will be a defining moment for Stokes and the regents as both students and faculty have spoken out against forgiving the athletics debt.

Of course, the final decision on how to proceed will be made by the full board of regents at a future meeting.

There is no doubt the athletics department and its student athletes bring value to the university, on the field (or court) and off.

And yes, we recognize that the easiest route for regents would be to tap into a special fund set aside from land sales and investments to either wipe out the debt in its entirety or else “loan” athletics the money.

During her first week on the job, Stokes told the Journal, “I’m not a big believer in simply forgiving debt that’s been accumulated in any unit, academic or otherwise.”

Let’s face it, tapping the fund to cover athletics’ deficits would be the same as forgiving the debt.

Such a move would be fiscally irresponsible and unfair to students, and to every other university department that has had to live within its means. That money should be used to bolster UNM’s academic mission, not to wipe clean a mess that those with fiscal oversight over athletics created, year after year.

Just this Sunday, the Journal presented once again a year-by-year listing of the deficits the athletics department created. It was caused in part by a steady rise in spending:

  • In fiscal 2013, it spent nearly $30.7 million.
  • In 2014, $31.5 million.
  • In 2015, $32.1 million.
  • In 2016, $33.3 million.
  • In 2017, $34.2 million.
  • And it’s projecting nearly $35 million this fiscal year.

Clearly, athletics department officials never got the message that Lobo athletics was under water and some serious belt-tightening was urgently needed.

And this year was the worst – with athletics now projected to overspend its budget by a whopping $3.3 million – $1.3 million of which the regents have already wiped clean with money from reserves.

There is absolutely no incentive for athletics officials to make tough decisions if the next bailout is just around the corner.

So what should Stokes and the regents do?

They should require first-year Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez to come up with a reasonable budget for the next fiscal year, to meet that budget and to begin paying back what the department owes. No, he didn’t create the current mess, but he knew what he was getting into when he took the job.

Consider New Mexico State University: Its athletics department amassed a debt exceeding $10 million, and has whittled that debt down by more than half.

UNM athletics officials should be forced to realize there are no other options. In the words of Benjamin Lopez, a UNM sophomore majoring in economics, forgiving the athletics deficit “is rewarding bad behavior and rewarding financial mismanagement with a blank check.”

All eyes are now on Stokes and the regents. Whether they stand up and hold athletics accountable or give the department yet another pass remains to be seen. Either way, they will be sending an important message to their donors, employees and students that will set the tone for years.

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.