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Four UNM sports on budget chopping block

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Facing both financial problems and Title IX compliance issues, the University of New Mexico administration is advancing a plan to eliminate four sports effective next summer – men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing, and women’s beach volleyball – and significantly tweak rosters for men’s cross country and track and women’s swimming and diving.

And those measures will not entirely cure the athletic department’s budget challenges; filling the shortfall could still require more support from main campus, students and/or the state.

UNM President Garnett Stokes will present the recommendation to the UNM Board of Regents at a special meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday. The board will make the final decision, though athletic director Eddie Nuñez on Wednesday notified the teams that would be affected if approved.

In a report outlining the plan, UNM called the measures “truly the last, best options to ensure the long-term success of UNM Athletics.”

Athletics has busted its budget repeatedly, and a consultant’s Title IX review of the department earlier this year noted a significant disparity in participation opportunities for male and female athletes.

In a meeting with Journal reporters and editors Wednesday afternoon, Stokes and Nuñez said they arrived at what they described as a difficult recommendation by evaluating each program on a number of criteria. However, they said the decision-making process prioritized three factors: finances, Title IX implications and the Mountain West Conference affiliation.

Of UNM’s 22 sports, only the four facing elimination do not compete within the Mountain West.

Men’s soccer, the skiing programs and beach volleyball had a combined 66 athletes in 2017-18.

Those programs would be phased out July 1, 2019, under the proposal, and UNM says it would honor the scholarships of any affected athlete who chose to stay until graduation.

“We’ll work with every one of these student athletes to help them in whatever avenue they choose,” including possible transfers, Nuñez said. He said he’s spoken to the NCAA, which determines a player’s eligibility, and he’s optimistic those who transfer before the school year starts would be granted a waiver to play immediately at another Division I institution.

The proposal would also mean “roster management” for nearly every other sport, though some would change more significantly than others.

UNM would scuttle the diving portion of its women’s swimming and diving program, in part because UNM lacks a facility with diving platforms. But the program would open more spots for swimmers.

Many other women’s teams would also gain slots.

Men’s cross country would lose six participant spots, men’s indoor track would lose 11 and men’s outdoor track would lose 12.

Stokes called cutting sports “really, really difficult” given the impact on athletes, coaches and the community as a whole. But the president – who, like Nuñez, inherited the athletics issues as newcomers – said the time has come to take action to fix the immediate problems and improve the department’s long-term outlook.

“People have been saying we needed to do this for some time. It’s so hard to do, and I think it hasn’t been done because it is so difficult. (But) I’ve looked at this, and I believe we have to position ourselves for success in the future,” she said.

Notably, the plan only achieves $1.15 million in savings out of the $1.9 million necessary to meet a deficit-reduction plan passed by regents for 2020.

UNM expects to somehow bridge the difference through other means, including cutting costs and raising revenue. The report cites a number of possible channels, such as moving more athletic department functions to main campus through a “shared services” model that could reduce spending in areas like academic support and communications. It also says UNM “must look” at possibly boosting its own financial support of athletics, saying it is lower than most of its peers, and also recommends transferring annual debt payments for the Pit remodel from athletics to the main campus. The average annual payment is about $1.76 million.

A potential increase in student fees would also help athletics, the report says.

Recurring problem

UNM has had recurring financial problems in athletics.

The department has consistently finished over budget, a problem often linked to failures meeting lofty ticket sales projections for football and basketball.

The department had accumulated a $4.7 million deficit to the university’s reserves by the end of fiscal year 2017, having missed budget eight times in a 10-year span.

Officials have sounded warning bells for years. Former athletic director Paul Krebs told regents in 2016 the department was unsustainable given its revenue stream and that difficult decisions – including possible program cuts – loomed unless more funding came through.

It struggled again in fiscal year 2018, which ended June 30. The regents last November approved giving the department a $1.3 million boost from reserves, but did not add the sum to the department’s running tab. Athletics still needed about $800,000 more in university assistance to finish the year.

The constant issues prompted New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron to intervene last October. She placed UNM under an enhanced fiscal oversight program, demanding that UNM conceive a plan to resolve the deficit and put the department on a financially stable path. Having not seen such a plan by March, she warned that she could stanch the flow of state money into the university.

UNM’s regents in April approved a multi-faceted plan that included a “reduction in sports” effective in fiscal year 2020 that would reduce costs by $1.9 million. The board tasked Nuñez with making recommendations about how to reach the $1.9 million in savings. Nuñez spent the past few months evaluating his department – which boasts more sports than any other team in the Mountain West Conference except the federally funded Air Force Academy – and gave his recommendation to Stokes for her review.

She sent it to the regents Wednesday afternoon.

The regent-approved deficit-reduction plan for athletics already has various forms of university assistance. UNM will this year give the department $885,435 from “land sale proceeds,” another $641,000 in unspecified institutional support and $750,000 in tuition waivers for student-athletes.

Athletics’ revenue also includes about $3.7 million in student fees. The legislature also appropriates about $2.6 million for UNM athletics – $500,000 less than it allocates for New Mexico State University sports.

Even before the recommendation was announced, some public officials offered input, including Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, also a gubernatorial candidate. It is likely to garner reaction from others (see sidebar).

Stokes said she hopes that cutting sports would not threaten future funding for the athletic department or UNM as a whole.

“I’m new to New Mexico. I hear that these things happen,” she said. “I hope that we have sufficient support among leaders in the state who care about UNM and who care more about the success of our university that we can manage any one who might hope for a little vengeance.”

Complying with Title IX

But the department’s problems extend beyond finances.

In May, UNM released a Title IX assessment report indicating the athletic department was not compliant with federal gender equity laws.

Essentially, the university is not providing male and female athletic opportunities at a rate aligned with the ratios of UNM’s general student enrollment numbers.

At UNM, where women accounted for 55.4 percent of enrollment in 2016-17, the female participation in athletics was at 43.8 percent.

Athletic departments can demonstrate Title IX compliance through adequate participation proportionality or one of two other tests.

Adding beach volleyball in 2015 ensured UNM’s compliance for a few years. But its failure to provide enough resources or an adequate playing facility for the team no longer allowed UNM to remain Title IX compliant.

The present recommendation to achieve compliance means the number of men athletes would decrease from 311 this past year to 234 by fall 2019. The number of women athletes would increase from 259 to 313.

Asked how UNM athletics allowed itself to be so non-compliant with Title IX guidelines and who was responsible for allowing it to get to this point, Nuñez said it is the ultimate responsibility of the athletic director to make sure the department is compliant, though he stopped short of saying anyone in the past should have better prepared UNM for this.

He said one employee in charge of Title IX compliance in recent years no longer works at UNM and another who in the past has overseen it, and who still works at UNM, hasn’t been directly overseeing it recently.

Who is responsible for it in the future?

“Ultimately, I am,” Nuñez said, before adding there will be a department reorganization soon in which he could assign that role to another administrator.

According to her job description posted on UNM’s website, deputy athletic director Janice Ruggiero is in charge of overseeing Title IX. Nuñez spoke highly of her advocacy of Title IX within the department and said any Title IX issues the department is facing is not because of something she failed to do. Asked specifically if she had made past recommendations that were ignored, Nuñez said he could not speak to what decisions were made in the past.


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