Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
In the first major program cuts since 1999, the University of New Mexico Board of Regents voted Thursday to eliminate four Lobo sports teams under a plan they say will improve the ailing athletic department’s overall health.
The governing board approved cutting men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing, and women’s beach volleyball despite more than two hours of public comment by opponents. Athletes, coaches, parents, alumni and other community members delivered impassioned pleas and some withering criticism of the proposal advanced by athletic director Eddie Nuñez and President Garnett Stokes. The two called the cuts a critical step toward addressing long-standing financial problems and newly surfaced Title IX compliance concerns.
Their plan also includes phasing out diving from the women’s swimming and diving program, significantly reducing men’s track and field participation slots, and increasing participation opportunities in some women’s programs.
The regents voted 6-0 to adopt the recommendation, eliciting boos and other taunts from attendees.
“You’re not Lobos,” one person shouted at the meeting’s conclusion.
All the changes will begin in the 2019-20 season, with the plan for each sport to continue as scheduled for the coming 2018-19 seasons, though athletes might start transferring to other programs and recruiting to fill future rosters is no longer on the agenda for the coaching staffs.
The plan — not revealed until late Wednesday — drew a fierce rebuke from the dozens of speakers who took the podium during the special meeting that began at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Critics contended the four programs are paying the price for past leadership failures and mismanagement, and described the proposal as unfair and short-sighted.
“Decisions made by the governance of this university over the past decade have put us in this position today,” said Associated Students of UNM President Becka Myers, who made clear the student government did not want any sports cut and asked that student athletes not get hurt until a closer examination of how athletics can resolve the problems that brought it to this point.
“We need more status quo challengers,” she added.
Cleveland High School soccer player Mariano Barreras holds a sign at the regents meeting Thursday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)In a room that swelled with a few hundred people — including a sea of youth soccer players — speakers also repeatedly questioned the wisdom of dropping men’s soccer, given the sport’s popularity both locally and globally.
“Soccer is the future. Soccer is diversity. Soccer is progressive. Do you think they’re cutting soccer in Arizona, in Denver, in Salt Lake City. Are they? No. They’re not,” UNM men’s soccer coach Jeremy Fishbein said in imploring the board not to cut his sport.
He also asked whether UNM’s leaders understood the community.
“I don’t want to get angry, but we have decision-makers who need to know New Mexico inside and out,” he said.
But Stokes and Nuñez, who are each in their first year on the job, stressed the urgency of taking action, saying the proposal represented the best available option for stabilizing the athletics budget and ensuring the department meets Title IX requirements.
Several regents noted the difficulty of the decision, but said it was a necessary way to solve the athletic department’s budgetary and Title IX predicament.
“Why do we keep talking about cutting sports? It’s because it’s long-term. … It’s not a short-sighted decision,” Regent Tom Clifford said. “This was an attempt to make a decision for the long-term well-being of this university.”
Athletics missed budget eight times in a 10-year span and had accrued a $4.7 million deficit to the university’s reserves by the end of fiscal year 2017. Financial management issues also prompted investigations or other scrutiny from the state auditor, attorney general and higher education department.
Regents approved a budget plan earlier this year that required $1.9 million in savings via sport reductions that would take effect July 1, 2019.
But the cuts approved Thursday represent only $1.15 million in projected savings, meaning UNM still must find other ways to fill the gap.
Stokes has said she will open up a wider conversation across the campus to determine how to do that, but likely considerations include boosting the university’s financial support of athletics, transferring the Pit remodel debt payments from athletics to the main campus, raising student fees and seeking more state funding.
And the department’s challenges don’t end with finances. UNM is also not meeting its gender equity obligations under Title IX, which regents said makes the picture more complex.
“I would tell you, if this was just a financial issue, we wouldn’t be having this conversation (about cutting sports) — or I wouldn’t be as resigned to our fate as I am,” Regent Marron Lee said.
In May, the department released a report showing Lobo athletics is significantly out of compliance with federal Title IX mandates that require a university to provide equal opportunities to male and female student athletes at a proportionate rate to the general student body enrollment.
According to the report, females in the 2016-17 school year made up 55.4 percent of the general enrollment, but just 43.8 percent of the participation “opportunities” in the athletic department.
Under the plan approved by regents, the number of women athletes grows, while the number of men drops — resulting in a balance that complies with Title IX.
To get Title IX-compliant on a shrinking budget, Nuñez had no option, he explained, but to look hard at the elimination primarily of men’s sports.
But some questioned how a reduction and elimination of some women’s sports would help with the compliance issue.
John Garcia, a board member of Ski New Mexico and longtime advocate of UNM’s ski program, hinted at possible litigation by cutting the women’s ski team. And volleyball coach Jeff Nelson questioned whether cutting the beach program was even legal based on the recent report.
But UNM’s proposal claims it will be compliant by 2020 and shift participation rates by the 2019-20 season to 57.2 percent female and down to 42.8 percent male, which would align with the school’s enrollment.
Still, the fact that athletics allowed itself to get so non-compliant embarrassed regent President Rob Doughty, who noted it was unacceptable that the recent Title IX assessment was the first in athletics since 2008.
“It’s a sad state of affairs … the fact that this gender equity analysis hadn’t been done in a while speaks poorly on this university,” Doughty said. “And I apologize for that on behalf of the university. We cannot have that done ever again. This campus is about equality and inclusion.”
“This outcome weighs heavily on me,” Stokes said in her opening remarks, “especially as I look out on all of you this morning. These are things over which we as leaders lose sleep, when we have to make such tough recommendations.
“I know there is nothing I can say to you that makes this situation any better. Please do know this: Our recommendation has been made with great deliberation and with the sincere belief our very painful choices are what is needed for the long-term future success of athletics.”