It wasn’t a mess of their making, but new University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes and first-year Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez deserve credit for stepping up and making a truly difficult recommendation to start cleaning it up. And UNM’s regents deserve credit for backing Stokes and Nuñez.
Although it would have been preferable if they had delayed their vote to give the community a meaningful opportunity to digest and comment on the recommendations, the university needs a president who has the support of the regents, even when making such wrenching decisions. It can’t afford the revolving door of top leadership it has experienced the past 20 years.
No one is happy with the decision to cut men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing and women’s beach volleyball in the 2019-2020 school year. But based on the multimillion-dollar Athletics deficit, the 22 UNM sports compared to the 17-18 Mountain West Conference average, UNM being out of compliance with Title IX, and the fact the MWC requires football and basketball, the elimination of programs was likely inevitable.
In addition to finances, Title IX, the federal law requiring institutions receiving federal funding to provide equal opportunities to both men and women, drove the controversial decision to eliminate Lobo soccer. The only other real options available appeared to be axing baseball or men’s track – also among UNM’s most successful teams. (Many are calling for the elimination of football, but that’s a nonstarter if UNM wants to remain in the MWC.)
At a news conference following Thursday’s regents meeting, Stokes was effectively asked whether she had doomed her presidency by recommending the cuts.
“It is really one of the toughest things in the world to be a brand new leader at this institution and have to make such an unpopular decision. I will tell you that that’s what leaders are required to do,” she responded. “… I don’t expect most people to fully understand how it is possible that we would get to this point. But I’m going to do everything in my power to educate at every level how it is that we got where we are.”
That’s crucial. Many UNM supporters still have legitimate questions not answered in the report – we trust Stokes and Nuñez can, and will, answer them. Because they will need all the support they can muster for the hard decisions ahead – and there will be many.
Eliminating the four sports programs will save the department an estimated $1.2 million in 2019-2020. There is still a $2.2 million gap before it balances the department’s budget and gives it a sufficient cushion that year. (Although close to $1 million of that will likely come via university subsidies for tuition and dorm expenses for student athletes.)
The university sums up its situation in the report it released last week. The highlights include:
• Athletics has been spending money it doesn’t have over the past 10 years. It is currently $4.7 million in the hole – not counting the $2.1 million emergency subsidy it received last fiscal year – and has been tasked with repaying $500,000 a year, beginning in July 2020. The report suggests that the university forgive at least part of that debt.
• The report warns that some UNM coach and staff salaries have fallen below the mean for the Mountain West, suggesting it will need to increase salaries.
• In outlining UNM’s Title IX woes, it doesn’t delve into how they were allowed to happen. It only says it must now comply by improving proportionality – meaning a large increase in women and a decrease in men so they match the student population. And that women-to-men student population ratio is expected to increase.
• The report raises questions about the adequacy of some facilities, and cites the “growing costs of maintaining” them.
• The Lobo Club, which raises money from private donors for Athletics, is being restructured. That can’t happen soon enough given recent scandals and a report by the state auditor describing the Athletics Department’s financial accounting system as an “ungovernable ball of organizations” that improperly mixes public and private money.
• Ten years ago, the Athletics Department borrowed $42 million to cover the cost of the $60.6 million Pit renovation. It is having to pay nearly $1.8 million a year toward that debt. Despite repeated assurances from UNM officials the Pit debt would be covered by Athletics, the department is now recommending the university pick up the tab.
• The report also tries to build a case for more support from the university, students and the Legislature, arguing it doesn’t receive as much financial support from the university and students as other schools in the Mountain West and doesn’t get the same support from the state that New Mexico State University receives.
The situation Athletics finds itself in was years in the making under former Athletics Director Paul Krebs, outgoing finance “guru” David Harris and the various UNM presidents and regents whose kick-the-can and stars-in-their-eyes leadership drove UNM Athletics to this point. Revenues rarely lived up to projections, yet expenses were built on those inflated expectations – year after year.
But no longer. Stokes and Nuñez have been tasked with bringing expenses in line with expenditures beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.
A big part of that solution should be eliminating duplicative back-office operations and right-sizing staffing levels, all of which are on the to-do list.
The report also points out it’s rare that schools raise sufficient money to cover all their costs. But that has never been addressed head-on here. Instead, UNM has been allowed to have a running deficit while making promises it will “do better” when it gets new facilities or hires a new coach. It has regularly made promises it couldn’t keep and then asked for a bailout.
It’s time for UNM Athletics to be up front about the support it needs from the main campus and lawmakers to be successful. But it is also essential it not be allowed to spend money based on promised funding that may or may not materialize. And Stokes must be transparent about all subsidies going to Athletics – especially if it’s money that otherwise would be going to main campus .
It’s double overtime for UNM Athletics. Stokes has shown she has the mettle to make tough decisions. Let’s hope this truly is the first step toward putting the Athletics Department’s house in fiscal order and she will back it up with smart austerity moves, a revamp of the Lobo Club and accountability from the top down.
Otherwise, these first cuts – which have upended the immediate plans and dreams of some of UNM’s most promising students and potential leaders in our state – will have been in vain.
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.