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UNM Regents again vote to cut sports

UNM beach volleyball player Abbey Willison, with her teammates behind her, states her case for saving their sport. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing and women’s beach volleyball are done, but diving can stay.

The University of New Mexico Board of Regents, after hearing 2½ hours of public comment, on Friday unanimously approved an amended proposal to eliminate some sports. The intent of the plan pitched by administrators was to help the Athletics Department tackle long-standing financial problems and recently identified Title IX compliance issues.

The meeting was a redo of a July 19 meeting that had raised transparency concerns.

The state Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion that the July meeting violated the state’s Open Meetings Act because the agenda was not specific enough. Although UNM disputed the opinion, regents agreed to the second meeting.

Contacted after the meeting and asked whether it resolved his concerns, Attorney General Hector Balderas said, “This is a dark and sad day for the student athlete community. My office will advocate for stronger fiscal management that does not harm students and review all legal options to ensure compliance with state law.”

A large crowd showed up Friday at the UNM Student Union Building as the Board of Regents discussed cutting sports. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Balderas has been among those critical of plans to cut sports.

Many critics of the July decision hoped the redo would change the outcome – in fact, public comment accounted for more than half of Friday’s 4½-hour meeting and was almost unanimous against cutting UNM sports.

Athletes, lawmakers, coaches, parents, alumni and other proponents of UNM athletics roundly denounced cutting sports, challenged the basis for the recommendation and urged UNM to hold off until alternatives could be explored.

“We know it is your job to manage the finances for the athletic program, but I think you can find a way to not cut 100 percent of four sports but perhaps reduce the budget for all sports by at least 5 percent,” beach volleyball player Abbey Willison said. About 20 teammates stood behind her, linking arms. “Do not make a small group of people bear the brunt of mismanagement of the athletic program, but rather make us all share the pain together.”

UNM President Garnett Stokes listens during Friday’s Board of Regents meeting. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

But in the end, the decision was mostly the same as on July 19, except for action to salvage diving for the women’s swimming and diving team.

Regents heeded concerns from team members who said cutting diving would handicap the entire program’s competitiveness and questioned the rationale for that particular cut. The motion to salvage diving came only after student Regent Garrett Adcock, a former Lobo football player, said the administration’s explanation of the proposal was “not good enough” for him. Most other regents agreed, and saving diving passed 6-1, with Regent Tom Clifford opposing.

The proposal had cited UNM’s lack of platform diving facilities, but team members noted that nine of the 10 Mountain West Conference teams don’t have, or need, platforms.

Numerous pleas to save men’s soccer, women’s beach volleyball and the ski program did not have the same effect.

UNM will eliminate those sports effective July 1, 2019, though the university has said it will honor those athletes’ scholarships until graduation should they choose to stay.

Cutting diving would have saved the university about $76,000, according to the proposal.

The rest of the changes – which also include several cuts to the men’s track and field roster – represent slightly over $1 million in annual savings, according to the administration’s report, though some have debated those figures.

University of New Mexico Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez listens during a Board of Regents meeting on Friday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Lobo diver Natasha Dark said, “I’m happy they decided not to include us (in the cuts), but I’m going to keep fighting. This was about women’s sports, not just my sport.”

Dark said she had been studying Title IX since her program was put on the chopping block last month. “I know what they (the women’s beach volleyball team) are going through, and I’m going to help them in any way I can.”

Regent Suzanne Quillen said the board did not take the athletics decision lightly.

She said she had read the 400 or so letters sent to regents on the matter and expressed sympathy with athletes trying to save their sports. But she cited the regents’ role as UNM’s fiscal agents and said the university had postponed action on athletics for years while everybody hoped the financial situation would improve.

“Everybody wants to believe the best; I want to believe tomorrow we’re going to see this incredible infusion of dollars into the university, but I don’t think we are. … There is just no easy answer,” she said.

On Friday, UNM President Garnett Stokes and Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez once again defended their proposal as the best path forward for a department wrestling with chronic financial challenges and a gender equity imbalance that makes it noncompliant with federal Title IX requirements.

Stokes also noted the internal and external pressures on UNM’s administration to fix problems in the Athletics Department. That includes enhanced fiscal oversight initiated by New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron. She warned in March she could withhold some of UNM’s state funding unless the institution addressed financial issues inside the Athletics Department.

“Here is our reality: An institution the size of UNM does not have the resources to support 22 competitive Division I teams,” Stokes said.

But state Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup – the first of 53 people who signed up to speak – urged regents to delay a decision and work with lawmakers on possible financial solutions afforded by an improving state economy. Lundstrom chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, which had three other members in attendance.

“My staff in the Legislature, as well as my fellow legislators in the audience, have been hard at work independently assessing the finances at UNM and … I’m confident we can structure a plan to address these issues,” she said.

State Rep. Moe Maestas spoke to the UNM Regents about sports cuts on Friday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Regent President Rob Doughty halted her comments shortly thereafter when she reached the 3-minute comment time limit.

Later in the meeting, Doughty asked Stokes what specific proposals Lundstrom had presented.

Stokes said the Legislative Finance Committee had worked out a couple of scenarios, but UNM staffers said they did not appear to resolve UNM’s recurring deficit.

Regent Tom Clifford questioned lawmakers’ promises to help come January, saying the Legislature will have many priorities and funding requests to balance.

“They cannot commit the Legislature as to how they can spend funds next session,” he said. “They have many, many demands for their resources.”

Local attorney Greg Williams, whose son plays on the UNM soccer team, called the report leading to the recommendations “flawed,” partly because it failed to account for the tuition losses the university would suffer by cutting programs that have many non-scholarship players.

He warned regents about relying on that report to make such a controversial decision – particularly one roundly criticized by political leaders.

Besides Balderas, both gubernatorial candidates, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and several lawmakers have all questioned UNM’s move to cut sports and have pressed UNM to delay such a major move.

“You are willing for this flawed report to alienate virtually every person of political influence in this state. All of this for a report that may or may not save us any money,” Williams said.

Stokes acknowledge after the meeting that challenges may lie ahead.

“I’m going to be working with the Legislature closely. I know that there are many who are going to be disappointed with the decision that’s been made by the regents today. I’ll continue to work with the legislators as positively as I can,” she said. “I’ve certainly had those who understand the tough situation that we had.”

Diving athletes react to the news that their program has been spared from the chopping block during Friday’s University of New Mexico Board of Regents meeting. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

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