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UNM regents disrespected constituents

Rep. Patricia A. ‘Patty’ Lundstrom

As a professional public administrator and elected official, I have a great love for the democratic process, as messy and frustrating as it can sometimes be. When we’re doing it “right,” we’re interested in hearing what people think about policies and decisions that affect them. For sure, the decisions may not always be popular, and there are usually plenty of “nay” votes to go around. But at least the ideas get fair play in the process.

It saddens me to report the profound disrespect accorded me and a host of University of New Mexico students and N.M. residents who also felt their strong concerns and recommendations ignored and dismissed during the Board of Regents’ decision-making process affecting the future of popular UNM sports programs.

In August, I attended the UNM Board of Regents meeting in my role as chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. My purpose was to once again extend to the board an offer of legislative assistance to solve the financial challenges facing the university’s sports programs. The offer of help was not only ignored but treated with disrespect. The chair rudely and summarily dismissed me, and no acknowledgement, apology or accommodation was forthcoming, despite the expressed willingness of students to give up their allotted time on my behalf.

It is no secret I would like to see the reinstatement of the sports programs targeted for elimination, that I have proposed alternative scenarios for consideration and that I would be willing to work with the university on alternative strategies. While some policymakers have recently expressed the view legislators should stay out of this decision, that’s hogwash. It is the role of the Legislature to provide oversight to the finances of the university and to ensure that students’ needs are met. …

I am concerned by the lack of professionalism and public accountability displayed by the Board of Regents and its chairman. Despite our many hours of budget review and strategic analysis resulting in our offer of assistance to the board, it was clear to me the legislative analysis had not even been studied or evaluated. It also became clear this second public meeting was being held only to address the opinion issued by the New Mexico attorney general that UNM had violated the Open Meetings Act.

A key responsibility of the board is the responsible management of the significant sums of taxpayer dollars invested in their institution. I appreciate the university’s efforts to reconcile past overexpenditures with budget realities and address Title IX equitability standards for women student-athletes. However, the university missed the opportunity to engage the public more transparently in its search for solutions. …Instead, the Aug. 17 meeting appeared to be a waste of the public’s time, except for saving women’s diving.

To top it all off, the Albuquerque Journal reported Sept. 4 UNM plans to ask for an increase of $1.5 million in athletics funding, but not for the reinstatement of any of the cut programs. Rather, staff cited a desire for “parity” and a scheme to use the funding for other purposes. Should more taxpayer money be invested in a program exhibiting a shocking lack of transparency and effective budget management?

Perhaps we should be calling for a different kind of leadership within the UNM Board of Regents – leadership that maintains humility and transparency, embraces diversity of opinion and remains flexible in the face of uncertainty.

What has impressed me, in an otherwise disappointing experience, was the kindness, professionalism and respect offered to me by those who matter most in this situation – the students of the university. It is because of them that I consider this an issue worth fighting for.