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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Both of New Mexico’s gubernatorial candidates are blasting the University of New Mexico’s decision to cut four sports next school year, with one going so far as to pledge that those sports will be reinstated.
The UNM Board of Regents this summer voted to discontinue men’s soccer, women’s beach volleyball and the men’s and women’s ski programs – a move that sparked backlash among students, the local community and some lawmakers.
Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham said the sports will be reinstated if she’s elected.
“It’s outrageous,” Lujan Grisham said at Friday’s gubernatorial forum hosted by the NAACP. “I will work immediately with the Legislature to provide whatever oversight and investment we need to immediately restore those programs and to hold universities like the University of New Mexico accountable.”
Republican Steve Pearce, during the forum, harshly criticized UNM’s budgeting practices that led to the sports cuts. UNM’s Athletics Department had been operating at a loss for most of the past 10 years.
On Tuesday, he reiterated that position.
“I am extremely disappointed that UNM would get to a place where cutting sports programs is an answer to bad management decisions,” Pearce told the Journal in an email. “UNM must demonstrate it can manage its budget and ensure it can function at the highest level while protecting Title IX mandates.”
The Journal asked both candidates in emailed questions whether they intended to reinstate the sports.
Pearce did not directly answer that question.
Lujan Grisham responded: “Absolutely, I will work with administration, the Regents, the business community and the Legislature to ensure we have funding for all of our sports programs at New Mexico universities and that we are always in compliance with Title IX.”
She did not explain specifically where the extra funding would come from, or how the university would become compliant with Title IX.
University officials have said one of the reasons for the cuts is to comply with Title IX as there are currently too many male athletes compared to female athletes in the department, according to a recent report that has come under increased fire. The school had also been under strong pressure from the state Higher Education Department to get its sports spending under control.
University regents are on staggered terms, but the state Senate has not held confirmation hearings for Gov. Susana Martinez’s UNM regent nominees either of the last two years. That has led Martinez to make short-term recess appointments, meaning five of UNM’s seven regents’ terms will expire by year’s end and a new governor can immediately change the board’s complexion.
Lujan Grisham has specifically mentioned the governor’s role in appointing regents when saying she will reinstate sports.
“I believe we need regents who are independent, transparent about budgets, and will work without political goals seeing students as their constituents and customers,” she said Tuesday.
The governor’s involvement in the management of New Mexico universities and colleges has long been an issue.
State Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has been a vocal critic of gubernatorial influence at universities – an issue he said spans multiple administrations and political parties. Smith said the concern about political interference in university management is what prompted the Senate to not hold confirmation hearings for Martinez’s regent nominees in recent years.
Some legislators have sharply criticized UNM for cutting sports, even after they asked the regents to postpone that action until the coming legislative session. At that time, lawmakers will have an influx of oil and gas money to allocate. It’s unclear whether a majority of lawmakers would support increased funding for UNM athletics given a host of other funding issues – ranging from education, to early childhood services to funding the pension plan.
Smith disagreed with his legislative colleagues’ attempts to have UNM delay its athletics decision. He said the university handled the matter appropriately by letting the administration – President Garnett Stokes and Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez – send a recommendation to the regents for approval. Whether he agreed with the outcome, he said “I think the process was right.”
And Smith said – despite any promises made now – it’s too soon to know how either gubernatorial candidate would handle the UNM sports matter once in office.
“What’s promised and committed to on the campaign trail is oftentimes … reined in somewhat once they become governor,” he said.
‘Set the tone’
Asked whether voters could expect her “direct intervention in other UNM matters,” Lujan Grisham made clear the governor’s job is to “set the tone.”
Rumblings of discontent about direct influence on a university’s day-to-day management isn’t new. The complaints started ramping up during Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration and have continued under Martinez.
In April 2017, as UNM was hiring a new men’s basketball coach, the Journal asked then-athletic director Paul Krebs in an email about the political influence on the hiring process: “Are you making this hire? If not you, who all is in on the decision?”
Krebs forwarded the reporter’s email to Jay McCleskey, Martinez’s political adviser, and asked: “Thoughts on a response. I am tempting to say I will address at a press conference. (sic)”
Stokes said she was not surprised to hear Lujan Grisham’s take on sports given that it was an unpopular decision and candidates are likely hearing complaints from constituents.
She said she is willing to explain the rationale to New Mexico’s next leader.
“One of the things I know is that until you’re on the inside of the university – as new regents who come in will (be) – it’s hard to understand the complexity of the organization and the difficulty of some of the decisions that have to be made,” she said.
Journal Staff Writer Jessica Dyer contributed to this article.