Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Many remain angry that the University of New Mexico recently decided to cut four sports – but President Garnett Stokes said she remains confident that the institution made the right call.
Despite continued criticism and second-guessing, Stokes on Wednesday emphatically defended cutting men’s soccer, women’s beach volleyball and both ski teams after this year.
Speaking to more than 150 business and community leaders Wednesday morning, she reiterated that longtime financial problems and recently realized Title IX issues left UNM with no better option than to shrink athletic offerings.
“We made a really tough call, a very unpopular decision, but I believe firmly today that the decision we made was in the best interest of the University of New Mexico and the best interest of the future of our athletic department,” Stokes said at the end of her lengthy answer to an audience member’s question about the decision.
Her response earned applause from most in the room.
UNM regents last month approved a recommendation from Stokes and Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez to eliminate the programs. The move has sparked outrage in many corners, with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham even vowing to have the sports restored if she is elected.
Stokes, addressing Economic Forum of Albuquerque for the first time since assuming the presidency March 1, spoke briefly about the cuts during her formal 25-minute speech. Instead, she focused on what she has learned so far about the challenges and opportunities UNM faces.
Repeating much of what she said in last week’s “state of the university” address, Stokes spoke about the university’s commitment to research, its work meeting state demand for teachers and health care providers, and her efforts to strengthen relationships with Native American communities.
But sports were immediately raised during the Q-and-A session.
Neal Piltch, head of Manzano Day School, commented that Title IX wasn’t meant to hurt men’s sports. He also asked why UNM’s athletic department had to pay off the debt for the Pit remodeling project when UNM would not demand the same from academic units and questioned how UNM was calculating the cost of athlete scholarships.
“These are arguments I have heard from a number of people, and the answer is really pretty complex,” Stokes responded.
The president said shifting the Pit debt from the athletics is difficult because “you’re talking about somebody else picking it up,” and noted that UNM’s Academic Affairs unit had itself seen $25 million in cuts in recent years. As for Title IX, she said universities across the country are grappling with compliance, trying to achieve a female-to-male balance in athletics that matches an increasingly female-skewing student body.
She also acknowledged some questions about how UNM calculated the budget impact of the cuts, but defended the math, too.
“We’re pretty confident in what we did … And we couldn’t find enough savings to basically do anything but also have to cut sports,” she said.