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UNM: If sports restored, hit will fall on academics

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Last year, the UNM Board of Regents voted to cut men’s soccer, beach volleyball and three other sports. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

University of New Mexico officials say they would need to divert funds from other parts of the institution and create a new women’s sports team if they’re forced to reinstate the four teams set to be phased out this summer.

And UNM President Garnett Stokes reiterated her position that, as head of the university, it is hard to rationalize pumping more money into sports when the academic side of the institution has seen major cuts in recent years.

Her comments came after the state House passed a budget that increases state spending on collegiate sports at UNM by about $2 million to around $4.5 million, but none of the money would be allocated if the university didn’t reinstate men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing and women’s beach volleyball for fiscal 2020.

The UNM Board of Regents last year voted to cut those sports to shore up a budget deficit within the university’s athletic department and address compliance issues with federal mandates on equal opportunity for female athletes.

The cuts drew sharp criticism from a wide spectrum of lawmakers, members of the community and elected officials, including Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who recently appointed five new regents to UNM’s seven-member board.

Despite a new board of regents and lawmakers threatening to slash UNM funding, Stokes and UNM Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez remain firm in defending their decision.

“The amount of money it would take to actually do that (reinstate sports) is pretty substantial, recurring, and we have tremendous needs at UNM, very important priorities. And it would be hard for me to make the case that reinstating the sports is a top priority for the University of New Mexico,” Stokes said in a recent interview with Journal reporters and editors. “So, we’ll continue to provide as much information as we can to everyone, and we will see where it lands.”

And Nuñez said cutting or moving football to a lower division, which many have suggested lately, is not an option despite the plummeting ticket sales. Nuñez said that’s because new budget analyses show football is actually a revenue-producing sport when everything, including the money it receives from being in the Mountain West Conference, is taken into account. (See story on B-1 for details.)

Budget ax and Title IX

When considering which sports to cut, university officials said they didn’t look at chopping football, volleyball or men’s and women’s basketball, which are required for membership in the Mountain West Conference.

The Lobos didn’t compete in the Mountain West in the sports that were cut. Men’s soccer, for example, was in Conference USA.

The decision to cut sports came amid scrutiny of the athletic department’s finances. The department missed budget eight times in a 10-year span and had accrued a $4.7 million deficit to the university’s reserves by the end of fiscal 2017.

The university says the $2 million offered in the House bill would not cover the costs needed to keep the sports, and it doesn’t consider recurring costs. And they say UNM would need to spend at least $700,000 on a new facility for beach volleyball, which until now has been played at a local bar, according to a university spokeswoman.

In addition to finances, UNM points to an independent consultant’s report released last May that said UNM was out of compliance with Title IX regarding the proportionality of its men’s and women’s sports.

It found the university had 317 male student athletes compared to 247 female athletes. Women make up more than 55 percent of the undergraduate student body, according to the report.

UNM plans to cut the four sports, as well as reduce the number of male athletes on several of the remaining teams, would bring it into compliance.

Some critics question the university’s position that it is not compliant with Title IX, saying the Department of Education has never notified UNM it was out of compliance.

But Stokes points to the independent report, and said the university had to ax a major men’s sport in order to work to become compliant with Title IX.

If the university didn’t cut a major men’s sport like soccer, it would need to create another women’s sport, she said.

“There was no way to become Title IX compliant without reducing sports. Unless we were willing to actually continue adding more sports, a major men’s sports was going to have to be cut,” Stokes told Journal reporters and editors last month. “To bring back sports would require we then fund beach volleyball and add (a) 23rd women’s sport.”

Past cuts to academics

While the debate rages over the decision to cut sports, Stokes tries to move the discussion to the academic side of the university.

She points out the university has made millions of dollars in cuts to academics in recent years.

Its Instruction and General budget decreased by $6 million from 2013 to 2018 and Academic Affairs shrank by more than $7 million. As a result, dozens of faculty and staff positions have been cut, according to UNM. The university has cut 17 faculty members and roughly 25 staff positions in recent years.

University officials said capital projects, faculty and staff raises and other infrastructure improvements are greater funding priorities than pumping more money into athletics. And there’s ongoing pressure not to raise student fees.

It’s unclear what UNM would do if lawmakers stick with the House bill’s proposal for UNM athletics.

As written, the state spending bill would “put UNM Athletics in a critically precarious financial position, and seriously challenges our efforts to create a successful and efficient department capable of supporting our student-athletes’ well-being, training and overall success,” Nuñez said in a statement.

UNM athletics had requested about $4.1 million in state funding. That would have marked a $1.5 million increase from the amount the athletics department received during the current fiscal year, which Nuñez said would be used on the remaining 18 varsity sports offered.

Nuñez didn’t say what the university would do if given the choice between accepting the state money or giving up all the state funding Lobo athletics receives and cutting the teams.

“Please understand that this process is way too important to everyone involved, especially our student-athletes and their families, and we need to make sure that we do not convolute the process,” he told the Journal.

Journal Staff Writer Jessica Dyer contributed to this report.


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