If kicking the athletics deficit can down the road were a Mountain West Conference sport, the University of New Mexico would likely almost certainly be leading the league.
Despite serious reservations expressed by Regent Robert Schwartz, the board that includes five new members appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham once again punted – as did previous boards – on coming to grips with what has become a recurring budget deficit in athletics.
The new university budget approved by the board calls for athletics to get another break to the tune of about $1.2 million in the 2020 fiscal year beginning July 1 to cover another projected shortfall – despite the university’s controversial decision to cut beach volleyball, men’s and women’s skiing and men’s soccer in an effort to slow or stop the flow of red ink. Those cuts are expected to save more than $1 million a year, but the savings will take time to realize because the university – rightly – honored scholarships for athletes in those sports who chose to stay at UNM and finish their education.
Over a 10-year period, the UNM Athletics Department failed to meet budget eight times and racked up about $4.7 million it is supposed to pay back to the rest of the university over 10 years. That money essentially came out of the Instruction and General Fund that funds the main mission of the school – educating students.
Athletics has an annual debt service payment – for fiscal 2020 it’s $1.2 million – to pay for a major renovation to its basketball arena about a decade ago – a cost UNM officials promised at the time would be covered by athletics.
That payment next year essentially will come from main campus under the $32.2 million athletics budget approved earlier this month.
Schwartz, a law professor, said he was disappointed “we decided today that we’re just going to kick the can down the road again.” He says the need for athletics “is no more desperate than the College of Fine Arts, or the College of Arts and Sciences or other colleges. … I really think we need to figure out whether or not other parts of the university should be putting money into athletics. We have to make … a policy determination.”
Regents President Doug Brown argues athletics is important. “It’s the front porch for the university. There’s tremendous (public relations) value to sports.” In fact, many other schools don’t expect their athletics department to be self-sustaining – yet that’s how the Pit renovation was advertised to the public.
Both Schwartz and Brown make fair points and reasonable arguments.
This is a new board, and it can be argued it’s too soon to make a major change in the coming year’s budget. Regents have called for campus-wide discussions on the role of athletics, a good thing because UNM needs to make a crucial decision: In a world of finite resources, where tuition is going up and enrollment has been headed south, will athletics be required to live within its means and pay its debt? Or does its importance justify continued subsidies?
It’s time for UNM regents to quit playing kick the can.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.