Questioning the role of athletics in higher education is nothing new.
And when it comes to finances, those arguments have been plenty around the University of New Mexico over the past decade with the continued failure of Lobo sports to make its budget.
UNM reported a COVID-impacted $3.6 million shortfall for the last fiscal year and is expecting the current year to hit revenue generation significantly more as football has already been delayed and the main ticket revenue generator of men’s basketball won’t likely enjoy the Pit being open to many, if any, fans.
But, until last week, the university’s leadership has largely had a unified front. Lobo athletics has a mess to clean up, the message was, but remains a vital, worthwhile component of the university’s mission to its students and the New Mexico community at large.
UNM Regent Robert Schwartz thinks it’s time to reconsider.
“Let me start by saying I have a tremendous amount of respect for the athletic program,” Schwartz said during a Board of Regents meeting last week. “… I think we have an extraordinarily well-administered athletic program. I think that Mr. Nuñez (Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez) and his staff is exceptional. I don’t mean this to criticize anything that they’ve done. It’s the best run athletic program that I can remember in my nearly half century at UNM.
“So, that is not the issue. The question is whether we can afford to have a program of the magnitude that we do now or whether it is time to reconsider the role of athletics at UNM.”
— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) September 15, 2020
The primary point of the Regents meeting wasn’t about academic funding at all. Instead, it was to approve an additional $4 million in Research and Public Project (RPSP) requests from state lawmakers at the next legislative session.
These requests are not associated with the much larger Institutional and General fund budget. For UNM Athletics, the ask for $1 million to help with COVID-related shortfalls would bring its current fiscal year appropriation of $3.7 million to $4.7 million — still a small overall percentage of what has traditionally been an annual athletics operating budget of about $32 million.
Schwartz, nevertheless, felt Thursday’s meeting was the right time to make his point.
“I am concerned at this moment seeking an additional $1 million for athletics and I would change the request to an urgent, immediate need in academics for $1 million because I think that the academic need is at least that,” Schwartz said. “And I think that we are sending a message by seeking $1 million for athletics and essentially nothing for the formal academic programs and salaries that is a significant one.”
The Regents approved the additional $1 million ask for athletics by a 4-2 vote, with student regent Melissa Henry also voting against it. Several other regents noted Thursday’s athletics request had no impact on academics.
Regent Marron Lee pointed out that the board has tried hard to avoid, all over campus, the cutting of any program directly impacting students. Athletics is a department that is also comprised of students, and cutting their programs — as the university did two years ago with several sports — would be counter to what the board says it is trying to avoid if at all possible.
Schwartz, the longtime UNM law professor, did not respond to the Journal’s request for follow up on his comments from the meeting.
Nuñez, well aware of Schwartz’s general stance on athletics, acknowledged the comments went further than he was used to hearing from Schwartz, but added they all remain basically on the same page of doing right by the students.
“We all understand his perspective and nobody here disagrees that as a university, we have to find ways to get more support for all areas academically and do everything we can to give back to our students — all our students — at UNM,” Nuñez said. “Nobody disagrees that the more we can do to get resources and funding to help our students is the number one priority.”