My regent colleagues, including President Doug Brown, are an extraordinarily thoughtful and open group, and as Brown pointed out (in an op-ed in the Journal) Sept. 21, they support UNM athletics. What is more, the university administration may be the best in my 40 years at this institution, and the athletics program is as well-run and as cleanly administered as it has been in a generation. These are not reasons to keep our current big-money Division I athletics program, though; these are the very reasons we need to get rid of it.
This year the university will have to absorb substantial budget cuts, as it has every year over the past decade. Even with the best director and staff we could possibly hire, the athletics program has not come close to meeting its budget in years, and it will have massive losses this year. It isn’t the program’s fault, but there is just no way to stanch the bleeding. Students don’t want to contribute any more to intercollegiate athletics through their fees; donors won’t contribute any more, either; fans won’t pay any more. But the program will continue to cost us each year, bleeding taxpayer and tuition revenue away from the very reason the university exists.
But aren’t athletics important? Of course. And for every student, not just the tiny percentage playing big-time sports. We should take a portion of the savings from a refocused athletics program to build the best intramural program in the country – one that will serve every student at the Albuquerque campus and every one of our branches. We can improve our gym and field facilities to be the best around – and we can make them available to every single student. We should build a competitive club sports program, as we have with men’s soccer, that will be composed of people who come to UNM primarily to study, not primarily to play sports, and then compete against students who have done the same at other universities.
Our Athletics Department has built a remarkable wellness and mental health program – for the tiny sliver of our students who are athletes. But other students need those programs just as much. Too bad there aren’t the resources. The Athletics Department has put together a remarkable academic support program to help students with their studies – but it is available only to athletes. It is desperately needed by many more of our students. Too bad there aren’t the resources. How many mental health counselors, and how many academic counselors, could we hire for every million dollars we put into athletics?
Finally, New Mexico is in desperate need of more physicians. We are in immediate need of more well-educated teachers. New Mexico urgently requires great nurses, well-prepared engineers, engaged counselors, social workers and dozens of others we should be training at the University of New Mexico. New Mexico does not need any more interior linemen, even great ones.
The UNM mission statement requires us to build on our “educational, research and creative resources.” We need to acknowledge that. I know my regent colleagues care deeply about that mission, and they care deeply about our university. That is why I am so optimistic about our ability to put academics first, even ahead of athletics.