Editorial: UNM regents’ timing off in hiking tuition, awarding $60K bonus

If UNM leaders wanted to offer up a lesson in alienation from their student body, they’re on the right track.

Under budgets approved by the UNM board of regents this month, most in-state students on main campus will see a 3% tuition increase plus additional costs in some fields of study.

Students, many who are the first in their families to go to college and many who lost jobs during the pandemic, will also be required to pay a $100 fee each semester to the athletics department and a $107 fee per semester for Student Health and Counseling services.

UNM, with tuition and fees around $8,800 an academic year, remains more affordable than most universities – especially with the New Mexico lottery scholarship paying up to $2,265 per semester.

But many of UNM’s students are struggling to cover rent, utilities, gasoline and food bills – and a $339 increase each semester hurts.

Then factor in that while most UNM employees will see a 1.5% pay increase, President Garnett Stokes got a $59,000 performance bonus in October. The university’s first female president, hired in 2017, undoubtedly was recognized in great part for steering the flagship university through a global pandemic, leading from the top to keep classes running online and students engaged and advancing.

According to her contract, Stokes, whose base salary is $412,000, receives a performance bonus of up to $50,000 per year if she meets certain targets and goals. Because she achieved nearly all her goals, regents gave her a $49,000 bonus and tacked on an additional $10,000 for her management during the pandemic. “She’s way underpaid, and she is over-performing,” Regent President Doug Brown said.

Stokes’ performance is not in dispute. And she makes less than her peers – base salary for New Mexico State University’s president is $450K and chancellor, $500K. And each has an incentive package rewarding growth of student body, research portfolio and overall revenues of NMSU, according to the Las Cruces Bulletin. (They replaced former Gov. Garrey Carruthers, who as president and chancellor made $385K a year.)

But a $59,000 bonus is hard for employees and faculty, many of whom make less than that in wages in a year, to swallow. The average salary for UNM teaching assistants is $17,476, for graduate assistants $25,272, according to the president of the Central New Mexico Educators’ Union. And it took a village of them and more to get UNM and its students through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stokes and UNM administrators, faculty and staff did an amazing job, and all are essential to UNM’s success.

Yet tone-deaf regents showed their gratitude by putting Stokes in the line of fire. They could have avoided that by deferring her bonus, or, better yet, collaborating with her to donate it to a campus charity or scholarship fund. Stokes has proved to be a successful leader, one UNM wants to keep after the revolving door of leadership it experienced before she took the helm. But the regents missed the mark by providing the bonus amid a pandemic and economic downturn and then hiking students’ tuition.

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.

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