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Soccer and skiing: Not the top issues in higher ed

February 13, 2019

Judging from the noise at the state Legislature, the most important problem facing the state’s higher education system is whether the University of New Mexico keeps the sports of soccer and skiing afloat.

Forget the perennial issues of budget cuts, tuition increases, reduced lottery scholarships, declining enrollment, the need to raise salaries for professors and the ever-pressing issue of getting students to actually graduate with a degree.

No, what really matters is whether the university keeps more sports than administrators believe the school can afford.

Last week, UNM President Garnett Stokes had to sit before the House of Representatives’ Appropriations and Finance Committee and explain why sports were cut to make up a $1.9 million deficit in UNM’s athletic budget. It was an uncomfortable session, with committee chairwoman, Rep. Patrica Lundstrom, D-Gallup, calling out Stokes for being uncooperative when legislators said they could find more money for athletics. Instead, UNM Regents went ahead with the recommendation to cut men’s soccer, beach volleyball and men’s and women’s skiing.

The Athletics Department had been operating in deficit territory for a decade; big cuts in spending were necessary not just to balance the books but also to make sure UNM did not violate federal Title IX guidelines for men’s and women’s sports.

A lot of thought went into the strategic cuts recommended by Stokes and athletic director Eddie Nuñez. Politicians, however, appear appalled — and that has included legislators, the governor, the attorney general and even the mayor of Albuquerque. While it’s gratifying to see top officials interested in the issue of higher education, we still disagree with their focus. The availability of certain sports is hardly the biggest problem for higher education in New Mexico.

What’s more, none of the squawking politicos has seemed to to care about the elimination of the equestrian program at New Mexico State University, which has hurt that community just as surely as losing skiing and soccer will for UNM.

Budget cuts make for difficult decisions, which the people on the ground — regents and administrators — have to make. It is not the role of legislators or elected officials, no matter how good their intentions, to make policy decisions at the campus level. The Legislature intervening to pick and choose among sports is akin to public school board members telling superintendents who to hire to run the football program.

Lundstrom, despite being told the university is moving on, has introduced a bill that would give UNM $2 million a year to save the sports that were eliminated. We give Stokes credit for keeping her cool at the hearing, while explaining patiently why $2 million is not enough. She told legislators that $1.1 million a year would keep the programs going, but some $3.5 million would be needed to make sure UNM is providing equal access to athletics for men and women, as required by federal guidelines. That’s without bringing in another $2.3 million in one-time funds to update facilities and equipment for the programs on the chopping block.

The problem in the athletic budget, to be clear, is bigger than soccer and skiing. Stokes deserves credit for at least attempting to put the budget in the black; it doesn’t help her efforts to have the Legislature second-guessing decisions made by appointed regents.

Of course, with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointing five new regents — they still have to be confirmed — who knows what will happen in the governance of New Mexico’s flagship university. Regents have been known to meddle at the suggestion of the governor who appointed them; that’s been a bipartisan practice in New Mexico. That would be a shame just when UNM’s first female president is hitting her stride.

What UNM needs right now is stability at the top; Stokes, after all, is the eighth president to serve since 2000. Selected in 2017, she took over on March 1, 2018, and is in the early stages of her five-year contract. Running an institution with a $3 billion budget is a difficult enough job without having to revisit decisions because someone powerful disagrees. The Legislature should do its job and let university officials and regents do theirs.

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