Time to ask: ‘How is UNM athletics paying for itself and helping the university?’

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By Sherry Robinson

 In 2017, the University of New Mexico got itself a new president, a new athletic director and a new athletic financial officer. They have their work cut out.

UNM athletics is such a mess that former State Auditor Tim Keller called the athletics department and its fundraising arms “an ungovernable ball of organizations.” A special audit noted nearly $700,000 in missing revenues, perks for insiders, mixing of public and private money, and years of blown budgets.

What other college sports program has drawn its own investigative journalist and a website devoted to its excesses? For about a year, Daniel Libit and his “NM Fishbowl,” instead of the usual fawning Lobo coverage, has scrutinized the program and demanded accountability. Now Libit, turning to other pursuits, calls on New Mexico journalists to stop acting like stenographers and step up to the plate. College sports should be covered like a public institution and not entertainment, he told the online NM Political Report. Students and taxpayers should hold the department to higher standards.

UNM also suffers, as I’ve often noted, from the last two governors’ use of UNM to reward political operatives with a soft landing, creating what some critics call a culture of cronyism. A house cleaning is in order, beginning with Executive Vice President David Harris, who was once Bill Richardson’s chief of staff. Harris has miraculously held forth since 2004 despite a faculty vote of no-confidence in 2009 along with then-president David Schmidly for a bloated, top-heavy administration. How is it that the university’s chief financial officer bears no responsibility for the current athletics scandal? 

Libit suggests that colleges reevaluate athletic programs and their value to the institution and the community. 

Architect John Hooker asks similar questions. (Hooker has a unique UNM pedigree: He’s an alumnus and the son of former UNM Architect Van Dorn Hooker.) He doesn’t propose doing away with sports but argues that the athletics program is not only expensive but competes with other academic programs that define a university. 

“UNM’s reputation as a top-tier research institution is already weakened by the poor press of flat faculty salaries, controversial leaders, declining enrollments, the audit, and the ongoing doldrums in our… athletic conference, in that order,” he writes. “How is UNM athletics paying for itself and helping the university?”

“Why does UNM force every student from their first year through their doctorate, architectural, legal, medical and other professional degree to subsidize this program through mandatory ‘student fees’?” And, what is the benefit to UNM and its students from the programs and their well paid coaches? Are they intended to build pride within the university? Hooker would like to see a shift to competitive events that give more students an opportunity.

He thinks the new president and athletics director should ask students, faculty and staff for their opinions. Does the Lobos’ win-loss record last year make a difference to parents thinking about sending their children to UNM for a degree in biology or English or education?

“Perhaps UNM athletics is simply a delightful private club that benefits the coaches, their families and friends, and lucky fans who enjoy the games – as the recent state audit suggests,” Hooker writes.

In March, Garnett Stokes will take her place as the 22nd president and the first woman in the position. In a letter to alumni, she wrote about “the importance of building relationships with the citizens whom the institution serves.” She promised “a transition plan based on active listening, campus collaboration and a mutual expectation of excellence.”

Stokes comes here with valuable experience leading the University of Missouri through a turbulent time of racial unrest, budget cuts and plummeting enrollment. She will need all those skills and more. We wish her the best.

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