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UNM president faces lawmakers’ fire over sports cuts

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By Robert Nott
The New Mexican

The head of the state House of Representatives' Appropriations and Finance Committee on Saturday lit into the president of the University of New Mexico for cutting four popular sports programs to help balance the athletics department budget.

The chairwoman, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said President Garnett Stokes rebuffed legislative offers of financial help when the UNM Board of Regents voted to eliminate men's soccer, beach volleyball and men's and women's skiing.

"Why did UNM refuse to work with me last July?" Lundstrom asked Stokes during a hearing that drew more than 100 people. "I'd like to understand that. When I went to your board of regents meeting to offer support, UNM refused to work with me.

"I am the appropriations' chairwoman, for goodness' sake," she added. "If it's about needing resources, wouldn't I be the appropriate one to work with?"

Stokes, who came on board as president a little less than a year ago, maintained a calm, steady tone as she explained that she and other university leaders had to make tough decisions as they grappled with a deficit of $1.9 million in the budget for academics.

She told Lundstrom she was still digging into the details of UNM's financial problems in July, when the sports programs were cut, and didn't believe she would have hard data to share.

Plus, she said, she wasn't ready to go to her staff and faculty and say athletics was a priority when she was working on balancing the budget in many other areas.

"I recognized that you wanted to help," Stokes told Lundstrom. "I could not have worked out a deal with you without alienating other people at the institution."

Stokes said UNM's Athletics Department has been operating at a deficit for nine of the last 10 years. Something had to be done to staunch the bleeding, she said.

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, was less confrontational than Lundstrom, but he pressed Stokes on why successful sports such as men's soccer had been cut instead of football, a struggling program and the most expensive intercollegiate sport at nearly $5 million a year.

Stokes replied that every sport has fans, and that football is necessary for UNM to maintain its membership in the Mountain West Conference.

But Martinez drew resounding applause when he pressed the idea that the cuts were arbitrary and did not take into account the importance of soccer and skiing to New Mexico's students and culture.

Others said skiing is an important part of New Mexico's economy, bringing talented athletes from across the world to UNM.

The confrontation played out during a hearing to review athletic budgets of state colleges and universities. UNM went last, and what had been a mild discussion -- one filled with statistics and gentle questions -- took a harsher tone.

The fact that the state attorney general last week charged UNM's former athletic director, Paul Krebs, with multiple counts of fraud just added coal to the fire.

"This is a black eye for us, for all of us," Lundstrom told Stokes. "And it's clearly an indication of lack of oversight. You don't get into these kinds of situations if everyone is paying attention to what is going on."

Other members of the committee also pressed Stokes, and football often was their target.

They asked, couldn't she cut salaries of highly paid coaches and administration expenses instead?

Stokes replied that UNM had supplied a thorough list of athletic expenses to the Legislative Finance Committee. They show unmanageable recurring expenses without a reduction in sports programs.

UNM has 12 intercollegiate teams for women and 10 for men. In comparison, New Mexico State University, the only other school in the state with Division I sports teams, has a leaner operation -- 10 teams for women and six for men.

According to a Legislative Finance Committee report, UNM has 265 male athletes and 188 female athletes. Those numbers should be more even to meet the requirements of Title IX, the law requiring equity in sports programs at schools receiving federal funds.

Stokes said by eliminating the programs the regents targeted, UNM would move toward compliance with federal Title IX mandates.

Lundstrom, forging ahead after saying she was rebuffed, has introduced a bill to allocate $2 million a year to UNM to save the four sports that are to be eliminated.

Stokes countered that an annual infusion of $2 million in taxpayers' money isn't enough to shore up the athletics department.

About $1.1 million a year would be needed to support the programs and another $3.5 million would be required to ensure that UNM is meeting federal requirements ensuring that the college is providing equal access to athletics for both men and women, Stokes said.

In addition, Stokes said, UNM needs another $2.3 million in one-time funds to update sports facilities and equipment for those soon-to-be-cut programs.

Lundstrom also responded to critics who have said legislators should not intervene in how UNM tries to solve the deficit in its athletics department.

"As long as I'm chairwoman, I'm gonna have oversight," she said.

Her House Bill 320, co-sponsored by four other representatives, all Democrats, would require the university's regents to submit annual reports detailing financial data on athletic staff salaries, travel expenses and contracts.

Lundstrom said after the hearing that she is considering finding a way to give the Legislature more control over the finances of all of the state's colleges, even if it requires a constitutional amendment.

"Maybe it's time for us to take a look at this stuff," she said.

Not all the committee's legislators were unsympathetic to Stokes' plight.

"You came into a horrific situation," said Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces. "That is what it is."