Opinion: UNM Budget Woes Put Cuts in Perspective

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Copyright 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)


With all the caterwauling and public grandstanding by politicians and some lawmakers over budget cuts in the University of New Mexico's Athletics Department that eliminate men's soccer and three other sports next year, one would think it's the most important issue facing UNM.

That would be flat wrong. Granted, it was a tough call that affected the state's soccer community as a whole and dozens of student athletes.

But this is a university that has seen six straight years of enrollment drops and absorbed more than $25 million in cuts to its Academic Affairs operation over the past decade. To make matters worse, university officials said enrollment dropped by a much larger than projected 7.2 percent for the current year, meaning student tuition and fee revenue will come in $9.7 million lower than expected. Officials had built their budget around a 2.5 percent drop.

Richard Wood, interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said UNM will use about $4 million in reserves to help plug the hole. Budget cuts based on a "strategic" approach will help bridge the remaining gap.

Wood said continued investment in areas such as student success - which gets students through school and degreed faster - remain critical despite the financial challenges.

That's smart. In a world where UNM faces competition from schools like Arizona State University and Purdue aggressively marketing online programs, it would be foolish not to keep giving students more bang for their bucks.

There are other reasons for the enrollment trend - down from 29,100 in 2012 to 24,393 this year - including a stagnant state population and improved economy in which UNM officials say potential students can pick work instead.

When given a mandate to come up with a long-term plan to make Athletics fiscally sound, Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez and President Garnett Stokes presented a package to regents they said would include about $1 million in cuts next year and plans to further trim the gap between revenue and spending by another $1 million in the future. UNM had to take steps to stem the consistent flow of red ink in Athletics, which has racked up years of deficits. In fact, it would be unconscionable for the academic side of the university to continue to subsidize athletics deficits.

Unfortunately, men's soccer, skiiing and beach volleyball ended up on the chopping block, followed by an outpouring of criticism with politicians and legislators at the front of the pack, arguing for restoration of sports and saying - sort of - they would find the money. (In prior years requests for more state sports funding fell on deaf ears.)

The controversial proposal by Stokes and Nuñez was based on certain criteria, including continued membership in the Mountain West Conference and compliance with Title IX. Soccer and skiiing are not conference sports, and women's soccer was retained. And UNM offered four more sports than the average MWC school despite being broke. Critics have complained that football - by far the most expensive sport - could have weathered cuts. But that would put it at a disadvantage when competing.

So if lawmakers want to fund all these sports and the additional investment to comply with Title IX. they first need to address that UNM's academic programs have been hit by millions of dollars in cutbacks and are facing more.

That's a lot tougher problem to solve than pledging to put a soccer team on the field or ski team on the slopes. And it's a lot more important to the long-term success of UNM.

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September 25, 2018


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