(Note: This article was updated Thursday afternoon with information about a pending lawsuit and quotes from a New Mexico state legislator and a representative of Southwest Nordic Ski Club.)
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The men’s and women’s cross-country ski teams at the University of New Mexico (UNM), previously saved following a groundswell of support in spring 2017, may be on the chopping block again. A meeting has been scheduled for this Friday, Aug. 17, to consider a proposal to eliminate several sports teams at UNM, including both ski teams. The Board of Regents already voted unanimously to eliminate skiing (and several other sports) in a July 19 special session, but is effectively holding a do-over to cure claimed violations of the New Mexico Open Meetings Act.
The first meeting
On July 18, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported on a proposal, to be presented to the Board of Regents the following day, that would lead to the elimination of several sports at UNM: men’s soccer, beach volleyball (a women-only sport), men’s and women’s skiing, and the diving portion of the women’s swimming team.
On July 19, the Board of Regents convened. Despite the short notice of the subject of the meeting and the scope of proposed cuts, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that board members met “in a packed ballroom” inside the UNM Student Union building.
“Hundreds of students and members of the public filled every seat and stood shoulder to shoulder at the back of the room to show their support for the teams and pleaded with the regents to take a different approach,” the New Mexican reported. “Some held handmade signs while dozens of others wore Lobo gear.”
Following more than two hours of public comment, UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez presented to the regents his plans for cutting four sports. The seven-member board ultimately voted 6-0 in favor of Nuñez’s proposal; one regent was absent.
“The teams will be allowed to compete during the upcoming seasons, but all four will be cut by July 1, 2019,” the Santa Fe New Mexican reported as of July 19.
On July 20, Fredrik Landstedt was announced as the new skiing director at the University of Utah, after spending the previous 21 seasons coaching at UNM. “Utah has a strong winning tradition and the support that the University provides its ski team is incredible,” Landstedt said in a University of Utah press release.
Joe Downing, formerly the UNM head Alpine coach, will assume the role of interim skiing head coach at UNM, FasterSkier previously reported.
The second meeting
A few weeks later, the New Mexico Attorney General, Hector Balderas, publicly charged that the first meeting had violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. As reported in a third article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Balderas and his legal team concluded from their review that “UNM violated state law and the actions the regents took July 19 are therefore invalid.” Balderas was specifically concerned with a lack of notice for the July 19 meeting, both in terms of timing (full details of the plan were first made publicly available Wednesday evening before a Thursday-morning meeting) and in terms of substance, or lack thereof.
The agenda for the July 19 special session was made public three days in advance of the meeting, the New Mexican reported, but contained only the description, “Discussion and action on athletics.”
On Aug. 9, Balderas ordered UNM to schedule another meeting that complied with the Open Meetings Act, the New Mexican reported. Balderas, who holds an elected position and is running for re-election, emphasized that he was addressing procedural irregularities with the process of noticing and holding the first meeting, as opposed to expressing a view on the board’s substantive decision.
“What I’m saying is they need to be transparent with their methodology, set the highest standard of review process and artfully communicate that with the general public,” Balderas told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “Their final outcome is up to them.”
On Tuesday of this week, Aug. 14, the UNM Board of Regents posted a notice of and agenda for the Aug. 17 special meeting. The agenda is available here.
The agenda begins, “The University of New Mexico Board of Regents will hold a special meeting on Friday, August 17, 2018 at 1:00 PM to cure claimed violations of the Open Meetings Act pertaining to its special meeting held on July 19, 2018.”
Item 4.ii. on the agenda is listed as: “Presentation of Administration proposal and plan relative to Athletics Department financial stability, to include considering the discontinuation of UNM Men’s Soccer, Men and Women’s Ski Teams, Beach Volleyball, and Diving as intercollegiate sports programs, Director of Athletics, Eddie Nuñez.”
The agenda continues, “NOTE: A COPY OF ADMINISTRATION’S REVIEW AND ANALYSIS MAY BE REVIEWED AT: http://president.unm.edu/documents/fy19-budget-summit/unm-athletics-analysis-and-review.pdf”
Despite the charge by Attorney General Balderas regarding insufficient notice and process, as of Wednesday evening, attempts to visit the URL above, listed on the agenda, yielded a “404 Not Found” notice. The document could not be readily located elsewhere on the UNM website.
“UNM officials said Tuesday that there were no plans to drastically alter the proposal to cut sports, but that they would try to post online as much data and documents as possible to help the public understand how they crafted the proposal,” the Albuquerque Journal reported.
A cached version of what appears to be the correct link may be found here. The date of the document and the date of caching are not facially apparent. The cached document hosted by Google is 24 pages long. The Santa Fe New Mexican has separately referred to “a 24-page report made public Wednesday evening,” July 18. It appears from context and content that this is the same document described there that was previously presented to the Board of Regents.
The document currently available online, “University of New Mexico Department of Athletics Analysis and Review,” reviews budget challenges and the need to take further action to reduce the overall athletic department budget.
The report concludes, “it is the recommendation of the Director of Athletics that the President ask the UNM Board of Regents to approve the following actions: Effective July 1, 2019, UNM Athletics will no longer sponsor men’s and women’s skiing, beach volleyball and men’s soccer as varsity sports.”
The report also recommends, “UNM will honor the scholarships of all current student-athletes in the four affected sports through their graduations, as long as they remain in good academic standing.”
The final third of the document contains detail regarding UNM revenues and expenses. The report shows that, in round numbers, the school will spend $11.3 million on athletic department salaries in Fiscal Year 2019, $3.3 million on payroll benefits, $5 million on “services,” $4.8 million on grant-in-aid, $2.1 million on “supplies,” and $3.8 million on travel.
The UNM athletic department, like the vast majority of athletic departments in this country, is not self-supporting. The department is projected to bring in $6.6 million in direct revenue in Fiscal Year 2019. (The Washington Post and The Atlantic, among many others, have reported on the fact that even some of the most successful Division I college athletic programs lose money, in the sense that they bring in less in direct revenue than they spend in expenses.) Other revenue sources for UNM Athletics include the NCAA and the Mountain West Conference, media rights and sponsorship, student fees, fundraising, and $2.6 million worth of “state appropriation.”
Regarding men’s skiing, the report states the following:
Regarding women’s skiing, the report similarly states:
“APR,” or Academic Progress Rate, “holds institutions accountable for the academic progress of their student-athletes through a team-based metric that accounts for the eligibility and retention of each student-athlete for each academic term,” the NCAA explains.
The report states that both ski teams rank relatively low among UNM sports for APR.
FasterSkier previously reported that, in spring 2017, the Athletic Director’s Cup for the top academic program at UNM went to women’s skiing for the second straight year. Additionally, three of the nine senior student-athletes who were honored for graduating with a 4.0 GPA in spring 2017 hailed from the ski team.
Petition and next steps
Balderas has recently recommended that this Friday’s meeting should “serve as an informational session and that regents should not take action until a separate meeting at a later date,” the Albuquerque Journal reported earlier this week.
The Journal also describes potential legislative pushback to this action: “Four days after the vote, five Democratic state legislators called a news conference urging regents to hold off on any cuts so they could explore funding options and suggesting UNM never asked lawmakers for help. UNM officials say they have previously asked for additional state funds for athletics.”
A separate lawsuit has also sought to bar the university from taking action. The Albuquerque Journal reported on August 10 that a private citizen filed suit “asking a judge to rule the vote violated the Open Meetings Act and the state Constitution and issue an injunction to prohibit UNM from initiating any of the measures included in the plan the regents approved.”
The case appears to be Maria Touchet v. Board Of Regents Of The University Of NM, case no. D-202-CV-201805954. The online docket for the New Mexico state courts system lists a complaint filed on August 10, but does not list a response from the university nor any rulings issued by the court.
The community’s view
Clay Moseley moved to Los Alamos in 1999, and soon became active with the Southwest Nordic Ski Club. The Santa Fe National Forest recognized him last year for his longtime leadership of the club and his work with the national forest.
Moseley spoke with FasterSkier to share his perspective on how threatened cuts to the university ski team affect skiing at the level of citizens racing and local ski clubs.
“Essentially, this hurts our state’s ski industry,” Moseley wrote to FasterSkier, “because we all have a connection to our state’s biggest educational institution and take pride in what they represent – our rich ski traditions and culture. Our kids look forward to seeing and working with the world-class athletes, who are always so kind and supportive of them. We actually have home-grown kids who are aspiring to ski for UNM and will be reaching that level in the next few years. At any rate, UNM is part of our culture and gives kids something to aspire to.”
Moseley also expressed concern about the overall leadership of the university’s athletic department: “As NM taxpayers, the mismanagement of the UNM athletic department is disconcerting. It’s always embarrassment after embarrassment in terms of news, the football team is abysmal, the basketball team has not performed anywhere near expectations, and they continue to throw good money after bad. So, there’s that as well. Discontinuing the good sports at UNM is simply adding insult to injury.”
One legislator’s view
Some additional local perspective came from state representative Roberto “Bobby” J. Gonzales (D, Taos), who spoke with FasterSkier by phone on Thursday afternoon. “I’m a skier myself,” said Gonzales. Gonzales is a UNM alumnus, and spoke with evident pride about his wife and two sons, all of whom also graduated from the university.
“This started about a year ago,” Gonzales said, recalling ski team funding issues dating back to spring 2017, “and the charge from the university was, Can we find additional funding to help with this, to have the program. And definitely we will do whatever we have to do to look for that. … The regents are meeting again tomorrow for a formal meeting, and I don’t know what the result will be out of that. But it’s something that would be very devastating, especially to the northern part of the state, where we have recreation and economic development and so many things that we have worked on.” (Gonzales’s district in northern New Mexico includes the alpine resort of Taos Ski Valley.)
“I just don’t see it as a win to eliminate the ski program,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales was asked if there was a concern about the pace at which things were moving when it came to the continued funding of the UNM athletic department. “Most certainly,” Gonzales said. “I really feel that that’s a very short vision from the university to act that quickly, without coming in with any solutions, or inviting strong solutions.”
He continued, “I do feel that they have moved very fast, and that they feel that they’re going to do what they’re going to do, and before we know it, people will forget about it. We can’t forget about something that started in the 1950s.”
(The reference to the 1950s is likely to the founding of Taos Ski Valley in 1955. The UNM ski team dates to 1968, making it 50 years old this year.)
Gonzales urged that, if adjustments need to be made, “make them across the board, not just in four sports. … I don’t think it should be a punitive decision for these first four sports.”
“The losing party of this would be the university” if skiing were cut, Gonzales concluded. “It just isn’t right.”