For several years, the University of New Mexico’s enrollment has been in decline.
While some potential students choose to attend community college or enter the workforce to avoid the cost of attendance at four-year research universities, those who do choose to attend UNM face both food and housing insecurity, as a 2020 study by the UNM Basic Needs Project reports. The results of the study, conducted by UNM faculty, staff and community members, are certainly cause for alarm.
It shows that in 2020, 32 percent and 42 percent of UNM students were food and housing insecure, respectively. These statistics are even higher when looking at specific demographics, such as American Indian, Hispanic and LGBTQ+ students. It is no wonder more potential students are choosing not to attend UNM.
The May 11 Board of Regents meeting demonstrated that hunger and housing insecurity are not just the result of scarcity but also institutional priorities. During this meeting, members of the graduate workers union presented statistics from the basic needs study and commented on President Garnett Stokes’ $59,000 bonus, the costly legal battle the university is waging against graduate workers and a proposal to raise tuition and fees. Members of the graduate and faculty unions urged the regents to focus university resources on improving the lives of students and workers and not to “clutch their pearls” when confronted with difficult problems of inequality.
Unfortunately, the regents seemed rather unmoved by these statistics. Instead of expressing concern for student and worker well-being, the Board of Regents’ response was a defensive moment of deeply passionate pearl-clutching. Board President Douglas Brown argued that Stokes, with her $412,000 salary, is “way underpaid” and that she is “overperforming.” Meanwhile, graduate workers make an average of $14,225 a year, approximately $9,500 less than UNM’s own calculated cost of attendance for a single adult in Albuquerque. We define “underpaid” very differently from the board, not one of whom commented on the glaring issues of hunger and homelessness rates among UNM students during their long-winded defense of Stokes’ salary.
Regent Robert Schwartz was the only regent to note that the salaries and stipends of faculty and graduate workers are “way too low,” calling it a “disastrous circumstance.” We agree with Schwartz, but we fail to see how paying $400,000-plus salaries to Stokes, other administrators and even sports coaches will improve on “way too low.”
While many board members suggested that raising Stokes’ salary to remain competitive with other institutions would directly benefit the university, we believe that in order to create and maintain a university that is competitive and cutting-edge, UNM needs to invest in the educators (faculty, adjuncts and graduate workers) and students who are the primary producers of knowledge on campus. What is a university if it is not committed to teaching and producing innovative knowledge and research? Instead, the UNM administration has diverted its supposedly limited resources to stalling the bargaining process for graduate workers, all while proposing a tuition hike during a pandemic.
If declining enrollment and the overall competitiveness of UNM as an R1 institution is a concern for the regents and administration, then ensuring the material well-being (that includes being able to afford food and housing) of its students and workers seems to be the most logical solution to this dilemma. This would not only entice students to attend UNM, but would attract and help retain students, faculty and staff. We cannot expect Stokes’ salary to trickle down into the wallets, stomachs and minds of the school’s students and workers. Now is the time to redistribute wealth on campus, even if that means the president cannot afford a second Porsche.