UNM joins state government on stink-o-meter

By Ned Cantwell: State columnist

Here’s a free public relations tip for the University of New Mexico. Quit stinking up the joint with questionable use of taxpayer money and you wouldn’t have to spend $152,000 this year on a Washington, D.C., hotshot to polish your image.

You’ve got to be kidding about $152,000. No, I’m not. More on that later.

First things first. UNM is an excellent institution, the state’s showcase center of higher educational achievement. It is renowned for solid academic achievement.

(Well, OK, maybe we could have lived without the UNM study that concluded Albuquerque fertile topless lap dancers earned twice as much in tips than non-fertile Albuquerque topless lap dancers, but, dang it, research geeks deserve to have some fun, too. “She’s Got Eggs,” chortled New York Times Magazine.)

Fun aside, too often UNM is trying to match state government on the stink-o-meter. One recent example is diversion of state taxpayer funds intended for a think tank but used instead to pay travel and tuition expenses for a women’s rugby team.

The Center for Regional Studies Web site describes its mission. “Create new sources of knowledge about New Mexico and the U.S. — Mexico Borderland region. Foster collaborative projects linking New Mexico, the Americas, Spain, Quebec.” There’s more, but there is no mention of rugby.

The New Mexico Legislature favors the mission of the Center for Regional Studies. So much so, in fact, it appropriated $1.46 million in taxpayer dollars for the work. You might ask your local legislature or what he or she thinks about the fact some of that money went to support the women’s rugby team.

That is the finding of the Legislative Finance Committee audit that showed $347,500 of the appropriation was diverted “to pay tuition for a UNM athletic team…” There has been a lot of haggling about just how much money was diverted — the university says much less than the LFC audit claims — and exactly what it was used for. It seems clear, however, some of the funds had more to do with sports bras than collaborative borderland projects.

One of the legislative champions of the Center for Regional Studies is Shannon Robinson.

Robinson, a state senator from Albuquerque, is a 19-year incumbent. Robinson has helped the Center obtain money from the Legislature.

Oh, wait. I forgot to mention one thing. Robinson is also coach of the rugby team to which that think-tank money was diverted. The stink-o-meter just overheated and blew up.

Contacted by the Albuquer-que Journal, Robinson said, well, yes, the Center did finance $30,000 worth of team travel and, yes, some years ago did help provide jobs for grants to four or five of his rugby players, but…

“I don’t think it’s out of line for their (the Center’s) mission.” Oh. That being the case, the Center for Regional Studies needs to rework its Web site.

It is perhaps this type of kerfuffle that leads UNM President David Schmidly to believe he budgets $152,000 a year to pay a guy named Mike Collins to handle media and crisis management. Collins is a big gun. He is credited with engineering the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. Up until now, I had always thought Newt Gingrich did that.

So this Collins guy gets major bucks for telling Schmidly how to handle the press and I can hear your feedback right now.

You are probably saying, Mr. Columnist, you are green with envy this media guy is getting rich while you are still selling words for pennies. And you are probably right. It stinks.

Ned Cantwell — ncantwell@beyondbb.com — is not a big tipper.