TLL Interview With President Stokes

President Stokes with Vera Jo at a WBB Practice
Photo by Joe Auletta

Joe:  I’ve noticed you have been to a lot of the women’s games.  Are you a women’s basketball fan, a sports fan, or do you feel that this is part of your responsibilities as President?

President Stokes:  I would say it probably a little bit of all of those. I have come to enjoy women’s basketball in particular as I’ve been in leadership roles in my last few institutions.  I enjoy collegiate sports in general.  I am not a tremendously avid fan of every sport, but I value the role of athletics at universities and value supporting student athletes.  There is a little bit of it that I think is perhaps the role of the President supporting the many ways that our students are engaged on a campus.  But the reality is that a President can’t get to everything that our students do.  We have many things inside and outside of athletics where our students are engaged in something where they are excelling.  I try to get to as many different things as possible.

Joe:  What do you think that role of athletics is at school?

President Stokes:  Well, that has been an interesting evolution over time.  I think athletics and its place at universities has been changing and in many places, sports are such big time economically in terms of visibility for institutions that it can be hard to seek the proper balance between the other missions of the university and the place of athletics as a window into the

institution and as a way of supporting or keeping alumnae engaged, etc.  I think that it has an important role.  For many student athletes, it is their way into a college education as well.  I have always appreciated that athletics is one of the ways in which we can promote student and alumnae engagement and staff and faculty engagement as well.  People enjoy the spectacle that sports can sometimes be.

Joe:  In the big picture, where would you want athletics to be in five to ten years here?  I’m not taking about winning records.  What do you see as the direction you would want them to go?

President Stokes:  I have always been a big believer in the importance of integrity in athletic programs.  Having been at some schools and dealt with some issues in the past,  I want to be sure that here at the University of New Mexico we are always operating an athletics department that is known for its integrity at every level, academic integrity, etc.  What I would like to see is that athletics continues to be an important part of what the University of New Mexico is known for.  By far not the only thing we are known for–at this point health sciences is what people think of when they think of the University of New Mexico, and rightly so.  But I want people to see the University of New Mexico athletics as an attachment to our institution as a way in which we engage our entire community in something that is truly entertaining, and in which we can watch student athletes mature into adults and go on to whatever their lives are after that.

Athletics is evolving across the country.  There are many issues that the NCAA faces right now with the way in which we think about working with our athletes, and we as an institution have to stay on top of that.  I hope that over time we continue to maintain a prominence as part of our Mountain West Conference.

Joe: Specifically, focusing on the women for a minute, you were heavily involved with Title IX activities at Missouri. How do you see the role of athletics for women in college compared to men–since many fewer of the women go on to play professionally?  Sports here are not the same stepping stone that playing football at Alabama or men’s basketball at Kentucky is

President Stokes:  It’s interesting.  I had a lot of involvement with Title IX at Missouri and at Florida State.  Much of that was Title IX work that was more focused on issues of gender equity and sexual assault.  But, I think that Title IX has been very important to enhancing the opportunities for women to be as engaged in this form of competition and physical activity as men have been.  So, I am a strong proponent of what Title IX has done for opportunities for women in athletics and what it has done for engaging the public in the value of women’s participation in sports.  I’ve never really thought the value of the participation was a jumping off point for professional sports, though clearly there are those opportunities, but I think in most sports and for nearly every player, even on the men’s side, the proportion that go into professional sports is tiny.  So, it’s not what brings people into participation in sports.  For women I think that the value is much the same as it is for men.  We have team sports, we have individual sports, and so what motivates players is going to vary depending upon the kind of sport they are in.  But, it’s valuable lessons about working together and valuable lessons about pushing oneself beyond what one believes one can do physically.  There is an enormous value to one’s emotional well-being to be operating at that level.

Joe:  Staying in the general realm, not going into any of the particulars that happened last summer, would you explain a little the different roles; your role as President, Eddie Nunez role as Athletic Director, and the Regents in terms of the Athletics at large.

President Stokes:  If you were to look at the guidance that exists nationally from national organizations that focus on good higher education governance, you will see some recent information about the extent to which boards should always be paying attention to athletics–because for many universities athletics looms very large and there is a lot of oversight and compliance that is necessary.  So boards need to have an interest in what’s going on in athletics. They want to be sure that things are going as they should be.  Institutional reputations are greatly affected by what is going on in athletics, so boards need to pay attention.

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I think that it’s not uncommon that members of boards have very specific interest in specific sports.  That happens all the time, but what I think is really critical is that there is an understanding that the Athletics Director is in charge of the athletics program.  Best practice would say that the Athletics Director is working and keeping the President involved in what is going on in Athletics.  So an understanding is that the day-to-day business of the Athletics Director is to take care of Athletics, and for the President to be aware of what is going on there and to keep the board informed of any issues that are creating risk for the institution.

Joe:  Moving back from the general back to women’s basketball, did you play sports in college?

President Stokes:  No, I did not.  I didn’t even learn of the value of physical activity until I was an adult.

Joe:  So, what brought you in specifically to women’s basketball?

President Stokes:  I had watched women’s basketball at my other institutions.  I saw some at Georgia; I saw some at Florida State, and at Missouri.  Honestly, I think it was the excitement around Women’s Basketball when I came to New Mexico that really just brought me in.  I have always very much appreciated women’s sports and I would attend at my other institutions many sporting events including women’s sports.  But when I got here I realized that there was an excitement about women’s basketball that I was immediately brought into.  I have immensely enjoyed going to women’s basketball games.  It’s something that I really look forward to and I am disappointed when there is something in my schedule that makes it difficult for me to be there.

Joe:  So, how many years did you age in some of the recent games?

President Stokes:  [Laughter.]  I think I’m aging with these games all the time.  But I have to tell you, counting on them, watching them pull it all together…I know how valuable it is for them to do that as individual players and as a team.  I never want to lose sight of the fact that when I’m watching these players on the floor, I’m looking at individuals who are part of a team.  It’s not just about winning and losing, there are so many ways in which participation for them is valuable for them and for the audience.  So, when I see players just making that all-out effort, I’m just rooting for them. 

Joe:  We are glad that you passed a note to Coach in the last three minutes of some of the recent close games.  I’m sure that helped.

President Stokes:  Oh, yeah, right.  [More laughter.]  I try to occasionally send a message after the game:  that was a good game.  But I don’t even do that very often.  One day, I am looking forward to the opportunity to meet the individual players and get to know them.

Joe:  Do you think we might see you out at Las Vegas for the Tournament?

President Stokes:  I have blocked out my calendar when the Tournament will be taking place.  The Mountain West Conference always plans–the Presidents’ Meeting is in concert with the Conference play.  I don’t know that I can be there the whole time just because there are so many demands here but we do have the good fortune that it takes place during Spring Break so that makes it a little easier.  But I would certainly want to be present for our team’s performance to the extent that I can be.

Joe:  Thank you for taking the time. The last question on all of these interviews is what do you want to talk about that I didn’t ask?

President Stokes:  I think in the course of our conversation we have been able to cover a lot of bases. What I do want to say is that I’m excited about how excited you and the community are about sports and about women’s participation in sports.

Joe:  Again thank you and we look forward to seeing you at the next game.

President Stokes:  You bet!

TLL Interview With UNM President Stokes