By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Sometimes even the Legislature is powerless against the inevitable.
Last week, Democratic lawmakers introduced House Bill 1369, legislation aimed at adding an additional layer of transparency to the state’s higher education system when institutions choose new presidents or chancellors.
Some Republican legislators who opposed the legislation said the timing seemed convenient.
Introduced with less than five working days left in the session, the bill seemed to put Colorado State University into the crosshairs. CSU was in the middle of a search process to select a new chancellor, and rumors were flying that Republican insider and Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce CEO Joe Blake would get the nod.
And he did.
On Tuesday, Blake was named to the new post by the CSU Board of Governors, of which he is vice president. The same day Blake became the system’s first chancellor, HB 1369 died in the Senate.
Before Blake was announced as the sole finalist for the job on Tuesday, Capitol insiders were saying the CSU Board of Governors was fast-tracking the selection process in order to get in front of the pending legislation — legislation that many believed would have all but assured Blake would fail to get the nod.
But when asked if he thought that was true, Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Lafayette, the bill’s House sponsor, said “no.”
“CSU had been in the search process for many months,” Weissmann said on the House Floor Wednesday. “I think if anyone was rushing something through at the last minute, it was us trying to get the legislation finished before CSU named a chancellor.”
Democrats in Colorado might have good reason to wish the higher education system’s search and selection process would change. It hasn’t really worked in their favor in recent years. With this week’s appointment of Blake to head CSU, powerful Republicans have all but taken over the top leadership posts of the state’s higher education system.
Former U.S. Senator Hank Brown recently served as president of the University of Northern Colorado and then president of the University of Colorado. Brown was selected to both positions in what many deemed a “backroom” process.
Republican attorney Kay Norton now heads UNC, and former Republican operative Bruce Benson, a founder of Trailhead, an effective former 527 organization, is leading CU.
Not surprisingly, Republicans believe there’s no problem with the process that has selected higher education’s top officials and argued adamantly against HB 1369 from the onset.
“We have incredible leaders at the institutions in the state now, and so I think it’s fair to say the process is working,” said. Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock. “It’s a full process. I have been in the employer situation, and transparency has to happen in almost every part of government. But when it comes to employees, it cannot be transparent.”
Others, such as Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood, said the system already has board members and regents who are entrusted to make executive
decisions for the institutions they oversee. He condemned any attempt by the Legislature to take over those duties.
“We have to entrust the process by those that are appointed by the board and the regents of these colleges to do their work,” Summers said, adding that making finalist names public could stop qualified candidates from applying out of fear of what might happen if they don’t get the position.
“This could really frustrate the process and could remove some very qualified individuals from consideration,” he added. “Let’s hold the universities and board members accountable for doing their job and not do the job for them.”
Blake, 73, is not exactly known to be the partisan politico that Benson is, for example. A former FBI agent and real estate developer, Blake sided with Gov. Bill Ritter on FASTER this year and was a supporter of Ref. C in 2004. On the other hand, as CEO and president of the Chamber, Blake has taken a
very active position against organized labor and many Democratic policy positions.
Other high-profile names mentioned as possible chancellor nominees were former Democratic Rep. Bernie Buescher, who now heads the Colorado Department of State, and former Republican U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard.
Ritter, who made indirect comments to the Fort Collins Coloradoan editorial board in February suggesting he would not support Allard as the board’s choice, released a prepared statement in favor of Blake’s selection.
“Joe has been a key partner and an important supporter of our efforts to strengthen Colorado’s economy, build a modern transportation system and improve higher education,” Ritter said. “We’ve made significant progress together these past two-and-half years, and I look forward to continuing that partnership with Joe in his new role. There is much work ahead to continue improving educational quality and keeping higher education accessible and affordable.”
There certainly are big challenges ahead.
Higher education has taken a fiscal beating in recent years as the state has worked to use the system’s funding to fill holes in the state budget. Despite a last-minute save from catastrophic cuts by Ritter, CSU still faces $33 million in budget cuts and has to implement a 9 percent in-state tuition hike for students.
Not everyone believed it wise to create a high paid chancellor position within the university. Before Blake, the former head of CSU, Larry Penley, served as both president and chancellor. Political science professor John Straayer, a regular face around the state Capitol and a 43-year veteran at CSU, decried the decision of the board to create the position.
“The creation of the chancellorship is a huge mistake in my view,” Straayer told The Colorado Statesman. “Colorado is facing severe fiscal difficulties and, thus, so is CSU. Positions are being eliminated, and tuition is rising. In this context, the board has chosen to expand its (administrative) bureaucracy.”
But not everyone believes the new position is a bad choice, including Weissmann, HB 1369’s sponsor.
“In a sense, the Legislature is responsible for this,” Weissmann said. “When you continue to underfund the higher education system like we have, it’s no surprise that they are turning to people with business and fundraising backgrounds to lead them.”
Blake will officially begin his new duties on July 1.