By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
FORT COLLINS — Joe Blake received a frosty reception from some media and political insiders after being named the first chancellor of the Colorado State University system last month, but the Fort Collins community has been more receptive to the 72-year-old Republican and former Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce president.
During a two-day whirlwind of meetings on CSU’s Fort Collins campus last week, Blake met with community leaders, students and faculty — and was warmly received by everyone.
“I think he is a good fit, and tied in with (newly named Fort Collins campus president) Tony Frank, I see it as a win-win situation,” Fort Collins Mayor Doug Hutchinson, a 1962 CSU graduate, told The Colorado Statesman. “This is a great day for Fort Collins and a great day for Colorado State University. I congratulated Joe for a groundbreaking new position and a new structure for CSU.”
That new structure and position haven’t been attained without controversy.
Blake served as vice president of the CSU Board of Governors before being named chancellor, raising suspicion that his appointment relied on cronyism. Three Colorado media organizations are suing the board, alleging that it illegally discussed Blake’s appointment behind closed doors. Late last month, a Larimer County judge said there was ample evidence to substantiate the allegations; he is currently in the process of listening to audio tapes of the proceedings to decide what should be released to the public.
Complaints also are coming from Democrats, who are tired of seeing one Republican insider after another named to prestigious leadership roles at state colleges and universities. Dem legislators worked tirelessly during the waning days of the session to pass House Bill 1369, which was ostensibly designed to add transparency to the choice of new presidents and chancellors in the state’s higher education system.
The bill was introduced when fewer than five working days were left in the session and seemed to have CSU in its crosshairs, but it didn’t stop the Board of Governors from naming Blake as chancellor three days later. Not coincidentally, HB 1369 died in the Senate hours after Blake’s appointment was announced, making the motivation behind the bill transparent.
When asked at the time if he thought CSU rushed the Blake pick to stay ahead of HB 1369, Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Lafayette, the bill’s House sponsor, said “no.”
“CSU had been in the search process for many months,” Weissmann told The Colorado Statesman last month. “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 for change in the higher education system’s search and selection process. It hasn’t really worked in their favor in recent years.
With Blake’s appointment to head CSU, powerful Republicans dominate the top leadership posts in the state’s higher education system. Former U.S. Senator Hank Brown recently served as president of the University of Northern Colorado, and then as president of the University of Colorado. Republican attorney Kay Norton now heads UNC, and former Republican operative Bruce Benson, a founder of Trailhead, an effective former 527 organization, has taken over from Brown at CU.
Politics, however, weren’t on the radar last week in Fort Collins as Blake was introduced to the community. As he made the rounds of meetings with Frank, Blake appeared to be saying all the right things to all the right people.
“There is no other institution around that has the amazing brand that Colorado State University has,” Blake said. “And with that brand, we have wonderful places to go together. There is no doubt about it.”
Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce President David May, a former colleague of Blake’s, said he believes the selection of both Blake and Frank will serve the community and the university well.
“Both of them are very intelligent guys, and, if you know them, you know that about them,” May said. “They are both good individuals and good people. They are also both very competent, and — as a community and as a state — we are very fortunate to have them in these roles.”
Statehouse Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, concurred.
“I think Tony Frank is someone that can be trusted in the president’s position here in Fort Collins,” Kefalas said. “And I am interested to see what kind of value Joe Blake brings to the system in the new role as chancellor. If he can help establish more sustainable funding for CSU, then I think that is a good thing.”
Once the niceties of the meetings were dispensed with, Blake acknowledged that tough funding challenges lay ahead for CSU and the rest of higher education in Colorado. CSU, which is severely underfunded compared to peer institutions in other states, has worked to negate the damaging effects of massive budget cuts in 2002 and in 2009 and, probably, again in 2010.
“I think we need to hang a lantern on the problem, because, too often, people are afraid to shine a light on the problems that we have, or want to sweep them away and not talk about them,” Blake said.
“The light on the problem that we have is the need for sustainable funding for higher education,” Blake continued. “That is a big responsibility, and it’s going to take enormous amounts of patience, and probing, and thoughtfulness, and the development of a constituency (to) understand the challenge that we have and the importance of finding a solution.”