Guest Columns

STRAAYER: THIS IS NO TIME TO SQUANDER $1 MILLION

Memo to CSU: Wait! Don’t do it! Oops!

On May 5, in what appeared to be an attempt to outrace the Legislature’s effort to place some limits on the hiring of college and university presidents and chancellors, the Colorado State University Board of Governors rushed the selection of a chancellor and proceeded to name a single finalist: Joe Blake, the board’s own vice president.

Blake, by all accounts, is a good fellow and a successful and respected businessman — albeit without a background in academic life. If CSU needed a large Denver-based administrative apparatus, Mr. Blake might well be a good choice. But CSU doesn’t need to enlarge its bureaucracy, and it most certainly doesn’t need to create one that, by this board action, will be significantly more costly.

A new and enlarged “system/chancellorship” arrangement was a questionable proposition from the outset. But now, with the state of Colorado — and Colorado State University — facing draconian budgetary difficulties — difficulties which are likely to worsen for fiscal year 2010-’11 as 2009-’10 one-time budgetary patches expire — the layering on of more very expensive administration is all the more questionable.

Let me set forth the reasons why it is not in the best interest of this major state research university, or the state of Colorado, to have the board move forward at this time with such a
major and expensive organizational change.

First, it is very costly. A chancellor would command a higher salary than that of any of the university presidents and, by the time a full-blown staff came on board and an expense budget is put in place, the annual price tag would surely exceed $1 million. For that, up to a dozen bright, young professors could be added — professors who, unlike a new Denver-based administrator, would spend their professional lives with students, research and scholarly activities.

Second, with the university already suffering cuts in state support totaling tens of millions of dollars, and with the financial burden shifting ever more to students, their families and the accumulating student loan debt load, it could well take a toll in public opinion and public support of higher education.

“Why,” citizens and students alike might rightly ask, “are we paying more for an instructional program for which state support is shrinking, and, simultaneously, expanding administration? In tight times, don’t organizations cut administration first, so as to protect and nurture core functions?”

Third, the board would be creating an organizational arrangement that, through time, could come only at the expense of the Fort Collins campus. Reporting to a chancellor would be (i) the president of a major research university, with 25,000 students and degree programs ranging from bachelor’s to doctoral; (ii) the president of a 4,000-student regional undergraduate institution; and (iii) a president of a small, new on-line operation, the success of which is yet to be determined.

This is the perfect picture of a badly flawed arrangement. The three institutions are vastly dissimilar in role, mission, size, finances and operational complexity. It is simply an unbalanced and very bad fit.

Fourth, both the Pueblo and Fort Collins schools would be better off with presidents who report directly to a board of governors with the voices of faculty, students, staff and administration unfiltered by a chancellor and staff whose location is distant from both campuses. When decisions, both academic and administrative, are made locally — and thus are sensitive to judgments made in the institutions — it’s a much better arrangement.

Indeed, it may well be in the best interest of both campuses for the General Assembly to create a separate governing board for the Pueblo campus, as is the current situation with Mesa State, Fort Lewis, Western State, Adams State and Metro State. This would obviate the need for a chancellor system and provide the Pueblo campus and community with a tightened connection.

Finally, the process, from last November forward, has displayed a certain air of mystery. The nature of the selection process, which largely excludes faculty, students and staff, and then rushed as it was, affords ample opportunity to — quite frankly — wonder if this was a process leading to a predetermined outcome all along.

There was no need to rush to any decision — especially now. To the contrary, there were plenty of reasons to step back from the edge.

John A. Straayer is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Colorado State University and the author of several books on politics in Colorado.