Joe Blake takes over as CSU’s first systemwide chancellor

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

FORT COLLINS — A new page has turned.

As he stood in front of the Colorado State University marching band under sunny blue skies, Joe Blake, the former president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, officially took the helm of the state’s second largest university on Thursday.

On left, Colorado State University Chancellor Joe Blake gets a warm embrace from CSU Board of Governor’s chairman Patrick McConathy moments after being officially inaugurated on Thursday.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Although Blake has been working as the university’s first systemwide chancellor for a number of months, the afternoon inaugural ceremony, which was attended by about 500 people, made it official for him and new Fort Collins campus president Tony Frank. Frank replaces outgoing president Larry Penley to become 14th president of CSU’s main campus.

In his speech to gathered faculty, students and community leaders, Blake spoke about CSU’s excellence and his hope that the university will continue on its path to creating a strong and recognizable brand among higher education institutions. He also warned that looming funding deficiencies will be difficult to overcome.

“I commit to you an unwavering energy to help find a sustainable source of funding for higher education (and) building a greater level of private support,” Blake said. “And helping to create a more engaged alumni community, particularly in the metro area. All easy to say — but daunting to do.”

Blake’s appointment by the CSU Board of Governors, on which he was serving as vice president at the time, did not come without a level of scrutiny.

Late in the 2009 legislative session, Democratic lawmakers tried to fast-track House Bill 1369, legislation aimed at adding an additional layer of transparency to the process of selecting new presidents or chancellors for the state’s institutions of higher learning.

At the time, some Republican legislators opposed the legislation, saying that its timing seemed a little too convenient.

Introduced with less than five working days left in the session, the bill seemed to position CSU in the crosshairs. The university was in the middle of a search process to select a new chancellor, and rumors were flying that Blake, known as a Republican insider, would get the nod.

After being named the sole finalist behind closed doors, he received that nod. HB 1369 died in the Senate the same day.

From left: Reps. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley, Fort Collins Mayor Doug Hutchinson, Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, and Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, await inaugural speeches by Colorado State University Chancellor Joe Blake and President Tony Frank.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Blake, well known for his support of the business community and for helping pass Ref. C in 2005, dwelled more on the future of CSU than on the past during a round robin with reporters after his inauguration speech Thursday.

In his new role as system chancellor, Blake is based in Denver, a halfway point between CSU’s two campuses in Fort Collins and Pueblo and a stone’s throw from the Capitol, where he will be actively lobbying members of the General Assembly in coming years.

That is a change of pace when compared to previous CSU administrations.

Unlike the University of Colorado, which has a history of heavy lobbying in the Legislature, CSU often has taken a back seat to legislative happenings. Former president Al Yates rarely visited the Capitol and expended relatively few dollars on lobbying in either Denver or Washington. Penley, who replaced Yates, took a different approach.

In a 2006 move that angered many lawmakers, including Gov. Bill Ritter, Penley tried to end run the Long Bill at the 11th hour by having Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, propose an amendment that would have allowed the university to increase tuition by as much as 40 percent for some students. The amendment backfired, both in the Senate and on Penley, who lost much of his sway at the Capitol afterward.

Blake, well known at the Capitol, said Thursday that he would take an aggressive approach to lobbying the General Assembly in his new role as system chancellor.

“I want us to have a much more coherent presence at the Capitol, and I think we will,” Blake said. “My job is to try and have a coherent approach to the members of the General Assembly and the governor’s office.”

Blake said CSU is currently accepting requests for proposals through October 1 for new lobbyists to represent the university during the legislative session. Lawmakers, however, should expect to see Blake walking the halls of the Capitol in addition to his lobbyists.

Colorado State University students walk through the tree-lined Oval in Fort Collins as the CSU marching band awaits sits on the stairs of the Administration Building awaiting the arrival of CSU Chancellor Joe Blake and President Tony Frank.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

“I respect the institution, and I always have,” he said. “In a former life, I worked at the Legislature in the legislative drafting office. I know how it works down there.”

The challenges will still be great, however — potentially more than even the most effective lobbyist would be able to overcome. The state is expected to cut funding for higher education by 3 percent each year for the near future, said Frank, and the cuts will hurt a university that is already “operating at a very lean rate.”

“It will be a challenge,” Frank said.

And, although there was talk earlier this year of higher education leaders banding together to pass a ballot initiative in 2010 that would guarantee higher education funding — much as Amendment 23 mandates K-12 funding — that concept is dead now, Blake said.

Although the measure found supporters, Blake said it’s much harder to pass an amendment to the Colorado Constitution than people realize.

Extensive polling and voter education is required before the populace will understand the need for such a measure, Blake said. And with the economy suffering and with so many Coloradans out of work, priorities have shifted.

“Right now, all that people are thinking about is the economy and how to bring jobs back,” Blake said. “Funding for higher education is not at the top of their priority list.”

Jason@coloradostatesman.com