Education funding, political diversity are issues in regent races

By Jimy Valenti
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The University of Colorado’s looming budget crisis is shaping the race for three CU regent seats up this November. Also an issue: The political diversity — or lack there of — on the campuses, particularly in Boulder. Republican candidates are pushing for more political diversity; an issue Democrats say is anecdotal.

The Republicans’ current 5-4 majority on the board could be in jeopardy as at-large incumbent Steve Bosley, R-Boulder, faces a challenge from the winner of a Democratic primary and a Libertarian candidate. No Democrat filed to challenge Tom Lucero’s open seat in CD 4 and it looks as if Democrat Michael Carrigan will run unopposed in CD 1, at least for the time being. Republicans in CD 1 plan to field a candidate for regent selected in the near future by a vacancy committee.

Melissa Hart and Howard Wachtel are seeking the Democratic nomination at the May 22 state assembly to challenge Bosley while Jesse Wallace will be the nominee for the Libertarian Party. Two Republicans, Kelly Barlean and Sue Sharkey, are vying for their party’s nomination a day earlier to replace Lucero in CD 4. Lucero’s seat is open regardless of his congressional race due to term limits.

The candidates are running against a backdrop of economic uncertainty.

CU’s general fund is $50 million lighter after the state cut $300 million from higher education across Colorado in an effort to balance the projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall. The cuts are temporarily offset by federal stimulus money, but these funds expire next year. CU has already cut $29 million from its budget and announced a proposed $22 million package of budget cuts for next year. The university eliminated 339 positions and is educating 2,100 more students than at the start of FY 2008-09. Colorado is dead last among states in its financial support for higher education.

The Legislature proposed multiple solutions this session for higher education’s budget woes, but only one made it to the finish line. SB 3, the so-called tuition flexibility bill, sponsored by Sens. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, would allow the governing boards of Colorado’s universities to raise tuition nine percent per year or more if they submit plans for increasing student aid to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. The bill would also give schools more flexibility in their operations and admissions.

CU President Bruce Benson has voiced his support of the bill because it allows CU to enroll more foreign students and allows the university to appropriately set tuition amidst declining state funding.

Another issue that has surfaced among Republicans: a push to improve political diversity on campus. Both Sharkey and Barlean said a political imbalance exists on campus and Bosley references it at campaign stumps throughout the state. Democrats don’t think the issue requires the board’s attention.

“I’m an oppressed minority. I’m a conservative from Boulder,” joked Bosley at the Adams County Republican Assembly while also boasting his involvement in the termination of controversial CU professor Ward Churchill.

“It is very unfortunate when intellectual diversity gets mixed up with political diversity,” Hart said.

The At-Large Race

CU Law professor Melissa Hart, D-Denver, and CU professor of electrical computing and neurological sciences Howard Wachtel, D-Boulder, are vying for the Democratic nomination to challenge Steve Bosley, R-Boulder, in his second term as CU regent. Libertarian Jesse Wallace, a CU graduate and owner of a Denver advertising firm, is also an at-large candidate.

Hart, 40, spearheaded the 2008 campaign to defeat Amendment 46, which opponents said would have eliminated equal opportunity programs at CU and other public institutions throughout the state. She said keeping CU affordable and inclusive would be her top priority as a regent.

Hart has received broad support in the Democratic Party including endorsements from Colorado State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, Speaker of the Colorado House Terrance Carroll and every Democrat on the board, including her former student, CD 2 Regent Joe Negue.

Wachtel, 70, previously ran for regents three times — as a Republican from CD 2 in 2002, as an at-large Republican in 2006 and as a Democrat in 2008 from CD 2. Wachtel said he was a moderate Republican anyway and will be able to bridge the board’s partisan divide. Wachtel, a 30 year CU professor, will retire if elected. He said the board lacks a faculty member who can “put education first.”

The Libertarian nominee Wallace, 29, graduated with a communications degree from CU in 2004 and as a regent would drive down tuition rates. He said CU must make cuts from the top down. According to Wallace, the students’ constitutional rights are being violated on campus. He is concerned about students’ right to smoke medical marijuana on campus and their right to free speech, to bear arms and their ability to guard against unreasonable search and seizure.

Bosley, the former president and CEO of the Bank of Boulder and founder of the Bolder Boulder race, graduated from CU in 1968. He was first elected to the at-large seat in 2004 and serves as the board’s chair. He said his proudest achievement as a regent is chairing the presidential search committee that recommended Hank Brown and current president Bruce Benson. He said CU’s business side must be run more efficiently and he lauded president Benson for leading the charge.

“You talk to any person that runs a business and they say no matter how hard they try, the fat creeps in,” Bosley said. “When you got tough times you figure out how to boil it out.”

The university is currently undergoing a fundamental restructuring, which will take up to two more years to complete. Bosley said an across the board cut is unfair and that each program needs to be evaluated individually. He said the board asks each of the four campuses to determine how this restructuring should look.

“The public looks for the one, two or ten big things you’re doing,” Bosley said. “When you restructure it’s the thousands of small things that add up to make the difference, so that is where the guts of it is. There is nothing sexy about it.”

Hart said the university has done a good job at creating a leaner and more efficient institution, but that tougher times are ahead.

“We have done the low hanging fruit of the cuts,” Hart said. “Now we are facing a much harder time as discussions begin to cut programs more fundamental to the university’s mission.”

According to Wachtel, the university puts too much emphasis and spends too much on things not pertaining to education. Wallace agrees. Wallace said CU’s 24,000 employees for its 56,000 students are unnecessary.

“There is a lot of gloat and a lot of weight there,” Wallace said.

The Legislature passed the tuition flexibility bill that will give universities more freedom in performing cuts. Bosley said the efficiency portions of the bill would help, but that legislators made too big a deal about tuition flexibility.

“There is never some big debate about, ‘oh my god we’re being limited by the legislature,’” Bosley said. “You can’t price your product out of the marketplace.”

In an April 26 interview with The Colorado Statesman Bosley said he didn’t know if he supported the bill, but said it is not the end solution. He said other parts of the bill that make it easier for the regents to initiate efficiency measures are more vital to the school’s recovery.

Hart supports the legislation, but said affordability must not be left out of the conversation. She said her support hinges on corresponding increases in student aid.

“It is not workable to price a public education out of the reach of most members of the public,” Hart said. “If we are going to serve Coloradans we need to continue to find ways to make education affordable.”

Wachtel supports the concept of more tuition flexibility if it comes with increased student aid and loans. He said the regents must not necessarily protect the lowest tuition possible for all students, but the most affordable tuition for every student. He said affordability depends on each individual student’s financial situation.

Wallace supports tuition flexibility because, he said, lawmakers have better things to worry about than college tuition.

Each at-large candidate supports encouraging more international students to enroll, which would be made easier under the tuition flexibility bill. They said an increase in the number of international students would improve the school’s diversity and enable it to bring in out-of-state dollars. They said, however, that all qualified students from Colorado must be admitted first.

Ultimately, according to Hart, Colorado must recognize the need to raise taxes if the state wants to fund higher education. She supported the DECIDE amendment, which would have allowed lawmakers to raise taxes for education.

“Its fundamental to the identity of the state,” Hart said. “Its fundamental to the economy and our role in the national economy and I think generally Coloradans are committed to that.”

Wachtel supported the DECIDE amendment because, he said, Colorado lags behind every other state in its financial support for higher education. Wallace is strongly opposed to the idea.

He said the measure is just an attempt to undermine TABOR. According to Wallace, the initiative gives lawmakers the ability to raise taxes for higher education, but could spend that money elsewhere. He also said the initiative would eventually lead to legislators circumventing TABOR every time they needed funding.

Bosley said it’s premature to determine long term funding strategies. He wants to see how the economic recovery will look before discussing anything further and said that any long-term plan should be on hold until the university completes its restructuring.

“We have no focus on what that long-term solution should be,” Bosley said. “Our focus is one: no whining. Things are the way they are. Use the situation to make efficiencies and then go back to the voters.”

Bosley says he also wants to see classrooms that are fair and open to all ideas. He said the board recently proposed a change to CU’s guiding principles on diversity. The proposal would alter the guiding principles to include political and philosophical diversity.

The ramifications of the new guiding principles are unclear, according to Hart. She said that hiring a faculty member based on their political affiliations would be highly unsettling and illegal.

“Of course it is important to have a broad spectrum of philosophical and political ideas in the university community…it is a really different question as to whether we are Democrats or Republicans,” Hart said. “It is very unfortunate when intellectual diversity gets mixed up with political diversity.”

Wallace wants the board to focus on education and stay away from partisanship. He said CU is liberal, but he doesn’t know if it’s liberal enough to warrant the board’s attention.

“Most professors I know are not liberal or conservative; they are professors,” Wachtel said. He believes the board should not address the issue in light of the school’s funding issues.

In response to charges that the board should focus their attention elsewhere, Bosley said, “I have got better capacity than to just focus on one thing.”

The Race in CD 4

Sterling city attorney Kelly Barlean and mother of two CU students Sue Sharkey are facing off for the Republican nomination to fill Tom Lucero’s soon-to-be-vacant seat. Lucero was elected to the Board in 1998 and again in 2004. No Democrat has yet filed to challenge Republicans in CD 4.

Barlean, an Air force Academy alumnus and a 1993 CU Law school grad, served two terms on the city council of Langley, Wash. and two terms in the Washington State House of Representatives. Barlean was vice chair of Washington’s appropriations committee and said he has the insight to ensure that CU is running a cost effective operation. He said that he is concerned about CU’s recent black eyes in the media and plans to make affordability his top priority

Sharkey’s son graduated from CU and her daughter currently attends the Boulder campus. Her husband, Dave Jordan, is the president elect of the CU Parent’s Association. Sharkey has received the stamp of approval from many area tea party groups including the Northeast Colorado Tea Party and the Loveland 912 Project. She said she is concerned about the political imbalance at CU.

As Sharkey campaigns throughout CD 4, she said parents tell her the political imbalance at CU is a real issue.

“Parents are concerned about sending their child, who they have raised with conservative values, to a university known as being very liberal,” Sharkey said. “The university has a reputation of not respecting the conservative philosophies of students.”

Barlean said his conservative viewpoints were not respected while attending CU. The Army granted Barlean an honorable discharge after he blew out his knee when jumping from a helicopter. He soon enrolled at CU and began openly sharing his conservative viewpoint.

“I was in a distinct minority,” Barlean said. “I learned to keep my mouth shut to keep my grades up.”

Sharkey said she is deeply concerned about CU’s affordability and believes programs should seek out more private funding. Barlean agrees.

The regents, according to Barlean, can assist Benson in community outreach. He said regents should rub elbows with state lawmakers to remind them of CU’s importance. He said regents could encourage the state’s businesses and major donors to open their wallets because of CU’s
strong relationship to the state’s economy.

Sharkey said she doesn’t know if she supports the tuition flexibility bill, but does support one aspect of it. She said CU should have the ability to increase the number of out-of-state students. Currently state law says only one-third of CU’s population can come from out-of-state.

Barlean disagrees. He said CU needs to service more in-state students. While on the campaign trail, Barlean said he hears many complaints from constituents who were not accepted by CU.

“I know it is attractive to bring in people from out of state because you can get more money out of them, but the primary purpose of our state flagship university is first and foremost to educate the kids of the state of Colorado,” Barlean said.

Both Barlean and Sharkey strongly oppose any tax increases for higher education. Barlean said the measure is an attempt to backdoor TABOR. He said tax increases are a last resort and should only be used when institutions across the state can demonstratively prove that all efficiency measures are met.

“That is not a possibility,” Sharkey said in regards to tax increases for higher education. “I do not think there is a climate for that in Colorado. I don’t think Coloradans are going to approve another tax increase.”

Barlean said he is concerned that CU’s student code of conduct is not being enforced. He specifically cited the annual “4-20” rally on campus as an example where CU Boulder Police and administrators should crack down.

“It doesn’t make me feel good when I see on TV kids in the student section throwing snowballs down onto the football field and seeing on the five o’clock news the big 4-20 smoke out,” Barlean said. “If we have standards and rules in place they should be enforced and if they are not going to be enforced then take them off the books.”

The CD 1 Race

Michael Carrigan, D-Denver, is running for his second six-year term unopposed in CD 1. Carrigan, 42, graduated from the CU law school in 1994 and practices law for Holland & Hart in Denver. He has served on the CU Board of Regents since 2004.

As a board member, Carrigan said his proudest achievement has been his leadership in relocating the president’s office from Boulder to Denver, which helps recognize that CU is more than just a school from Boulder. Carrigan also said he has been a leader in the areas of diversity, inclusion and the need for more public investment in the University of Colorado. He said a solid higher education system is the cornerstone to Colorado’s economy.

Carrigan said a short and long-term strategy is required to stabilize CU’s budget. In the short term, institutions must have more flexibility to increase tuition as long as some of those increases are used to beef up financial aid. Carrigan’s long-term plan is to find stable revenue streams for higher education.

The tuition flexibility bill would accomplish Carrigan’s short-term goal by granting regents the power to raise tuition, as well as put in play numerous other efficiency measures.

The DECIDE amendment would have addressed Carrigan’s long-term goal as well. The proposed ballot initiative would have allowed legislators to raise taxes for education without voter approval — is Carrigan’s first choice for securing long-term stable funding. Carrigan said he doesn’t understand why some feel the measure would have circumvented TABOR.

“It is a ballot measure so it’s hard to see how it undermines TABOR if the voters approve it,” Carrigan said. “It is time for voters to stand up and invest in higher education.”

Carrigan said he is troubled by the recent overturn of the court decision on CU’s ban of concealed weapons on campus. He said the school is not a safer place when students are allowed to carry guns. He said the policy would also hurt the school’s ability to recruit out-of-state students because of safety concerns from parents.

Colorado’s Constitution gives the board a separate constitutional authority and Carrigan said that should allow the regents broad discretion to set policies for the university, including a ban on concealed weapons.

Carrigan believes the board’s push for greater political diversity on campus is unnecessary. He said some board members are pushing for a chair in conservative studies and want to hire more conservative faculty members. Carrigan said the board has much higher priorities in the midst of a tough financial crisis.

“This issue is no doubt present to some degree, but for the large part its anecdotal,” Carrigan said. “I don’t think political ideology matters in the engineering department, the medical school or the dental school.”

Jimy@coloradostatesman.com