Furor over CU’s presidential pick highlights elected Board of Regents’ partisan political divide

The University of Colorado’s selection of a presidential finalist with a strong political background has drawn attention to the makeup of the school’s elected Board of Regents, but partisan politics is nothing new for the body governing the state’s largest university system.

University of Colorado

University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy, sole finalist to succeed Bruce Benson as president of the University of Colorado

The four-campus CU system is overseen by one of just a handful of university governing boards in the nation whose members run partisan political campaigns in order to get elected.

Some in Colorado’s higher education community have for decades tried to make CU’s board less focused on party affiliation and more broadly dedicated to the betterment of the university.

Aims McGuinness, a consultant with the Boulder-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, has worked with CU’s regents to try to better board relations dating to the 1990s. Most recently, he helped compile a 40-page report presented to the regents last year on the board’s difficulty enacting a shared vision.

“I think getting partisan politics out of this board would be a major help,” McGuinness said in an interview last week. “You’ve got to leave your party label behind. There’s a good deal of political division and hurt feelings, and when you’re dealing with a group with such important issues, you kind of just want to say, ‘Guys, there’s a bigger agenda here,’ rather than getting tangled in who’s an ‘R’ and who’s a ‘D.’ ”

CU’s nine-member Board of Regents has been Republican-controlled since 1979, with GOP-affiliated regents currently holding a one-vote majority. CU likewise has a history of selecting Republican presidents, including Bruce Benson, Hank Brown, Elizabeth Hoffman and John Buechner.

Benson, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party who is stepping down as CU’s president this summer, took office in 2008 amid protest over his work in the oil and gas industry, his partisan background and his lack of an advanced degree. The regents voted 6-3, a party-line split, to hire him.

RELATED: Like Mark Kennedy, Bruce Benson was a controversial pick for CU president — but he delivered as a fundraiser

The regents this month unanimously recommended Mark R. Kennedy, the current president of the University of North Dakota and a former Republican congressman, as the sole finalist to succeed Benson.

That selection, though, immediately proved controversial, with students, faculty and alumni raising concerns about everything from Kennedy’s votes in Congress against gay marriage and in favor of abortion restrictions to his request to skip a Colorado Public Radio host’s question about affirmative action.

Some of the Democratic regents have publicly wavered in their support of him following outrage from the CU campuses.

Kennedy this week will visit each of CU’s campuses to meet with students, faculty, staff and the public. That tour begins with an event Monday afternoon in Denver.

The regents are expected to vote on his hiring next month.

Enshrined in the constitution

Much has changed since CU’s flagship Boulder campus was founded in 1876: The Board of Regents has gone from shepherding a single operation to governing four multibillion-dollar, independent campuses with more than 67,000 students spread out across the Front Range.

What’s remained the same is the portion of Colorado’s state constitution mandating that CU be governed by a board of nine regents elected to staggered six-year terms.

The board — responsible for such high-level tasks as hiring the university’s president, setting tuition rates and approving the system’s $4.5 billion operating budget — is currently made up of one regent from each Colorado congressional district and two regents elected at-large on a statewide basis.

“The way the law works is that regents get access to the ballot by coming up through the party primary system and advancing to the ballot as other candidates who are elected by political party,” said Patrick O’Rourke, CU’s university counsel and secretary of the Board of Regents.

Nearly all other universities in the country aside from CU, the University of Michigan, the University of Nevada and the University of Nebraska have governing boards appointed by the state’s governor subject to confirmation by the legislature, O’Rourke said.

“A fair percentage of the statutes that are behind that mandate the membership be balanced to reflect the diversity of the state, and a number of them say there needs to be fair representation of political parties and be staggered so one governor cannot generally appoint the whole board,” McGuinness said. “Given that it’s not the 19th century anymore, people ought to take seriously that the kind of governing structures that (Colorado State University) has — a governing board appointed by the governor subject to legislative review — makes sense in the 21st century.”

“Individuals representing their constituents”

McGuinness has acted as a therapist of sorts for CU’s regents.

“I’ve been an observer and participant in efforts to try to help the board function effectively,” McGuinness said. “But my real concern is that I’m a citizen of Colorado, and I worry about how, given the impact of the university on the future of the state, we ought to be concerned about how it functions.”

The higher education consultant has facilitated retreats and interviewed regents one-on-one for a comprehensive picture of what was working and what was not so he could make recommendations steering the board toward calmer seas. The regents even took personality tests last year in an effort to better communicate and “reach our interpersonal and professional goals more effectively.”

McGuinness recalled interviewing a CU regent in 1994 who said he had been shot down in Vietnam while serving in the Air Force.

“On the board, he had been very outspoken on conservative views,” McGuinness said. “He said in the interview, ‘Aims, this has been one of the most trying experiences I’ve had in my life being on this board.’ I looked at him and said, ‘You’ve been a prisoner of war.’ It was just the level of respect of everyone was at such a low level. It was just an unwillingness to listen to people.”

A 1994 article in the Rocky Mountain News headlined “CU Regents pick away at each other” described a board meeting about the next CU president as “a sparring match” between “the bitterly divided board” that “degenerated into sniping about petty politics.”

McGuinness doled out the same advice on moving past partisan politics in 1994 as he did in 2018. “This board has had just about every retreat with somebody saying the same thing to them,” he said.

But make no mistake, McGuinness said. He’s not criticizing the regents as individuals.

“These are really dedicated people who are really, in their own way, committed to the future of the university,” McGuinness said. “The challenge the board faces is these people have very different perspectives that reflect the differences across Colorado, and that is absolutely amplified given the political environment. This board has extraordinary challenges.”

The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems’s 2018 report outlined what the CU regents were doing well and what needed improvement to better inform the future of the university.

“Why is it such a challenge for the Board of Regents to implement what it has resolved to do repeatedly over the past few years?” the report’s authors wrote. “Part of the reason may lie in the characteristics of an elected board that make it difficult to implement a policy governance process commonly recommended by (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges) and other authorities on governance.”

Some regents identified their constituents, in part, as those who supported their candidacies and voted for them, creating a sense of obligation to fulfill commitments on particular issues they may have campaigned on. Sometimes those were campus-level issues “far removed from the high-level policy responsibilities of the governing body for a multi-campus system,” the report said.

From McGuinness’ observations, he described the board as functioning like a “mini-legislature.”

“They see themselves as individuals representing their constituents and their campaigns and that they need to be accountable to their constituents rather than seeing themselves as a governing board accountable to the university,” McGuinness said. “That’s problematic for a regular school board, but now imagine it’s for a multibillion-dollar enterprise that touches every part of Colorado.”

Being held accountable

Regent Sue Sharkey, R-Castle Rock, the chair of the board, was the only current regent who responded to a request for comment for this story.

Sharkey said she is proud to be a member of an elected board because more people pay attention to CU’s Board of Regents.

“It’s interesting, the distinction between Colorado State University, where we don’t really hear about their governing board,” Sharkey said. “It just doesn’t get as much attention, so I think it’s good that the people of Colorado have an opportunity to pay attention to what we’re doing as a governing board and the decisions we make and are held accountable for. We’re very actively involved as elected officials, and I like that.

RELATED: CU regents defend selection of presidential finalist Mark Kennedy: “We did not rush and did not compromise”

“If it’s a governor-appointed board, it’s typically more high-profile people or people in business, and that’s not a bad model. It’s just different than who we are.”

Colorado State University representatives declined to comment on the pros and cons of being overseen by a board appointed by the governor.

Michael Carrigan, a former Democratic regent from Denver who served on the CU board from 2005 to 2017, said there is no doubt that an elected board has negative effects, but he didn’t think a governor-appointed board was the way to go, either.

Carrigan said pressure from the governor and the governor’s appointees could be just as damaging as the partisan divide. Carrigan pointed to a personal example of former Gov. Bill Owens pressuring him to fire Ward Churchill, the professor CU terminated a decade ago in a contentious academic freedom battle that went all the way to the state Supreme Court.

“That was pressure from a sitting governor to a board member, but I felt no pressure because I was independently elected,” Carrigan said.

But the current election system, Carrigan added, leads to “an unhealthy amount of partisanship.” He added: “There are good, qualified people who are not willing to go through the whole campaign thing and the brain damage of that.”

Instead, he wondered if a signature petition process or something like a judicial commission that could vet candidates on a nonpartisan basis and nominate them would be alternative options.

Carrigan isn’t alone in thinking there must be another way.

Norm Brownstein, founding partner in powerhouse Denver-based law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, said he floated an idea to former Gov. John Hickenlooper a few years ago about pursuing a change to the makeup of CU’s Board of Regents while maintaining its constitutional integrity.

Brownstein, an involved CU alum, proposed adding eight governor-appointed regents to the board. The eight could not outvote the nine elected regents, Brownstein said, but could add more balanced perspectives and make the board less political.

Resistance from the regents prompted the end of that discussion, Brownstein said.

“I think it’s a good idea to revisit doing something constructive to change the makeup of the board,” Brownstein said. “CU is a treasure for the state of Colorado.”

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