Larry Penley became CSU’s 13th president when he replaced the retiring Albert C. Yates on Aug. 1.
Penley, 54, came to CSU from Arizona State University, where he served as the dean of the W.P. Carey Business School.
He takes control of CSU at a time of financial uncertainty. The university’s budget was cut nearly 27 percent for the fiscal year, and tuition has been raised 9.5 percent from last year, according to a June university press release.
Recently Penley sat down in his office with The Collegian to talk about his first month as CSU’s new president and some plans for the future.
Collegian: What has your first few weeks at CSU been like?
Penley: It has been a bit of a whirlwind. I already knew CSU was a fine university but getting to know it has really been a wonderful experience because it’s even better than I thought. It strikes me that, in conversations with students, the students are more satisfied with their experiences here than even I knew. They are very happy with the choice they made to come to CSU.
Faculty is enormously dedicated, not only to teaching but also to the knowledge generation they are a part of as a result of their research programs. If you look at things from the point of view of expectations, my expectations were reasonably high and they’ve been exceeded.
Collegian: What has been most rewarding about a life in academics?
Penley: I have found it enormously rewarding to be able to play the role of administrator and help faculty do what faculty do extremely well, which is work with young people. And we’re providing an education that is so important in a knowledge economy.
Also, we’re working on research that really matters in terms of the economic development of our country, and matters in terms of our health and well-being. CSU is a particularly strong example of the kind of research that will matter in the future. So to be an administrator and have a chance to facilitate that research, to encourage that, to make it happen, that in itself is rewarding.
Collegian: What are some of the challenges facing the university in the current economic environment?
Penley: There is no question there are a lot of challenges. Among those challenges is assuring access for young people to education. It’s a huge challenge because of the way public education is funded at this point, the price of public education at this point.
… The challenge is financial resources in so many ways. We are at a time when we cannot expect states to fund public education the way they have in the past … for a whole set of reasons.
For one thing states are enormously dependent upon individual income tax. In Colorado, 85 percent of revenue comes from sales tax and individual income tax. The stock market, basically, has not recovered to the point at which there are capital gains that drive an increase (in state revenue) from taxes on individual return. (That increase) is some years away, given the capital losses of the last few years.
So neither this state, nor most, can count on individual income tax really providing the revenue that you need.
If you look at sales tax, sales tax depends on a healthy job market. Right now we’re not seeing the capital expenditures from corporations that would drive job growth.
… So when you look down the road I don’t see the economic recovery. I guess I would say I’m modestly optimistic, but not real optimistic, about the extent to which that recovery would drive general fund revenue. Also states have growing costs associated with baby boom retirement in terms of Medicare and Medicaid.
… So states are going to be facing some very difficult times. We’re going to have to depend on other sources of revenue. And we’re going to become more dependent on tuition than we have in the past. I don’t see any other way around these factors given the financial situation. That is a huge challenge for public higher education.
Collegian: So, given your modest optimism on economic recovery and the state’s ability to fund public higher education, do you see tuition continuing to increase?
Penley: Colorado has been very lucky in the past in the sense that tuition has been held well below tuition in other states. And even this past year the tuition increases at CSU were well below what they were in a lot of other states. Tuition went up 50 percent in Arizona.
… In fact if you look at CSU compared to the typical land-grant institution last year, our in-state resident tuition was about 76 percent of the average. So we were below average and this year, despite the increases at CSU, we’re 72 percent of the average at land-grant institutions.
… The situation is very difficult in terms of really assuring a quality education. It’s going to take funding from a variety of different sources. Tuition is only one of those sources.
Collegian: Should a freshman hearing all of this, and hearing about budget cuts at CSU, worry about the quality of education at CSU over the next few years?
Penley: No, I don’t think so. We are going to continue to maintain and raise the quality of education. We are determined to do that.
Collegian: Given the funding issues we have been discussing, how can the university continue its commitment to diversity on campus and educating students from underprivileged backgrounds?
Penley: When I talked to the governor I felt very comforted by the fact that the governor was very supportive of need-based scholarships.
… It’s incumbent upon us as a state to develop greater need-based scholarships. It is incumbent upon us as a university to take tuition dollars and use a portion of those tuition dollars for need-based scholarships as well. In the process of doing so we create access such that people of varying means can come here. This ensures a diverse environment.
We all know that (having people on campus) who grew up differently from us, made dinners differently from us, went to different churches than us, did things differently than us, is an educational part of being here. Diversity really does matter from an educational point of view.