Jan 212010

By Aaron Hedge

The Rocky Mountain Collegian

Tony Frank rushed into a meeting in a conference room in the Lory Student Center on a snowy morning in early October, late to welcome Colorado’s top higher education committee to campus for a stern discussion on funding for colleges and universities.

He had been in his office chipping away at the mountain of administrative duties typical of the top position at an institution as large as CSU. It took an instant message from one of his No. 2s to remind him of the task.

After apologizing profusely for his tardiness, for which he might have been docked grade points in many rooms on campus, the normally punctual and articulate CSU president praised the board for its work to stress the importance of higher education in the state.

That day, the group, Colorado’s Commission on Higher Education, decided to request lawmakers to limit tuition increases for in-state residents to 9 percent.

Their effort runs parallel to campaigns by leadership at Colorado’s colleges and universities to maintain the state’s competitive edge in educating its people.

Frank’s lateness could indicate that he simply lost track of the time. Or it might represent the mounting pressures the self-described “optimist” is feeling in his struggle to stress CSU’s relevance to the state.

After accepting leadership at CSU in November 2008, Frank inherited one of the most difficult responsibilities in Colorado: to keep the state’s second largest educational institution afloat in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

If the hill wasn’t steep enough, the challenge is set against the backdrop of one of the longest, most convoluted state constitutions in the nation, which requires lawmakers to increase funding for state programs every year, while mandating that they cannot raise more money in taxes.

While the task is a tall one, many remain confident in Frank and his boss, CSU Chancellor Joe Blake, in keeping CSU at the forefront of the discussion.

Blake a long-time advocate for higher ed

A conference room on the 24th floor of the Denver skyscraper overlooks the west end of the city’s skyline. Between the buildings, the horizon was accented by the Rocky Mountains, many of them shrouded by a thick veil of fog one day early last semester.

But sitting in a swivel chair in the room, Joe Blake wasn’t concerned with the dismal weather he could see through the picture window.

His thoughts extended farther and in different directions than the westerly view of the conference room window allowed him to see.

They centered around two smaller communities –– one an hour north, one an hour and a half south –– and the force driving the economies in both regions: the CSU System.

His task to keep it healthy is one he and others say is the biggest challenge in the state.

“The worst thing that could happen to the average citizen right now is to step on an elevator in a 40-story building with someone from higher education ‘cause mostly what we do is whine,” he said. “… On Floor 2, you’ve turned it off, and on Floor 40, you’ve run through your grocery list.”

He says key players in funding for higher education have a responsibility to put their noses to the grindstone and figure out a solution to the higher education funding crisis.

Some doubt whether public institutions in the state will last the decade.

But with the faith of a large number of university community members backing him, Blake says he and President Frank can carry out the tall task.

John Straayer, a prominent political science professor, said Blake’s strong connections with Colorado’s business community create a framework for close ties with key players in funding higher education.

A history in responsible conservatism

Blake’s brand of fiscal conservatism doesn’t seem to fit with the neoconservative GOP view that the less financial power the government has, the better.

After he graduated law school at CU-Boulder in the ‘60s, he began working for a prominent U.S. senator named Gordon Allott.

Allott, a Colorado Republican who sat on the Senate appropriations committee, Blake said, taught him what happens when the reigns of fiscal policy are taken from the hands of legislators –– Blake said it’s not pretty.

And Colorado’s financial situation, which allows its officials an amount of lawmaking power that is among the smallest in the nation, seems to corroborate Blake’s philosophy.

To become a nationally competitive higher education force, the state would have to allocate nearly $850 million more to the program each year for the next decade than it is able to.

After his work with Allott, Blake went on to become a potent member of Colorado’s political and business communities as chair of the state’s transportation board and, later, the same for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

In the months leading up to Colorado’s failing financial health in 2005, Blake jumped onboard with a statewide campaign for a voter initiative that would end up lifting the lid on taxing and allocation restrictions mandated by an overt state policy called the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

The legislation, called Referendum C, became the impetus to finance the higher education system here until 2011, when many expect the measure to die.

Since then, he has positioned himself prominently among Colorado’s business community, most recently with President Frank, to add steam to statewide campaigns for voter support for higher education.

The latest effort is a grassroots, CSU System-led initiative called CSU Advocates, which provides a forum for students and alumni groups to send electronic messages to state legislators and donate funds to the university.

And Frank, who has worked for CSU for more than two decades and was inaugurated last semester as president with a huge amount of statewide and university support, has been working with Rotary clubs and community organizations.

He has pressed flesh with prominent Fort Collins residents and worked with state lawmakers to ensure that CSU maintains its clout as the state’s land grant university.

He told Denver’s Comcast Newsmakers’ Beverly Weaver in an interview over the winter break that an educated populace is an essential resource for the state.

Many confident in Frank and Blake

Amid a chorus of complaints from media about the secrecy of the discussion, CSU’s governing board nominated Blake as the sole candidate for system chancellor in a closed-door meeting in the spring of 2009.

The CSU-Fort Collins president previously held the chancellor position, carrying out the duties of both offices. After former president Larry Penley resigned suddenly Nov. 5, 2008, the board decided to split the positions, citing a need for a closer relationship with the state and the dual roles formerly held by the university’s top executive.

Many said the split was a bad decision, posing the question: Why should the university pay two salaries for one position?

But after the controversy surrounding the pick died down over the summer, the broad university community threw heavy support behind Blake and Frank’s efforts to raise voter awareness for the floundering state of higher education.

“They’re doing the right thing,” Straayer said in an interview earlier this semester.

Few options and little fanfare exist among Colorado’s notoriously conservative voting community for supporting a state program that doesn’t benefit the entire state.

“Higher ed is not a protected species,” he said. “It does not have a place where Coloradans have said “we want to make this a permanent investment.”

Options include gaining voter support for possible tax increases and a complete constitutional rewrite, neither of which are likely to happen.

And the latter, Blake said, is a complex move wrought with risk and one he doesn’t support.

But if something isn’t done soon, university officials and policy experts say, CSU will continue to suffer from drastic cuts and sharply spiking tuition rates, resulting in reduced access for Colorado’s voters.

“You’d be a smaller institution that doesn’t have as much quality, and prices would increase,” Frank said in an interview. “ … Paying more and getting less is not a good business model.”

The answer, Blake says, will be found through elbow grease and tireless efforts. It’s far from easy, and that’s why his and Frank’s campaign is so important.

But, Blake added, as the fog outside the conference room window started to clear, “We’re not cowed. We are not back in the back of the cave, waiting for sunlight.”

Projects Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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