CSU’s president triples own budget, strips away cash for academics

Colorado State University President Larry Penley gives his fifth annual State of the University address in Fort Collins last week. Penley spoke about the need to continue the university's efforts to attract 'green' research and learning over the next five years. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
Colorado State University President Larry Penley gives his fifth annual State of the University address in Fort Collins last week. Penley spoke about the need to continue the university's efforts to attract 'green' research and learning over the next five years. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

Copyright 2008, The Colorado Independent

Since taking the helm of Colorado State University in 2003, President Larry Penley has shifted millions in state funds away from the academic colleges and library system of the state’s second-largest university system, while beefing up the school’s athletics department and nearly tripling the budget of his own Office of the President.

The result has been a dramatic increase in the amount of tax dollars being used for nonacademic purposes at CSU, according to an analysis of university documents by The Colorado Independent.

The administrative increases include large salary raises to some top administrators, an expensive marketing effort and a doubling of the number of vice president positions within Penley’s office. At the same time, tuition at CSU has increased 52 percent since Penley’s arrival, while mandatory student fees have risen by more than 70 percent — and the number of credit hours taught by tenured professors has decreased and class sizes have grown.??

None of Penley’s efforts suggest legal improprieties, but all have largely been made with little, if any, public input — and without the oversight of state lawmakers, who assign the money to Colorado’s higher-education coffers.

At his State of the University speech last week, Penley focused on CSU’s new five-year vision and highlighted the continuing effort to turn the university, with its flagship campus in Fort Collins, into one focused on “green” learning and research. What Penley left out of his address were the raw numbers marking his tenure overseeing the university.

Consider the facts:
• Since Penley assumed the presidency, the amount of state funds funneled into the president’s office has increased by 212 percent from just over $824,000 to nearly $2.6 million. That is nearly three and half times the 66-percent increase former CSU President Al Yates employed during the final five years of his tenure.

• Over the past five years, the athletics department has received a 135-percent increase in state funding, from close to $2.1 million to more than $4.8 million — again, dwarfing the 17.4-percent increase during Yates’ final years.

• Salaries of some top administrators working alongside Penley have increased at rates dramatically higher than most faculty and classified staff in recent years. The campus police chief alone has received a 51-percent increase in his salary over the past three years and is currently paid $157,300 annually — more than the chiefs in charge of police operations in the cities of Fort Collins and Boulder.

• During the same time, the percentage increase of state funds to CSU’s academic colleges and its library system is markedly lower. Since 2003, funding for academic colleges has risen 32.4 percent, while the library system increased by 30.3 percent or about one-fourth the rate of growth for athletics and one-seventh the rate for administration. In total, CSU is allocating more money to administrative line budgets in 2009 than to the academic colleges — for the first time in the school’s history.

• The result has been larger class sizes for students and fewer credit hours being taught by full-time tenured professors. Since 2003, the number of credit hours taught by full-time professors has decreased by 16 percent 19 percent to equal less than half of the total course offerings taught in an academic year. The library system has been forced to cut back on the number of academic journals and periodicals.

CSU administrators say the changes are part of a larger effort to re-brand the university as a worldwide leader in renewable energy research, to attract more private and federal research dollars, and to help cut its dependence on state funding, which is susceptible to economic downturns. But the result, some longtime professors say, is a diminished undergraduate education amid higher tuition and student fee costs for Colorado taxpayers, along with a concerning change to the university’s core mission to offer an affordable education to the state’s working class families.

“Yes, I have concerns,” said political science professor John Straayer, who has taught at CSU for nearly 40 years. “New ventures and administrative expansion are sucking up a growing proportion of the education and general (instructional) budget, and the academic core has been pushed down the priority line.

“In and of themselves, some of the new priorities may be defensible, but in a time of tight budgets and rising costs to students, the academic foundation and instructional program should be first priority.”

Shifting funding and focus

Penley came to Colorado in 2003 from Arizona State University, where he served as the dean of the Business School. He took over the university for Yates, who retired after 13 years at the helm. Penley oversees a system that encompasses more than a half-dozen campuses, 25,000 students, 13,000 employees and an annual operating budget of three-quarters of a billion dollars.

University officials declined requests for an interview with Penley himself, but Tony Frank, CSU’s senior vice president and provost, told The Colorado Independent that there is more than one way to view the shifts in funding — and claimed that some money allocated to administrative budget lines eventually funnels down to the academic level.

“I won’t argue that there is more money going into central administrative units than there has been in the past, but the question is, where is that money going and what is the final outcome?” Frank said. “People often think administrative funding is just used for bureaucratic things — men in suits — and wonder where the value is added to education.

“But, a lot of the money is being used to ensure we have good student access through enhanced funding for financial aid and to ensure we have (funding) for new faculty members.”

Frank points to the $6.5 million CSU has allocated over the last three years to administrative budget lines that was used to expand financial aid, as well as other administrative funding that was used to hire new police officers.

“So, should we be investing more into the office of the executive vice president? Most people would say, ‘No,’ but if you say, ‘Should we invest in the safety of our students and employees, given our police staffing levels were lower than other universities?’ I think most people would say, ‘Yeah, that makes sense,'” Frank said.

However, Penley’s ability to dramatically re-prioritize millions in state dollars is a troubling reality for some.

“It’s commendable that leaders at CSU are seeking heroic alternatives to the poor state funding and to the ever-increasing tuition from students and their parents,” said C.W. Miller, a professor in the biomedical science department who has been at CSU for nearly four decades. “My concerns deal with not knowing the details of what is going on with the funding shifts.”

Despite transparency in much of the university budget, Miller said it’s hard to determine whether student tuition dollars are being used to fund areas of university operation that traditionally have been paid for through private entities or the university foundation.

The concerns over Penley’s reorganization go beyond university faculty as well.

Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Larimer County
Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Larimer County
State Sen. Steve Johnson, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, which oversees money that is appropriated to the university — more than $408 million alone this year — said CSU leaders should have made their plans clear to the Legislature before Penley implemented the changes.

Although the JBC and the Legislature may have approved the changes Penley made, Johnson said there would have been benchmarks and other expectations laid out to better allow taxpayers to measure success.

Johnson, a Republican from Fort Collins, was not aware of the shifts in funding away from academics and into the president’s office at CSU at until presented with The Colorado Independent’s findings. His reaction? “I think this is a huge problem for higher education.”

“If the Legislature doesn’t know specifically where the tax money and tuition dollars are going and why, and what value or results we are getting for it, how can we expect the taxpayers to know or believe their money is being well spent? I think often it is well spent but when we talk about more support for higher education in our state, as we often do, there is a huge disconnect here.

“People want to know, and should know, what they are getting for their money. We have a lot of work to do in this area.”

Ed. note: This is the first in a series examining the shifting funds and priorities at Colorado State university.

Read more at Are efforts to go ‘green’ at CSU busting Colorado’s middle class — the result of a months-long investigation by The Colorado Independent detailing how tax dollars have been shifted away from academic and library programs into mushrooming budgets of central administration and athletics programs.

Read more about CSU working to turn being green into a new revenue stream to supplement unreliable state funding.

Lawmakers and state officials weigh in on the investigation in Reaction on CSU funding shifts range from dismay to dismissive


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