Despite secrecy, budget crunch, CSU chancellor search presses forward

The historic administration building at Colorado State University. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
The historic administration building at Colorado State University. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
Rocked by the former president’s high stakes budget shifting, Colorado State University is gambling once again that upping administration costs will bolster the university in the future.

The controversial search for the land grant university’s first system chancellor comes amid faculty and staff layoffs, a looming multi-million dollar budget shortfall and another round of expected state tuition hikes. But what good does a high-level executive ensconced in a Denver office bring to thousands of middle-class students and members of the dwindling ranks of tenured faculty at the Fort Collins and Pueblo campuses?

The Colorado State University chancellor search committee has reviewed roughly 12 applications and has received roughly 12 more, according to the university. The next meeting of the committee is scheduled for May 4 and it aims to hire a new chancellor by July 1. The committee refuses to release the applicants’ names and is likely to present just one, its top choice, for public review.

The speed and secrecy of the search and the restricted membership of the search committee, which is made up mostly of CSU current or former board members and corporate CEOs, has irked some observers and CSU students.

But the university argues that so-called stake-holder forums were held for the public before the search began and that high-caliber applicants would be reluctant to apply for the position if it was policy to reveal their names, according to Michele McKinney, a CSU public relations officer. The concern is that news of a failed application would land as a stain on their resumes.

But questions have followed the search from its inception.

McKinney acknowledges, for example, that it’s a “less-than-ideal time” for the university to be hiring a new expensive top executive. This year, and perhaps for years to come, the stability of state higher education budgets are anything but certain.

During the most recent financial quarter, CSU alone was forced to make millions of dollars in cuts, laying off at least 14 employees since the beginning of the year, including executives in the administration.

There are more cuts to come. The university is bracing for a projected $13.1 million shortfall on planned expenditures this year and continuing drops in state revenues had lawmakers last week considering a potentially devastating $300 million across-the-board cut to higher education. An 11th-hour compromise in the so-called long bill, or state budget, which determines public funding for state universities, preserves current higher education spending. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk, where it is subject to partial veto.

But CSU is plowing ahead and is set to hire not just any high-level official but the university’s highest-level executive officer: its first-ever stand-alone chancellor to oversee both campuses.

The decision to separate the university chancellorship from the Fort Collins presidency is a bold and some say baffling move that the public university has not genuinely been pressed to explain since it was first proposed last December. The finances of the decision are yet to be revealed, the salary and operating costs of the new office part of the fiscal year budget to be released this summer.

Penley scandal sets the chancellor search in motion

The CSU board decision to break the university chancellor position off from the Fort Collins campus presidency was made by unanimous vote in December, weeks after Larry Penley, then the Fort Collins president and university chancellor, resigned partly in reaction to revelations, first reported by the Colorado Independent, that he was redirecting massive amounts in revenues to his own office and staff and away from the faculty and students, bloating top executive and other salaries and compensation at the public institution in a manner reminiscent of recently disgraced Wall Street firms.

Then-Colorado State University President and Chancellor Larry Penley gives the 2008 State of the University address in Fort Collins. Penley resigned six weeks later while under fire for questionable budget and administrative decisions. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
Then-Colorado State University President and Chancellor Larry Penley gives the 2008 State of the University address in Fort Collins. Penley resigned six weeks later while under fire for questionable budget and administrative decisions. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
In light of the scandal, the decision to create a sole administrator and increase the budget of the non-campus System Office in Denver seems an odd choice to some observers of the institution. But details of the nature of the discussions on the matter remain vague.

Minutes of the meeting where the decision was made (posted Feb. 25. 2009) are merely overviews. Stephen Portch, retired chancellor of the University of Georgia who now consults on university executive searches, led discussion and had the board review options for the future administration structure of CSU, including proposals to leave the Fort Collins president as university chancellor and splitting the two positions.

People who were present at the board meeting refer all questions on the chancellor search to McKinney, who says the needs of the university’s fast-growing Pueblo campus suggested an adjustment in the administrative balance that would provide Pueblo with greater representation and that the need to have someone “with a deep Rolodex on the ground in Denver” was essential, someone to interact regularly with lawmakers and “to attend cocktail parties” with major potential donors.

“If we want to become the kind of preeminent institution we intend to become, we need someone in Denver,” she said.

Fort Collins’ loss is Pubelo’s gain

Gerry Bomotti, a former CSU financial officer who worked under Penley and presidential predecessor Al Yates, isn’t so sure.

“That’s bucking trends nationwide … it goes against the logic of most university systems, how schools choose to advance the university today,” he said.

One trend is to break up multi-campus university systems and emphasize their specialties, not consolidate them. The recent divisions among the state colleges of Nevada are example. Likewise, CSU used to oversee Fort Lewis College in Durango, which broke off in 2002 and established an independent board and regional professional programs.

The new CSU chancellorship is also likely both directly and indirectly to devalue the anchor campus at Fort Collins, which in administrative matters will now be on equal footing with Pueblo. Bomotti and other university administrators interviewed argue that that is no way to advance the university, including the Pueblo campus.

“You want to lift up that anchor campus — that raises all campuses. Fort Collins has the name. Fund raising is dependent on — not to demean Pueblo — but fund raising is dependent on programs people are interested in nationwide, the research being done, et cetera.”

Bomotti points to the interim presidency at Fort Collins held for now by Tony Frank. Should the university decide to fill the presidency, it will be difficult to recruit the best candidates because the office has in effect been degraded by the establishment of the new stand-alone chancellorship. Bomotti said anyone considering the presidency at Fort Collins will see it as a demoted position, where fund raising power and stature has faded, where there is more bureaucracy to deal with, where Fort Collins will be competing for attention and favors with the Pueblo campus and its president.

“This person will say ‘I’m on a parallel with Pueblo. I report to the chancellor.’ They’ll ask what all that means in trying to run the place. So how will they now recruit people of stature to the position, a candidate of national stature like an Al Yates, who was there when I was there?”

Yates was Fort Collins president and university chancellor for 13 years beginning in 1990.

McKinney said there is no decision yet on whether the university will conduct a search this year for a permanent Fort Collins president.

“First we have to hire a chancellor,” she said.

Continue reading part two of this investigative series at Little-known Denver office central to controversial CSU chancellor search

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