Little-known Denver office central to controversial CSU chancellor search

CSU Board of Governors members, from left, Marguerite Salazar, Ed Haselden and Joe Blake. Salazar and Haselden also serve on the chancellor search committee. (Photo/Colorado State University)
CSU Board of Governors members, from left, Marguerite Salazar, Ed Haselden and Joe Blake. Salazar and Haselden also serve on the chancellor search committee. (Photo/Colorado State University)
Investigation of the veiled process by which Colorado State University decided to hire its first system-wide chancellor to lobby lawmakers and “attend cocktail parties” leads to a nondescript administrative division housed in Denver.

The CSU System Office, which is closely aligned with the university Board of Governors overseeing the chancellor search, has been a well-fed beneficiary of disgraced former president and chancellor Larry Penley, whose budget-shifting largesse bled academic and student services. The Denver office houses the general counsel, auditing and finance departments for the university’s Fort Collins, Pueblo and global campuses as well as seven staffers who provide various managerial support to the board. The System Office will also soon serve as the plush digs for the new chancellor.

“I find it bizarre, frankly,” said former CSU financial officer Gerry Bomotti of the decision to create a new top executive position at the university. “Money is so tight this year … it’s no time to be adding administrative layers. A conservative board would normally be looking to seriously cut administrative costs.”

Bomotti, who is currently senior vice president for finance and business for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, estimates a new university chancellor position filled with a top candidate who is determined to succeed will require hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars.

“You have to presume this person will not be working alone from his or her car,” Bomotti said.

University spokeswoman Michele McKinney said the CSU board has kept a vigilant eye on the strained budget while conducting the search. The committee declined to go the normal route and hire a search firm, for example, which likely saved about $100,000. She also downplayed the notion that the position will increase administrative spending without generating proportional benefits to the faculty and students. She said the chancellor will lean instead on existing staff at the CSU System Office, particularly on the university system’s chief financial officer and general counsel.

“This will not be a bureaucratic position,” McKinney said. “I believe the chancellor will come in with an assistant, one assistant, and that’s it.”

It will have to be an assistant who can juggle a busy calendar. McKinney told The Colorado Independent that the ideal candidate for chancellor would be someone “with a deep Rolodex on the ground in Denver” with the ability to interact regularly with lawmakers and “to attend cocktail parties” with major potential donors.

But given the secrecy surrounding the search, establishing an expanded chancellorship designed to curry favor in Denver might be difficult to sell to students and faculty enduring some of the most sorely strained finances in the university’s history.

Last month, CSU trimmed the System Office staff by eliminating two executives, an associate vice president for marketing and a legislative liaison, to save an estimated $210,000 in salary.

McKinney said CSU did not make the cuts to free up money for the new positions.

“We felt that we had to make cuts, that the [budget] crisis was real, and so we should take the lead on that.”

It’s difficult to calculate the present budgetary requirements of the CSU System Office in Denver. The way the Budgets office breaks out operating budget summaries has evolved in the last few years, for example, making direct year-to-year comparisons difficult. And the places where the president’s office or other offices or services might overlap with the System Office is unclear in information that’s available to the public. CSU spokesman Brad Bohlander has yet to return calls to the Colorado Independent for clarification.

The documents do, however, list expenditure for “CSU System Office Support” at $4.7 million for the 2009 fiscal year. That’s up $500,000 from the 2008 budget.

Meanwhile, students are bracing for further tuition and fee hikes in the face of a projected $13.1 million shortfall on planned expenditures this year. Lawmakers averted a potentially devastating $300 million across-the-board cut to higher education but the so-called long bill, or state budget, which determines public funding for state universities. A last minute budget compromise was reached in the legislature that will preserve current funding for higher education. The bill now moves to the governor, where sections may be vetoed.

Yet the chancellor search committee, mostly free of public scrutiny, soldiers on in its effort to hire a new expensive top executive at the land-grant university.

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