University transparency bill advances in House, stoked by ‘rumors’ about CSU search

Speaker Terrance Carroll gavels the House into order. (Photo/Bob Spencer for The Colorado Independent)
Speaker Terrance Carroll gavels the House into order. (Photo/Bob Spencer for The Colorado Independent)
The Colorado House today voted to advance legislation introduced suddenly this week by House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann and Senate Majority Leader Brandon Shaffer that calls for greater transparency in filling leadership positions at the state’s public universities. The bill faces a key second vote on Monday, so, as Rep. Weissmann warned, “The universities will be working hard this weekend to defeat it.”

Weissmann said support for laws governing university selection processes grew around the controversial chancellor search being conducted by Colorado State University, but he added that the need to address the issue had been floated before in the legislature.

“Matter of fact, I thought we had already tackled the problem,” said Weissmann. “Turns out [Sen.] Moe Keller had introduced a bill years ago but, when I looked into it, I discovered that that bill was defeated.”

Weissmann said HB 1369 was introduced at the end of the legislative session because the way the CSU search was progressing — conducted out of the public eye in a time of tight university budgets — seemed to demand action.

“We’d been hearing rumors about the CSU chancellor search for months. First it was going to be [former state Rep.] Bernie Buescher. Then it was going to be Senator Allard. [CSU] was just going to come forward with one guy and that would be that. But how does that work as a process? It doesn’t. There’s no way to vet anyone at that point.”

Weissmann said that he and Sen. Shaffer decided to sponsor it to make it a “majority leaders bill” to give it as much momentum as possible.

“There’s not much time and it’s an important bill. We want to make sure it gets through.”

Although the bill easily passed the first reading today, the second reading Monday will be different.

“The universities will be working hard this weekend to defeat it, and it’s got three tough hurdles to clear on Monday: the House vote, a committee hearing and then a first reading scheduled in the Senate,” said Weissmann.

One argument against the bill put forward on the floor today by Rep. Don Marostica, R-Loveland, is that top executives won’t come forward if their applications are a matter of public record. That kind of exposure could create tension at the job they hold and become an embarrassment should they not be awarded the job for which they’re applying.

Weissmann waved off such concerns, saying that the gains to be made from transparency ultimately benefited all parties.

“It’s not a perfect metaphor, but look at football. You’ve got free agency. [Putting yourself on the market] is just an accepted part of the business.” Weissmann stressed the way an open policy like free agency encourages negotiation.

“Take the case of Bud Peterson,” he said of the CU-Boulder Chancellor who decamped last month for the University of Georgia. “If we had known Bud was considering leaving, we could have come back with an offer. You, know, What do you need? What can we get you? … Then it’s an open discussion; everything’s presented.”

Opponents of the bill argued against it generally as government meddling. One lawmaker suggested that the new law amounted to “a dangerous thing” that would lead to intrusions on the executives who might apply for the jobs, such as placing videos of interviews online.

Pueblo Democrat Rep. Buffie McFayden verged on exasperation in the face of such arguments.

“You want to protect corporate executives. … Well I don’t want these people coming forward. We deserve transparency. This bill is making sure we have a process in place. … I don’t want an out-of-work executive from Enron or AIG applying for these jobs.”

Evergreen Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou suggested the right of lawmakers to place demands on university committees has diminished in proportion to the amounts of money the state now provides to higher education. University boards should be left to do the work of hiring their own people, she said.

Her remarks drew howls from lawmakers who asserted that the legislature had just finished going to extraordinary lengths to approve $300 million dollars for higher education at a time when state revenues have plummeted.

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