Over the past few years, the Colorado State University Board of Governors has become increasingly secretive. During the spring of 2009, the BOG’s stealth maneuvers became so extreme that several Colorado legislators introduced House Bill 1369, which was intended to require the CSU Board of Governors to conduct its business with greater transparency. In a separate action, on May 5, 2009, District Court Judge Stephen Schapanski ruled that the CSU Board of Governors violated state open meeting laws when the BOG interviewed Joe Blake behind closed doors for the position of System Chancellor. Thus, there is abundant evidence that the CSU Board of Governors has become more clandestine, however, what is less clear is why the BOG believes it requires so much secrecy.
Transparency is an essential part of managing public institutions. That is, exacting public scrutiny has a tendency to keep leaders honest. In the absence of such scrutiny, leaders tend to wander from that straight and narrow path. Transparency is the key to good governance.
Indeed, it is that truism which makes the CSU Board of Governors’ recent passion for secrecy so worrisome.
Again, one must ask, what’s with all the secrecy? As long as the CSU Board of Governors makes decisions that serve the better interests of their constituents, there should be no need for secrecy. Of course, therein lies the rub. Secrets become essential when leaders of public institutions place their own interests above those of their constituents.
The decision to install Joe Blake as CSU System Chancellor is an ideal case in point. No doubt, the CSU Board of Governors had some inkling that conferring a plum sinecure on one of its own members would likely stir outcries of cronyism. Therefore, the BOG concealed key elements of the chancellor search process in order to minimize public oversight until its eyebrow-raising conclusion was a fait accompli.
Additionally, the CSU Board of Governors’ dogged secrecy has effectively suppressed the curious circumstances surrounding the departure of former Chancellor Larry Penley — who, hard-working Coloradans might like to know, negotiated a sweet severance package (including payouts of $389,000 per year until 2010) at Colorado tax-payer’s expense. Thus, the lesson to gain from this is, as long as public officials can maintain secrecy, they can usually violate the public’s trust with impunity.
Of course, there are additional advantages to keeping secrets. Stealth has often been employed by leaders who are angling for additional power. For example, under Colorado Law, creating new public institutions of higher education requires a decision on the part of the state legislature. The power of conferring legislative authority on public colleges and universities remains the preserve of the legislature largely because, in anointing new colleges and universities, the state must also assume responsibility for funding those institutions. Yet, in spite of this constraint, several years ago the CSU Board of Governors, without bothering to secure legislative authority, created the third campus in its System, CSU-Global.
If you visit the CSU System homepage, you will see three boxes in the center of the page that link to the three campuses in the CSU System: including two that enjoy legislative authority, i.e., CSU-Fort Collins and CSU-Pueblo, and one that does not, CSU-Global. Further, on January 28, 2009, Diane Evans, Treasurer for the Board of Governors, affirmed in an open forum at CSU-Pueblo that, though CSU-Global happens to be a “virtual” university, from the perspective of the CSU Board of Governors, CSU-Global occupies a stature that is equivalent to the other two CSU System campuses. Dick Robinson, who co-chaired the open forum and who happens to be a past Chair of the CSU Governing Board, concurred with Diane Evans.
Robinson stated that, from the perspective of the CSU Board of Governors, there are three campuses in the CSU System and, though each has a different mission, the Board of Governors recognizes each as an independent campus in the CSU System.
Wow. So, who needs legislative authority when you can get what you want more efficiently without it?
Although, by this time, the fact of CSU-Global’s existence should be a surprise to no one, the manner in which CSU-Global came into existence should be alarming to everyone. By stealthily arrogating the right to create a third campus on its own volition, the CSU Board of Governors has set a major precedent: no longer do Colorado institutions of higher education need to gain approval from the state in order to create new, publicly supported colleges or universities. That is quite a coup d’etat.
Okay, so, what’s the big deal? After all, one could argue that the CSU Board of Governors knows what’s best for Colorado State University and, thus, the BOG should have every right to make decisions independently of state and public interference. Compelling as such an argument may be, it does overlook one key point: Colorado State University is a taxpayer-funded institution. The people of Colorado own and operate Colorado State University. The CSU Board of Governors has been appointed not to serve themselves, but to serve the better interests of the people of Colorado. In its zeal to operate under a cloud of secrecy, the CSU Board of Governors seems to have overlooked those all-important truths.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem. The people of Colorado can remind the CSU Board of Governors that they work for us. If Colorado’s taxpayers demand more transparency and compliance with state rules and regulations, then the BOG will have no choice but to comply. Isn’t it great to live in a democracy?
Transparency is the very least — and yet it is perhaps the most important quality — that taxpayers should expect from their public servants. It’s time to let the light shine in at Colorado State University.
Timothy McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University-Pueblo.