Benson and Blake on Colorado’s higher education funding crisis

This week, Education News Colorado posted an interview with University of Colorado President Bruce Benson and Colorado State University Chancellor Joe Blake. Sitting in arm chairs for a YouTube-style video session, the two discussed the great challenge they face finding new ways to fund higher education in the state. Both universities face record shortfalls and have been saved from drastic cuts in faculty and staff by the influx of federal stimulus funds, a temporary fix that underscores the ongoing crisis.

CSU hired Blake this summer to the first-ever CSU standalone chancellor position, even as departments on the Fort Collins and Pueblo campuses cut staff and faculty positions and the administration laid off staff at the system offices in Denver. Blake has said he will dedicate himself fully to raising revenue, aiming to tap alumni and to work with Benson and Colorado lawmakers on a ballot initiative that would set aside tax money.

The sober and amicable interview took place Friday, September 4, the day before the annual Rocky Mountain Classic pitted the universities’ football teams against one another, spurring riotous clashes in Fort Collins that ended in a hail of beer cans and rubber bullets.

On long-term funding issues:

Mr. Blake: The model we have now – let’s be realistic – is not sustainable. We’re talking about the level of general fund per student. It’s where it was 10 years ago and there’s not much expectation of any change in that going forward. We’re looking at any concept that’s out there. We cannot wait for two years for something magical to occur – whether that’s privatization, whether that’s an authority or enterprise. We can’t let the past absolutely overshadow the future. The General Assembly does the best they can to make general fund money available for higher ed, but their options are narrowing. Every creative, inventive but sustainable idea needs to be looked at. Higher ed needs a sustainable source of funding going forward.

Mr. Benson: The state of Virginia has passed legislation freeing up the hands of universities so they can set their own tuition and financial aid and capital construction. We’re analyzing what they’re doing. Maryland’s done it. We need to show some models that are working.

On a 2011 ballot measure:

Mr. Benson: Yes, we will see a ballot issue. What will we go with? I don’t know. We’re just studying everything we can possibly study.

Mr. Blake: A new relationship has to be forged between public higher education and Colorado due to the new fiscal realities. Everything we do, the way we behave reflects on the way people feel about higher education. Polling for higher ed is in the single digits. It’s not top of mind. As we look forward to 2011, we’re going to have to do a great deal. Everything we do – how we behave, how we are transparent and how we are accountable in a public way – will form the basis of anything in 2011 in terms of the campaign to build that kind of trust.

On the relationship between CSU and CU:

Mr. Blake: Bruce and I have this friendship that extends far, far back before these opportunities [our current jobs] came about. We have an enormous level of trust between the two of us and the institutions as well. Bruce has been going around the state, and I have been going around the state with CSU President Tony Frank (who oversees the Fort Collins campus). All of higher education needs to collaborate in so many different ways. People don’t want to see these individual fiefdoms. We have to have a new conversation with Colorado.

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