How an obscure statewide race could change the way Colorado’s top university system does business.


You might wonder: What’s a University of Colorado regent? And why do I care?

The balance of power on the board of Colorado’s flagship university could tip in this year’s election and the race comes at a time when college campuses have become high-profile battlegrounds over issues like guns, race, free speech and gender identity. Already, one national issue, climate change, is featuring prominently in campaigns for regent. And sure to be debated in the weeks ahead: What to do about the rising costs of tuition in an era of reduced state funding.

Regent races may be typically sleepy affairs, but this year’s at-large race between Democrat Alice Madden and Republican Heidi Ganahl could touch off some fireworks as the election season heats up. Plus, you may want to know what to say when the topic of this race comes up at parties. (Don’t ask us what kind of parties we go to.)

As Ganahl, puts it: “We call this race the most important race you’ve never heard of because most people don’t know what the heck a regent is.”

So, what is the board of regents?

The University of Colorado Board of Regents in a nine-member panel of elected men and women who each represent a political party. Seven of them are elected in their respective congressional districts, and two at-large regents are elected by all voters statewide. Regents serve six-year staggered terms. Colorado is one of only four states where voters statewide get to choose a regent instead of having them appointed, and if you’re a registered voter you’ll get to make a choice between two candidates in November— one a Democrat and one a Republican.

And what do these regents do?

Among other duties, regents choose the president of the University of Colorado’s 60,000-plus-student body. They set policy, decide on degree programs and vote on the university’s $3.5 billion budget. CU is the state’s third-largest employer and contributes $7 billion to Colorado’s economy. Regents also vote on whether to raise or lower tuition.

What’s so important about the at-large race for regent this year?

Well, for one, while Colorado has been trending blue over the past decade, the board of regents has been controlled by Republicans since 1979. Right now, it’s a 5-4 GOP majority.

It hasn’t been a hyper-polarized board, and according to Michael Carrigan, a Democratic regent from Denver, there’s no reason to think that will change.

“It’s not the like Democrats are going to get in charge and go wacky left, or if the Republicans stay in charge that they’re going to …[try] to turn the university in a radically right direction,” he says.

That may be so, says his fellow regent, Glen Gallegos, a Republican from Grand Junction, but “I think it’s important to the party to have control of that board. Whether it’s more symbolic than not, I think it’s an important thing.”

While generally rare, votes that break along party lines have been known to happen. In 2008, for example, the board chose current president Bruce Benson, an oil man who was once chairman of the Colorado Republican Party and the GOP nominee for governor in 1994, on a 6-3 party-line vote.

The issues currently challenging the university — from faculty diversity, to the promotion of academic research on climate change, to the rising cost of tuition and how to offset it — suggest partisan differences could lie ahead.

The board deadlocked in June when trying to elect a new chair. Votes split between two candidates, one a Republican, one a Democrat, with a third candidate peeling off a single vote. As of this posting, the board has yet to choose its chair. During a weekend retreat in the mountains earlier this month, the board sought again to name a new chair, but no one made a nomination.*

OK, so who’s running for the at-large seat that will be on my ballot in November?

The two candidates are women, and come from pretty different backgrounds.

Democrat Alice Madden is a former lawmaker and University of Colorado grad with a history of environmental activism. Madden, it should be noted, was also an architect of the successful 2004 effort to flip Colorado’s legislature blue, which later became known as “The Blueprint”— the title of a book about the movement.

“Certainly I want to rally the Democratic troops and I’ll say we’ll flip the board, and I flipped the House and isn’t that cool, but that’s campaigning,” she says. “Of course, I do want people to get excited about this race, but I do think the Republicans have been in control for an awfully long time and my question is, ‘Do you think things could be done better?’ And I do.”

Madden is the director of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado’s law school— her alma mater. If if elected as a regent, she would govern her employer.

Republican Heidi Ganahl is a businesswoman and CU-Boulder grad who sits on the University of Colorado’s foundation board, runs a charity called Moms Fight Back, and started Camp Bow Wow, which became the first big nationally franchised doggy day care service.

“I’ve got a business background, I built a $100 million brand with Camp Bow Wow and franchising is all about listening to people and helping people collaborate and come to a vision that we can all agree on, and building on that vision,” she says, noting those are qualities needed for being an effective regent

Republican Party chairman Steve House has a little joke about Ganahl he tells when talking her up.

“Heidi makes me mad,” he told a GOP audience in El Paso County earlier this month. “Because she found a way to make more money than I do by playing with dogs.”

Plenty of issues set Madden and Ganahl apart.

Madden says she’ll fight for more state funding, while Ganahl says she’ll fight for innovative fundraising because she doesn’t think the university system will get more taxpayer money. Madden doesn’t like the idea of voters choosing regents and thinks they should be non-partisan and appointed positions. Ganahl likes voters having a choice in how the university system is run. Madden wants to increase the minimum wage for all CU employees. Ganahl worries doing so would mean higher tuition. Madden wants more celebration of and focus on the climate change research being done at the university. Ganahl downplays that topic a political issue.

Wait. What does climate change have to do with a board of regents race in Colorado?

A lot, apparently. And who knew, right? When The Colorado Independent asked what the practical implications of a Democratic victory would be, Madden’s first response was this: “I think we could actually talk about climate change.” Right now, she says, the regents don’t ever mention the university research on the topic — much less promote it.

“This is verboten,” she says. “Which is ridiculous. So it’s kind of a slap in the face to the amazing people we have here. Their work is not only dismissed but ridiculed.”

Regent Linda Shoemaker, a Boulder Democrat, echoes that sentiment.

“We have a lot of scientists doing important climate research … that may not feel as free to do their work under a Republican administration than a Democratic one,” she says. “We do definitely have Republicans [on the board] who do not believe that people are impacting the climate.”

Asked about the topic, current Republican regent Steve Bosley of Longmont said regents stay out of academic research, and academic freedom is protected. Philosophically, though, he notes that he’s skeptical of the preponderance of evidence supporting man-made climate change. In the ‘50s, he noted, there were medical doctors who didn’t think smoking was unhealthy.

Ganahl doesn’t see the relevance of the issue for the board.

“I’m not sure where climate change comes into the discussion about running a university,” she says. “I think it’s more of a political discussion than it is one that we should be dealing with. I think we should leave it to the scientists to deal with that, not the board of regents of the University of Colorado.”

Climate change isn’t the only environmental issue coming into play in the regent’s race. Colorado’s oil and gas industry is also paying attention. Republicans on the board worry Democrats might seek to divest holdings in fossil fuels. The university cannot make any direct investments, so its portfolio— which swings somewhere between $800 million and $1.2 billion— is in money management and mutual funds. Some have fossil fuel companies in their portfolios.

Republican Bosley, who also chairs the CU investment committee and has a background in finance and business, says researching divestment has been “one of the most fascinating projects that I’ve worked on, to understand it and the ramifications.”

He wonders about a gray area. What if the university has investments in a pipeline. Is that a fossil fuel investment? There is precedent for divestment at the University of Colorado. In 2006 the university pulled investments from companies doing work in Sudan after the genocides in Darfur.

But those investments were less than one tenth of 1 percent of CU’s portfolio, Bosley says. Fossil fuel investments make up much more.

In 2015, CU’s regents voted 7-2 against divestment from fossil fuels, with the two dissenting votes cast by Democrats. Current at-large Democratic regent, Stephen Ludwig, voted with the Republicans.

“If the Democrats get control, I think they would vote to bring that divestment back up,” says John Carson, a Republican regent from the 6th District who led the charge for the vote last year. “We have a lot of people who are pushing for that, so it will be an issue.”

Simon Lomax, an associate energy policy analyst with the Denver-based libertarian Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups, has written much about Madden’s ties to environmental groups that support large university systems’ divestment in the fossil fuel industry. And he has linked her to California billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in Colorado on research and polling.

Madden says she characterizes herself as a “carrot-not-a-stick person,” and would rather look at the sum of policies of a corporation with which the university does business. That checklist, called Environmental Social Justice Governance criteria, or ESG, assesses a company’s environmental practices, as well as its policies related to LGBT issues and pension protection, among other factors.

“I admire the people behind [divestment] because I worked on divestment from South Africa — it was my first protest — so I admire any kind of activism by young people, and I’ve told them that I prefer ESG and I just think it’s a better way to go,” she says, adding, “This is not the end-all-be-all of the race.”

Ok, so I’m a parent in Colorado. What could this race mean for my family and me?

Well, if you’re planning to send your kid to one of the University of Colorado’s campuses, you might consider some of the biggest differences between the two candidates.

Less than six percent of CU’s budget is funded by the state. There are no state statutes or constitutional requirements that mandate Colorado spend a certain amount of state funds per student. According to the Fiscal Institute, a Denver-based economic think tank, Colorado ranks 48th in the nation for state funds per full-time student. Only New Hampshire and Vermont spend less.

In 1996, just under 15 percent of Colorado’s general fund went to higher education, the Institute reports. About 9 percent of the general fund goes to higher ed today.

Ganahl, the Republican contender for the at-large regent seat, doesn’t think the state will increase funding to the university system, and is looking for a different approach.

“I’m not sure where we’re going to get the additional funding with transportation needing so much and K-12 needing so much, and the cost of the Affordable Care Act in Colorado is skyrocketing,” she says. “So there’s only so much money in the bucket unless you raise taxes dramatically, and I just like to take a different approach and one that doesn’t have us rely on that state funding. If we can get the state funding, wonderful, but if we can’t we can’t be beholden to that. We have to figure out how to move our university forward in many ways.”

Madden, the Democrat, believes the state should — and likely will — increase funding, especially if enough Democrats win House and Senate seats to control the General Assembly.

How? Something called the hospital provider fee, a nearly $1 billion state program whose revenue counts against mandatory spending caps under Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights constitutional amendment. Last year, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and Democrats in the legislature fought hard to have the program reclassified as a stand-alone TABOR-exempt enterprise to free up more money in the state budget for transportation and — wait for it — higher education.

Related: The Hospital Provider Fee Issue Explained

The issue became the biggest battle of the last legislative session, when Democrats couldn’t get the fee reclassification passed through the Republican-controlled Senate. Dozens of civic and policy groups took public positions about whether or not to reclassify the fee, with most— including a near-monolithic voice of the state’s business community— supporting it. The University of Colorado’s board of regents, however, never took a position. This, despite CU president Benson being a vocal supporter of the shifting the fee and testifying in favor of the policy before lawmakers. Democratic regent Shoemaker says the board didn’t have the votes to support reclassifying the hospital provider fee and a no-vote would have been embarrassingly out of sync with Benson.

“I think the hospital provider fee has a good chance of passing in the next year,” Madden says. “But why wouldn’t you always fight for restoring funding? We’re one of the few states that hasn’t restored funding.”

Asked what she thought about reclassifying the hospital provider fee, Ganahl said, “I don’t think I need to take a stand on that either way at this point because it’s not on the table.”

According to the Colorado Fiscal Institute, “net tuition for public institutions of higher education in Colorado has increased 38.5 percent since 2009. The U.S. average increase was 26.7 percent.”

Earlier this year, the board of regents voted 7-2 to lock in tuition for incoming freshman at CU-Boulder for four years, and voted for a 4 percent tuition hike for incoming freshman in 2018.

What  would these candidates do about political diversity among faculty on campus?

A college campus in Boulder, Colorado. What could sound more liberal, right?

So it’s not surprising that some Republicans want to keep control of the University of Colorado, hoping that GOP regents will have some sway in injecting more conservative viewpoints into the higher ed marketplace of ideas. They’ve found some success with the Center for Conservative Thought and Policy at CU-Boulder, a privately funded program with a visiting scholar who stays for four years. The center recently was rolled into the school’s Center for Western Civilization, which is designed to bring more conservative discourse into Western civ classes. The plan is to have faculty be part of it, along with graduate and doctoral students.

“I think what the reality is is that, if you don’t have members of the board supporting it and helping raise money for it, I’m not sure how long it would continue,” says John Carson, a Republican regent. He says he hears all the time how much parents worry about their kids getting a well-rounded education.

It is true that the faculty tends to be more progressive than conservative, says regent Shoemaker. But to her, that’s just more reason to elect a Democrat onto the board.

“I believe the whole system will function better and more smoothly with less friction, with less controversy,” she says. “Right now we can’t even select a board chair.”

For her part, Madden wants to see a different kind of diversity on campus.

“Who we hire as professors matters,” she says. “We have very few black professors and very few black administrators compared to our population. It’s a problem.”

According to the latest faculty diversity report for CU Boulder, there are 121 black faculty and staff members out of about 6,100. On campus, 1.6 percent of the undergraduate student population is black. As for Latinos, there are 580 faculty and staff members. The undergraduate Latino student population is 10.6 percent.

Regents, Madden says, can move the needle by selecting a president who makes diversity hires a priority.

“It’s not that difficult,” Madden says, noting that the university system is taking steps to do that.

But, “it’s moving too slow,” she adds. “It’s just too damn slow.”

Policy issues aside, is this race really about a new CU president?

That depends on whom you ask.

Jim Martin, a former regent who held the at-large seat up for grabs this year, penned a recent newspaper column about how the current president’s future “likely hinges” on this race.

The Republican candidate agrees.

If Democrats gain control, “I think the first thing they want to do is fire our president,” Ganahl says bluntly. “Which is not good. He’s done a great job and he’s made some incredible advances at CU … I think that would be a terrible decision to move Bruce out.”

The Democrat, Madden, says that just ain’t so, despite unflattering comments she’d made about Benson’s selection in 2008. 

“I’m not running because of Bruce Benson,” she says. “And I met with him to tell him that, by the way.” She says he has “done a great job as president.”

But Benson is almost 80 years old.

“We’re going to ride him as long as [we] can,” says Gallegos, the Republican regent from Grand Junction.

“I would say the selection of a president is on the line,” counters Shoemaker. “All of our leadership is going to be turning over in the next five years. We have got to be well prepared for that. And we, the board of regents, should be as functional as we can be so we attract the very best and brightest people who want to lead our university.”


*A previous version of this story misstated when a board vote had been taken.