Montera vs. Smith: At-large regent race on your Colorado ballot could influence party control of the university system

A businessman from Colorado Springs takes on an educator from Boulder

Lesley Smith and Ken Montera, plus two third-party candidates, are vying for an at-large seat on the University of Colorado's Board of Regents. (Photo by Rachel Lorenz for The Colorado Independent)

Democrat Lesley Smith and Republican Ken Montera, candidates for the at-large seat on the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents, both say they wish the race were non-partisan. One’s ability to perform school governance shouldn’t be based on whether they’ve got a “D” or an “R” next to their name on the ballot, Smith and Montera agree.

“I wish it didn’t matter. I don’t think education should be partisan,” Montera said.

“It’s very partisan right now,” Smith said of the board she hopes to join. “I’m not so interested in the politics of the board.”

But in spite of the candidates’ avowed preferences, the regents comprise an undeniably political body, and they’ll soon be tasked with making a big and undeniably political decision when they vote on a new president of the CU system, who’ll replace the retiring Bruce Benson.

The question of political expression on campus has also dominated some of the board’s proceedings, with conservative members expressing concern over what some call a crisis involving a lack of political diversity within the system.

The University of Colorado Board of Regents is a panel of nine officials, seven of whom are elected by voters in the state’s seven congressional districts, and two of whom run at-large and are elected by voters across Colorado. They serve six-year, staggered terms, representing the system’s four campuses — Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver and the Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora — setting priorities on policy, tuition rates, degree programs and the university’s nearly $4 billion budget. The CU system includes 67,000 students plus 9,149 faculty members and 13,835 non-faculty staffers.

Colorado is one of only four states where regents are elected instead of appointed, and the current elected board features a 5-4 Republican majority. But three seats — District 3 (Pueblo and western Colorado), District 5 (Colorado Springs) and the at-large seat Smith and Montera are competing for — are open this cycle. District 3’s seat is occupied by incumbent Republican Glen Gallegos, and District 5 is a GOP stronghold highly unlikely to elect a Democrat.

So, whether the board majority is going to swing in November will hinge on on the outcome of the Smith-Montera race and whether District 3 flips blue. (The congressional race in District 3 is viewed by some pollsters as a possible toss-up, though we couldn’t find any polling numbers on that race.) The at-large race also features two third-party candidates, Christopher Otwell of the Unity Party and Libertarian James Treibert.

The regents haven’t had a Democratic majority since 1979.

It’s a down-ballot contest that’s garnered little attention, but it’s also a statewide race, unlike the elections in Districts 3 and 5, meaning every Colorado voter will get to weigh in.

We reached out to Smith and Montera for interviews this week, and asked each a series of questions about big topics in higher education and about CU in particular to tease out where the two agree, and where they split.

They come from very different backgrounds

Montera, 61, is a Colorado native and CU Boulder alum who’s spent his career in big business. He now lives in deep-red Colorado Springs.

Smith, 60, moved to Colorado 30 years ago for a fellowship at CU and has been in academia, and at CU, ever since. She lives in deep-blue Boulder.

Montera has held executive positions at corporations such as Limited Brands (which controls such retail giants as Victoria’s Secret, Express and Bath & Body Works) and PepsiCo. He’s overseen thousands of stores and tens of thousands of employees at a time.

Smith is an aquatic scientist who filmed a campaign ad in a SCUBA suit. She’s been a researcher and educator at CU-Boulder for the past 29 years, during which time she’s waded into local politics in several ways, most notably serving eight years on the board of the Boulder Valley School District and for the past four years on the city of Boulder’s Water Resources Advisory Board.

Lesley Smith, a CU research scientist for the past three decades, is running as a Democrat for the open at-large seat on the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Fish)

Montera says he’s “run major organizations, major budgets, selected senior leaders and have had responsibility for the development of those leaders.  I’ve established diversity, expectations and created cultures. And I don’t think you can get that in the classroom. … I believe what I’ve done the past 20 years is exactly what the Board of Regents does on a regular basis.”

Smith touts her background, as well. “Nobody has the long-term experience that I have at CU. I’ve been a researcher, I’ve been an educator, I’ve done outreach, I’ve worked across the state in rural districts and low-income school districts, and I also have the eight years of school board experience.

She added, “I would be the only voice of the faculty to serve on the board,” if elected.

What should CU look for in a new president?

In the months following the election, the regents will be evaluating finalists and voting on a successor to Benson, an 80-year-old Republican and fundraising whiz who was appointed on a party-line vote of the regents — 6 to 3, in 2008 — and who announced his retirement this summer.

Both Montera and Smith said they’d go into the evaluations and vote with open minds, and that they hope for a diverse candidate pool.

Montera hinted, though, at a possible preference for someone cut from roughly the same cloth as Benson, who has doubled CU’s endowment in the past decade. Benson, Montera said, “is a pretty good model of what we should be looking for.”

He added, “But we can’t go into this with preconceived notions. What we’re looking for is strong leadership, collaborative skills, financial acumen, the ability to raise funds.”

Smith didn’t indicate a particular preference for the next president’s background, but she did say she feels it’s important that the board elect someone who’ll be visible, which Benson, who rarely grants interviews and is hardly a face of CU, is not.

At the University of Northern Colorado, Smith said, new president Andy Feinstein “is everywhere.”

“Of course, a new leader needs to be everywhere,” she said. “People like to see that, when the president is visible and you can talk to them, and maybe even the president knows your name.”

Neither is too concerned about speech on campus

For all the national uproar over free speech and “safe spaces” on college campuses, neither Smith nor Montera sees it as a problem for the CU system. Both applauded the Boulder campus in particular for that.

“I feel like CU Boulder has been a model in the nation where we’ve been able to have speakers from a wide spectrum of political thought, and we haven’t had any incidents,” Smith said. “I think Boulder gets wrongly characterized as this bastion of liberalism, but from what I’ve seen, they’ve handled controversial speakers quite well.”

Montera questions CU’s outreach

He spent 12 years living in Columbus, Ohio, during which time, he said, he regularly received mailers from Ohio State University and updates about the school’s progress and innovations. In that same time frame, Montera said he never got a piece of mail from CU, even though he’s an alum and a longtime donor.

A victory for businessman Ken Montera in November would all likely guarantee Republicans maintain a majority on the University of Colorado’s board of regents. (Photo courtesy of Ken Montera)

“Nothing about the advancement of the Anschutz Medical Center, the astrophysics department, the improvements in the business school,” he said. “I’m a donor. I’ve done two endowments for the school. So the ability to market that reputational capital is something we can definitely do better at.”

“Forgotten” parts of Colorado

Montera and Smith have both been campaigning all around the state, and both have emerged with at least one major common takeaway: people in rural areas and especially southern Colorado often feel as though the CU system has left them behind.

Smith said she’d like the school to increase its presence and recruitment in those areas.

“They want to see faculty and administration out in their communities, too,” she said. CU is “the flagship university, and it should serve the whole state.”

Montera echoed the sentiment.

“We’re not doing a good job of soliciting those rural communities, making sure those students understand this is a true opportunity for them, building relationships with guidance counselors. We really need to bridge the gap,” he said.

About those tuition costs

Montera and Smith both said that college affordability is top of mind for people they’ve talked to around the state. Montera said tuition outnumbered other topics 10 to one in his conversations with voters. But what can be done about the rising costs?

At the system’s flagship, CU Boulder, tuition generally goes up by between about 4 and 9 percent every year. In-state tuition for this year’s freshmen is $12,524, up nearly $4,000 in the last five years. At CU Boulder, freshmen must also live on campus, which adds at least another $7,200 per semester for room and board — up about $1,000 in the last five years.

Montera said that if elected, he would push the state legislature to help the CU system “maximize” state funding, which has decreased by about 50 percent in the past 10 years, making Colorado among the nation’s lowest for higher education funding. He also believes that his background managing large corporations will allow him to bring a new perspective on budgeting to the board.

“That deep understanding of how budgets work at a financial level, understanding the nuances — it allows you to make significant impact on where that money goes,” he said. “If (the regents) were able to shift just 2 percent of the budget into student-related expenses, that’d be worth $90 million.”

Smith said she supports the CU Boulder campus’s policy of guaranteeing tuition rates for students, so that the amount they pay freshman year doesn’t go up the next year when the regents invariably move to raise tuition on the next incoming class. She said she’d like to explore ways to extend the same benefit system-wide, and that she’d support limiting class fees, which are often a hidden expense for people who already must pay for tuition and books.

Smith also said the next president should be someone willing to go to bat for more state funding at the legislature.

“I think a new president really, really needs to be advocating for increased funding, showing why CU is so important to the state,” she said. “It’s the third-largest employer in the state and brings in $12 billion into the economy. It’s important.”