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CU president search an issue in at-large regent's race

By Cassa Niedringhaus 10/20/2018

Come November, Boulder residents will vote on one of three seats up for election on the University of Colorado's Board of Regents.

Colorado Springs Republican Ken Montera and Boulder Democrat Lesley Smith, as well as two third-party candidates, will face off for the at-large seat that is elected by a statewide vote. Regent Stephen Ludwig, D-at large, who currently holds the seat, is term-limited.

Voters will also elect regents in the 3rd and 5th Congressional Districts.

Regents hire the university's president, approve its $4.5 billion budget and set tuition rates. In recent months, too, they've approved new freedom of expression and academic freedom policies, and they're exploring a mandatory civics requirement on each of the campuses, which, if implemented, would be the first time in history the regents mandated curriculum.

Beyond that, several former regents said, the races take on added significance this year because the regents are in the midst of a search for President Bruce Benson's replacement. He announced he'll retire in July.

Although the current board has already chosen a firm to assist with the search and will have named the members of the search committee before the elections, the new regents will interview finalists and vote on a successor to Benson, who was chosen in 2008 on a 6-3 party-line vote.

"One of the most contentious but also the most important (decisions) is the hiring and firing of the president of the university," former Regent Jim Martin said. Martin served as a Republican but said he is now a conservative Democrat. "That's why this will take on different political proportion or dimensions based on the importance of the position of the president of the university system."

Regents Heidi Ganahl, R-at large, and Irene Griego, D-Lakewood, who are co-chairs of the search committee, said they would get the new regents up to speed and pledged to keep the search non-partisan.

"It can be a challenge for any incoming regent to learn the responsibilities of the position and the complexities of the university, but coming aboard during the critical activity of the presidential search makes it even more challenging," Ganahl and Griego said in a written statement provided by a university spokesman. "However, we have every confidence that the board and the administration will get the new regents up to speed quickly so they can contribute to finding CU's next leader. We are committed to a non-partisan process and look forward to working with the new board members on it."

In their race for the at-large seat, the candidates face unique challenges, including the amount of territory they have to cover with little name recognition and a $400 cap on individual campaign contributions, several former regents said, including Martin and Steve Bosley, the Bolder Boulder founder and a former Republican regent.

"Statewide, nobody knows what a regent is, so it's very hard, particularly down-ballot, for someone to make a knowledgeable decision based on who they should vote for regent," Martin said.

The university is an important economic engine in the state, though, he said.

"People should care about what the regents are and what they do because they affect the quality of education and the cost of education," former Democratic Regent Bob Sievers said. "They are the ones who are the stewards for the students of this state and on all four campuses of the University of Colorado."

These are the candidates in the at-large race.

Lesley Smith

Smith, a Democrat from Boulder, served eight years on the Boulder Valley School Board and worked for nearly 30 years as a scientist and educator at CU. During her time on the school board, the board oversaw a $400 million budget and hired two superintendents. At CU, she served in a number of positions, including as a researcher, educator and most recently as the associate director of outreach and education at CU's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

She's always been passionate about education, she said, and she'd bring the faculty voice to the board.

"I would be the only voice of CU faculty if I got elected, which would provide a slightly different perspective than everyone else," Smith said.

Among her priorities would be examining the pay and benefits for faculty and graduate students, which she said are low compared to CU's peers and present challenges for recruitment and retention. She'd also prioritize lobbying the state for more funding, and she'd look for a president who'd do the same. She'd also look for a president who would be both visible around the state and on each of CU's campuses, she said.

She'd examine affordability, including the CU Boulder initiatives of a four-year tuition guarantee and eliminating class fees, and how those could be extended to the other CU campuses. It's an equity issue, she said.

She'd also examine pathways from community colleges to CU to ensure that students' credits transfer and that they have the support needed to graduate from CU. And she'd prioritize efforts to increase diversity on CU's campuses.

"CU's got some great programs, and I would certainly want to make sure we continue with those programs to try to attract a more diverse student body."

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