The University of Colorado Board of Regents is due for some new blood in 2020 with three positions up for election.
One contentious race has the potential to flip the board majority from Republican to Democrat for the first time since the 1970s. Regardless of party, the nine-member board hasn’t had three newcomers at once since 2008.
“Three new regents on a board of nine is a good challenge in terms of how they become part of the team, who they see as their constituents and dealing with all of the important issues moving forward,” said Glen Gallegos, R-Grand Junction, who serves as board chair.
The regents serve staggered six-year terms. One is elected from each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts and two are elected from the state at large. The board is responsible for governing the four-campus, multibillion-dollar university system, making decisions about how CU spends money and who should be selected as university president when the time comes.
Democrat Callie Rennison, Republican Dick Murphy and Libertarian Christian Vernaza will be facing off in the Democratic stronghold of District 2 to replace incumbent Linda Shoemaker.
Democrat Nolbert Chavez is running unopposed for outgoing Democrat Irene Griego’s seat in District 7.
The District 6 race — covering a wide swath of the north, east and south Denver area — is garnering the most attention, with Republican Richard Murray, Democrat Ilana Spiegel and Unity candidates Christopher Otwell and Robert Worthey competing to replace outgoing John Carson, R-Highlands Ranch.
“The big issue is will the political control of the board flip from Republican to Democrat?” said Ken McConnellogue, CU system spokesman.
CU is one of just a handful of universities in the nation whose governing boards are chosen through partisan political elections. The board has long been criticized for its partisan nature, most recently after voting 5-4 along party lines to name controversial finalist Mark Kennedy the new president last year.
Gallegos said the board usually unanimously agrees on matters, including keeping tuition low, but there are a few issues that wind up with political division.
“There are some things that it pays to be in the majority,” Gallegos said. “It matters a lot, and it matters to a lot of our Democratic colleagues who believe that the board over the years should have been more balanced. It’s the elephant in the room. There are issues that people feel like the majority is always going to win.”
Outgoing board member Griego said a few of those partisan issues revolve around diversity and social justice.
“It’s really been a struggle for us to move some of our agendas forward because we just don’t have the votes,” Griego said. “It’s been 41 years since we’ve had Democrats in the majority, and I believe these last nine years we have avoided really tough conversations because of political agendas.”
During a virtual candidate forum held by CU Staff Council, CU Faculty Council and CU Anschutz Faculty Assembly last week, Murray and Spiegel shared their ideas about the future of CU and answered questions presented by the CU community.
Murray, a 38-year-old Highlands Ranch attorney and two-time CU Boulder alum, said his time spent as CU Boulder’s student body president along with his role as the former chair of the CU Law Alumni Board gave him an inside look into how to get things done at CU.
“I am everything I am because of CU,” Murray said. “I got into this race because of my love and devotion to the University of Colorado.”
Murray told The Denver Post his top three priorities if elected would be academics, affordability and community, adding that students should not be forced to incur “decades of debt” for a degree.
“We have an entire generation of students who are literally taking out a mortgage on their future to get a bachelor’s degree,” Murray said during the forum. “I have a personal passion for this. I’ve lived it firsthand.”
Murray said he hopes to dig into CU’s budget and identify where CU can lower the cost of the delivery of programs and work with legislators to address funding deficiencies. Colorado is close to the bottom in the nation when it comes to funding higher education.
Spiegel, a 51-year-old Englewood education advocate, said in her experience as a K-12 public school teacher and public education advocate she fought for policies to eliminate opportunity gaps for students of color, students with disabilities, and low-income and first-generation students.
Spiegel also said if she were a regent during a presidential search, she would push for more transparency in the process and prioritize feedback from students, staff and faculty.
“The current board majority has had many controversial, partisan decisions against supporting Black students and the hiring of a controversial new president,” Spiegel said during Monday’s forum. “These decisions often happen without listening to and respecting shared governance. It’s time for change.”
Spiegel told The Denver Post her top priorities if elected would be affordability, accessibility and inclusivity and opportunity.
Spiegel said she wants to fundamentally reform higher education finance by working to expand the scope and size of PELL grants for low-income students, among other initiatives.
“I would hope that people start paying attention not just for this election but from here on out,” Gallegos said. “The University of Colorado has almost 70,000 students. Four campuses. $5 billion budget. The medical campus, the economic impact we have on the state, the research we do, space programs, engineering … I think it’s pretty true that as goes CU, so goes the state.”