Furor over CU’s presidential pick highlights elected Board of Regents’ partisan political divide

Cliff Grassmick, Daily Camera University of Colorado Regents Heidi Ganahl (R), left, and Irene Griego (D) hold a town hall at Old Main on the Boulder campus on Oct. 16, 2018, for university employees and community members to provide input on what qualities they’d like to see in the next president of CU. Griego and Ganahl were the co-chairs of the search committee that brought finalist Mark Kennedy to the full Board of Regents.

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The University of Colorado’s selection of a presidential finalist with a strong political background has drawn attention to the makeup of the school’s elected Board of Regents, but partisan politics is nothing new for the body governing the state’s largest university system.

University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy, sole finalist to succeed Bruce Benson as president of the University of Colorado

The four-campus CU system is overseen by one of just a handful of university governing boards in the nation whose members run partisan political campaigns in order to get elected.

Some in Colorado’s higher education community have for decades tried to make CU’s board less focused on party affiliation and more broadly dedicated to the betterment of the university.

Aims McGuinness, a consultant with the Boulder-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, has worked with CU’s regents to try to better board relations dating to the 1990s. Most recently, he helped compile a 40-page report presented to the regents last year on the board’s difficulty enacting a shared vision.

“I think getting partisan politics out of this board would be a major help,” McGuinness said in an interview last week. “You’ve got to leave your party label behind. There’s a good deal of political division and hurt feelings, and when you’re dealing with a group with such important issues, you kind of just want to say, ‘Guys, there’s a bigger agenda here,’ rather than getting tangled in who’s an ‘R’ and who’s a ‘D.’ ”

CU’s nine-member Board of Regents has been Republican-controlled since 1979, with GOP-affiliated regents currently holding a one-vote majority. CU likewise has a history of selecting Republican presidents, including Bruce Benson, Hank Brown, Elizabeth Hoffman and John Buechner.

Benson, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party who is stepping down as CU’s president this summer, took office in 2008 amid protest over his work in the oil and gas industry, his partisan background and his lack of an advanced degree. The regents voted 6-3, a party-line split, to hire him.

RELATED: Like Mark Kennedy, Bruce Benson was a controversial pick for CU president — but he delivered as a fundraiser

The regents this month unanimously recommended Mark R. Kennedy, the current president of the University of North Dakota and a former Republican congressman, as the sole finalist to succeed Benson.

That selection, though, immediately proved controversial, with students, faculty and alumni raising concerns about everything from Kennedy’s votes in Congress against gay marriage and in favor of abortion restrictions to his request to skip a Colorado Public Radio host’s question about affirmative action.

Some of the Democratic regents have publicly wavered in their support of him following outrage from the CU campuses.

Kennedy this week will visit each of CU’s campuses to meet with students, faculty, staff and the public. That tour begins with an event Monday afternoon in Denver.

The regents are expected to vote on his hiring next month.

Enshrined in the constitution

Much has changed since CU’s flagship Boulder campus was founded in 1876: The Board of Regents has gone from shepherding a single operation to governing four multibillion-dollar, independent campuses with more than 67,000 students spread out across the Front Range.

What’s remained the same is the portion of Colorado’s state constitution mandating that CU be governed by a board of nine regents elected to staggered six-year terms.

The board — responsible for such high-level tasks as hiring the university’s president, setting tuition rates and approving the system’s $4.5 billion operating budget — is currently made up of one regent from each Colorado congressional district and two regents elected at-large on a statewide basis.

“The way the law works is that regents get access to the ballot by coming up through the party primary system and advancing to the ballot as other candidates who are elected by political party,” said Patrick O’Rourke, CU’s university counsel and secretary of the Board of Regents.

Nearly all other universities in the country aside from CU, the University of Michigan, the University of Nevada and the University of Nebraska have governing boards appointed by the state’s governor subject to confirmation by…

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