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Pressure is on in CU president search as school and student leaders seek diversity, funding

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Pressure is on in CU president search as school and student leaders seek diversity, funding

Colorado parents and students who are questioning the value of higher education present the ultimate challenge in the University of Colorado System’s search for a new president.

Dispelling those doubts will be a critical part of the president’s job, along with fundraising, protecting students and faculty through the pandemic, and enabling improvements including diversification at each of CU’s four campuses, interim President Todd Saliman said in a Denver Post interview.

Democracy depends on solid higher education, Saliman said.

“Not only is a four-year degree critical to getting a job that will provide you with a livelihood for the rest of your life, but people who have four-year degrees live longer. They generally live healthier and happier lives. And they’re more engaged on a civic level,” Saliman said. “Higher education is key for people’s economic health and also for the health of our society.”

He voiced the priorities as CU’s politically divided regents embark on a presidential search that will be carried out by professional recruiters and must take into account multiple demands from student groups, outside advocates, staff and faculty.

Public funding for CU and Colorado’s other public universities lags behind what is provided in most other states – taxpayers cover less than 5% of CU’s budget — making fundraising crucial to be able to compete with schools elsewhere. And the tenure of previous president Mark Kennedy, a former congressman from North Dakota, ignited controversy due to his conservative positions on social issues. He resigned under pressure in June after faculty members censured him for “failure to lead” on matters of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Campus groups are campaigning for greater diversity at the Boulder, Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs campuses, urging better recruitment of administrators, staffers, professors and students of color – and a reckoning for past failures to ensure a welcoming environment for everybody.

During the regents’ latest Sept. 10 meeting, Diversify CU Now advocate Devon Reynolds, a 29-year-old doctoral student in environmental sciences, told the board that everyone — “especially those who are white” — needs to think about what antiracism means.

“Have you reckoned with what white antiracism means in this presidential search? This hire could be transformative for this institution,” Reynolds said. “Or it could leave things as they’ve been.”

Regents must make sure underrepresented groups “are overrepresented” in the search process and in hiring decisions, she said.

Regents chairman Jack Kroll told Reynolds that the regents “look forward to continuing this conversation” and said “we must do our best to reach as wide and diverse an audience as possible.” The regents have voted to increase the role of students and staff in the selection process by adding two seats on the now 18-member search team.

Intercampus student forum president Chris Hilton, an undergraduate at CU-Denver, said student voices must be heard, adding that when he participated in the last presidential search that led to Kennedy, students “were not actually heard.”

Hilton told the regents “our student population is a lot more concerned now about the diversity issue” and “that is something we want to have focused on.”

CU campus administrators in 2021 classified about two-thirds of students as white, 12.6% Hispanic/Latino, 9% Asian American, 6.5% international, 2.6% Black/African American and 1.4% American Indian.

No timetable’s been set for completing the search, and CU regents have said they’ll take as long as necessary. They’re currently reviewing bids by recruiting firms to conduct the search.

Regent Sue Sharkey, a Republican, said the most important trait of the next president will be “being able to work with all of our stakeholders”: faculty, staff, students, donors, state lawmakers.

“And parents are stakeholders as well,” Sharkey said.

“The next president must be able to pull all these different groups together and listen to them,” she said, and also “know how to bring in the people who know what you don’t know.”

The president oversees a four-campus system with a budget over $5 billion, not individual campuses, Saliman emphasized, so it falls to chancellors to run the individual campuses — from hiring staff and faculty to making sure students graduate on time.

“The president must know what the job is, and what it is not,” Saliman said.

Funding, including private support, remains a priority, as does the diversification of the students, staff and faculty.

“These are complicated times. The next president needs to have the skills to be able to balance all the priorities and know it is not a matter of prioritizing one over the other,” Saliman said. “This is about how you advance multiple priorities at the same time.”

Most urgently, he said, the new president must ensure pandemic safety to protect faculty and students, “navigating our desire to have as much of a normal experience as possible.”

Students have returned to the campuses this fall despite COVID-19 surges, wearing masks in buildings and in some cases outside. CU vaccination rates at all campuses are higher than 90%, leaders reported.

CU presidents are handsomely paid, on par with corporate chief executives, at about $850,000.

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