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Skaggs out, higher ed master plan postponed

The Sept. 21 “summit” designed to kick off an 18-month process of creating a new higher education master plan has been postponed, probably until October.

David Skaggs, director of the Department of Higher Education, resigned Friday, leaving the agency with a vacancy at a time of great stress and uncertainty for the state’s colleges and universities. Skaggs was the main public voice pushing the master plan, and idea that has been questioned by some university presidents.

Matt Gianneschi, Ritter’s chief education advisor, told EdNews Monday that the Sept. 21 meeting has postponed and will be rescheduled at a later time, probably in October.

Skaggs Friday wouldn’t comment on his decision other than to refer to his resignation letter to Ritter.

The heart of that letter was this sentence: “I very much regret that we have encountered a matter about which, with mutual respect and on a principled basis, we could not agree and which causes me to offer my resignation.”

What that “matter” was remains subject to conjecture, although some have speculated that it related to the master plan.

Skaggs’ letter also contained an interesting reference to what he may be doing with some of his time in the future: “Most recently Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi appointed me to chair the new Office of Congressional Ethics.” That office is an independent, non-partisan entity that reviews allegations of misconduct against members and staff of the U.S. House and can refer matters to the House committee on official conduct. It has a staff and a board, of which Skaggs is chair.

The departure, effective Sept. 11, was unexpected. Virtually every official and other source contacted by EdNews Friday expressed surprise, and all were at a loss to explain why Skaggs quit. Even a DHE staff member said there was surprise when resignation was announced Thursday in the department.

The vacancy comes in the middle of a difficult time for Colorado’s state colleges and universities.

The state’s recession-induced budget problems forced the 2009 legislature to hold higher ed funding flat, and that was accomplished only with the help of federal stimulus funds. Direct state support of colleges and universities is at the same level as 2005-06, while tuition for the new academic year has increased 9 percent at most schools. The department’s administrative budget also was cut by lawmakers.

Ritter is proposing additional cuts in state support for the current 2009-10 budget but has sought a federal waiver in order to use even more stimulus money to hold higher ed spending even.

Skaggs’ departure also came only a month before the department is due to convene the “summit” that is supposed to kick off an 18-month process of creating a new master plan for Colorado higher education. Ritter and Skaggs proposed the master plan process earlier this summer as a way both to craft long term proposals for college financing and to refocus the mission of the state system. Skaggs first formally unveiled the idea to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education in June with this memo.

Some college and university presidents have been lukewarm about the master plan idea and lean toward a quicker fix for financial problems, which are expected to worsen significantly after the stimulus money runs out in 2011. Late in the 2009 legislative session, several big-college presidents pushed a bill that would have allowed individual institutions to set their own tuition rates and run their own financial aid programs. (Tuition increases ceilings are set every year by the legislature, and the DHE distributes state financial aid funds according to a formula.)

Ritter, who has fought hard for college affordability, opposed that bill, and Skaggs was the public messenger of that opposition to lawmakers. Those proposals died quickly in the session’s waning days, as did some other ideas for giving colleges greater financial flexibility.

Skaggs was one of Ritter’s first cabinet appointments, named in December 2006. A Boulder-area Democrat, Skaggs served 12 years in Congress and was a member of the Colorado House before that. He’s a lawyer who served in Vietnam as a Marine. He’s known for his articulate, diplomatic and occasionally self-deprecating style – and for his bow ties and Ivy League attire.

In addition to wrestling with higher ed budget woes and the occasionally fractious chiefs of state colleges and universities, Skaggs has been heavily involved in the forging the new, much-praised cooperative relationship between his agency and the Department of Education that is required by the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids education reform program.

Skaggs’ agency, the Department of Higher Education, has somewhat limited powers over state colleges and universities, all of which have their own boards and jealously guard their independence. The DHE, along with the governor-appointed CCHE, collects data, has some regulatory power over new degree programs and distributes financial aid funds to campuses. It also has oversight over the CollegeInvest loan and college savings programs and regulates private vocational schools.

Friday’s news release from Ritter’s office contained the usual kinds of complimentary but unrevealing comments about the resignation:

Ritter: “It is with great regret that I have accepted David’s resignation. He is an extraordinary public servant and someone of strong principles and integrity. …I thank him for his service and his dedication.”

Skaggs: “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to help advance the Ritter administration’s important educational enterprise. We have strengthened our higher education system, both in terms of additional funding even in a tight economy, and in implementing important reforms that positions Colorado well for the future.” (Ritter did achieve significant budget increases for colleges at the beginning of his term, before the economic downturn body slammed state revenues.)

No timetable was announced for naming a replacement.

Some of the sources contacted by EdNews Friday suggested that Gianneschi might be a logical candidate to succeed Skaggs.

Gianneschi has a background in higher ed and formerly was chief academic officer of DHE. For the last couple of years his focus has been on high-profile K-12 legislative initiatives like CAP4K and coordinating the work of Ritter’s P-20 Education Coordinating Council.