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Benson and Blake on higher ed’s future

Bruce Benson and Joe Blake are pragmatists – and optimists.

State college and universities are facing their second major financial crisis in less than a decade. But, during a wide-ranging conversation with Education News Colorado, the two higher ed leaders expressed faith in their institutions’ ability to manage the crisis and hope that the state system will have better prospects in the future.

Benson, of course, is president of the University of Colorado, and Blake recently was named chancellor of the Colorado State University System.

Both also are smooth diplomats. Interviewed on Sept. 4, they were asked to predict the score of the CU-CSU game on Sept. 6. Both easily slid off the question with smiles, saying the game was good for raising the profile of higher ed no matter who won, and that CU and CSU would go back to work afterwards to help strengthen higher education. (CSU, of course, won the game.)

Here’s a snapshot of their thinking on major issues:

State colleges and universities need to make economies now to cushion the cliff effect that will kick in when federal stimulus support runs out in 2011.

They will be coming to the 2010 legislature with a detailed package of measures designed to give colleges and universities more financial flexibility. (Such proposals failed for the most part in 2009.)

State leaders need to come up with some sort of 2011 ballot proposal to untangle Colorado’s fiscal knots. But, a proposal focused just on higher education funding won’t fly.

Colorado’s current higher education system is financially unsustainable. But, there are no obvious, easy reforms, such as privatization.

Both support creation of a new master plan for higher education, although not in the form originally proposed by higher ed director David Skaggs, who recently resigned.

You can watch the full 45-minute video of the discussion here. Below are some quotes from Benson and Blake on a variety of issues.

On operating with tight budgets:

Mr. Blake: Cut anything you can without cutting into the bone marrow of academic excellence. At the Board of Governors meeting last month, we laid out a series of efforts to make those types of cuts.

The $80.9 million that is in the stimulus funding for the current fiscal year will go away next fiscal year. And they [the legislature] will have to find $80.9 million for higher education out of the general fund. That’s going to precipitate some very serious discussions over levels of funding. Higher Education is going to be very much in the center of that discussion.

Mr. Benson: When I started in this job, I went in and said we’ve got to find all the efficiencies we can possibly find. That’s just a management philosophy of mine. Stimulus money is wonderful, but we’re not taking that into consideration.

On long-term funding issues:

Mr. Blake: The model we have now – let’s be realistic – is not sustainable. We’re talking about the level of general fund per student. It’s where it was 10 years ago and there’s not much expectation of any change in that going forward. We’re looking at any concept that’s out there. We cannot wait for two years for something magical to occur – whether that’s privatization, whether that’s an authority or enterprise. We can’t let the past absolutely overshadow the future. The General Assembly does the best they can to make general fund money available for higher ed, but their options are narrowing. Every creative, inventive but sustainable idea needs to be looked at. Higher ed needs a sustainable source of funding going forward.

Mr. Benson: The state of Virginia has passed legislation freeing up the hands of universities so they can set their own tuition and financial aid and capital construction. We’re analyzing what they’re doing. Maryland’s done it. We need to show some models that are working.

On a 2011 ballot measure:

Mr. Benson: Yes, we will see a ballot issue. What will we go with? I don’t know. We’re just studying everything we can possibly study.

Mr. Blake: A new relationship has to be forged between public higher education and Colorado due to the new fiscal realities. Everything we do, the way we behave reflects on the way people feel about higher education. Polling for higher ed is in the single digits. It’s not top of mind. As we look forward to 2011, we’re going to have to do a great deal. Everything we do – how we behave, how we are transparent and how we are accountable in a public way – will form the basis of anything in 2011 in terms of the campaign to build that kind of trust.

On flexibility and giving boards control over tuition and financial aid:

Mr. Benson: We threw together some legislation very rapidly. We didn’t have the time to get proper bill sponsors in place. It was too fast. We have 20 items we’re working on for upcoming legislative session.

On students in the middle:

Mr. Benson: Talk to the governor some time, he’ll tell you he’s almost Pell grant eligible with his kids. The lowest income and the highest income – those are not the people we worry about. I’m worried about the middle ones and their ability to afford higher education.

On articulation agreements:

Mr. Benson: We are working on articulation agreements right now to make sure we have the proper articulation so students can go on to a university and be successful. The greatest example of that is our Colorado Springs campus where the chancellor emphasizes cooperation with all the community colleges. Those students who transfer in are graduating more rapidly than the traditional freshman students. We’re going to do more of that around the metro area so we can help kids go to college.

On the relationship between CSU and CU:

Mr. Blake: Bruce and I have this friendship that extends far, far back before these opportunities [our current jobs] came about. We have an enormous level of trust between the two of us and the institutions as well. Bruce has been going around the state, and I have been going around the state with CSU President Tony Frank (who oversees the Fort Collins campus). All of higher education needs to collaborate in so many different ways. People don’t want to see these individual fiefdoms. We have to have a new conversation with Colorado.

On image:

Mr. Benson: One dissident professor and a couple football players can mess up higher education in all of Colorado.

On applying business practices to higher education:

Mr. Benson: Higher ed is another type of business. I know some people get upset when I say that. Problems don’t go away, they only get worse. As soon as you’ve got a problem, take it on and fix it.

Mr. Blake: [Good management practices] are not the sole domain of the business community.

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