By Natalie Gubbay
Forget 2020 — we’re already in the midst of a contentious presidential election, and this time, there’s only one candidate.
The University of Colorado Board of Regents recently announced Mark Kennedy, former businessman and U.S. House Representative from Minnesota, as their sole nominee to replace Bruce Benson as University of Colorado president. The move immediately drew backlash both from those who consider Kennedy an inappropriate fit and also those who were shocked that only one finalist was offered. A petition, written collaboratively by CU students and faculty, argued that “it does not seem that the Regents have succeeded in their pledge to ‘promote and uphold the principles of ethics, integrity, transparency, and accountability,’” and asks that his nomination be withdrawn.
The petition also voiced concerns over Kennedy’s voting record and questioned his commitment to prioritizing diversity and inclusion at CU — as a representative, Kennedy voted twice against marriage equality and against grants for universities serving primarily Black and Latinx students. The petition states that “CU needs a leader in diversity, not a follower,” and worries that “Mr. Kennedy’s community work shows no evidence of a broad commitment to public higher education.” During his time in the House of Representatives, Kennedy received a score of 7 percent by the American Civil Liberties Union on his record for civil rights policies. The Denver Post called his attempt to renounce his anti-LGBT and anti-abortion history “unconvincing” and the regents’ nomination decision “flabbergasting.”
The controversy is further complicated by the fact that Colorado is one of just four states in which university regents are elected. If you voted in Colorado last November, you voted for a CU regent; one regent is elected from each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts and two others represent the state at-large. Terms are six years and elections are staggered.
Unsurprisingly, the board is heavily political and somewhat predictable, with the current CU regents including Republicans from Grand Junction, Castle Rock, Colorado Springs, and Highlands Ranch, and Democrats from Denver, Boulder, and Lakewood.
Also unsurprisingly, this isn’t the first time regents have clashed with University of Colorado students and faculty over politics. In 2016, professors at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs emailed incoming students in their Medical Humanities class to state that the course would not teach or discuss perspectives outside the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, and asked students to drop the course if they had any objections. The email was quickly criticized by a few CU regents along with CU’s president, Bruce Benson; one regent argued that students should be “educated, not indoctrinated.” In 2013, the board faced criticism from the American Association of University Professors for attempting to conduct a survey assessing the political climate and concerns of liberal bias at CU Boulder.
In their letter, students and faculty have been clear that their concerns surround Mark Kennedy specifically — those who oppose his nomination are not necessarily advocating for systemic change. And yet, it’s hard to disentangle politics from the choice of a right-leaning candidate by a majority-Republican governing board. Whether students and faculty meant it to or not, the controversy raises tough questions regarding the legitimacy of CU’s governance system entirely. The decision to choose university regents democratically is a bit like Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights: admirable theoretically, but a logistical nightmare. To what extent does a commitment to civic involvement come at the cost of professional expertise? How do we hold university boards publicly accountable without politicizing university governance? And, let’s face it, what might it mean for CU regents to hold different ideologies than CU students?
There are many who fear Kennedy’s approval is already inevitable. But his appointment shouldn’t mean that questions of accountability in the CU system fall by the wayside. University of Colorado regents set CU’s tuition and fees, approve its $4.5 billion operating budget, decide whether or not to consider measures like tuition caps, and choose whether to prioritize pushing for public funding. They have a real impact on CU’s 67,000 students and 35,000 employees. Their decisions shape Colorado’s education system in a way that CC’s never could.
That their election amounts to little more than a partisan check-the-box is more than inappropriate: it’s scary. And while the process won’t likely change anytime soon, the least we can do is be loud about it. If the University of Colorado regents are elected by the Colorado public, they need to be answerable to the Colorado public — otherwise, we’ve missed the point entirely.