INSIGHTS: CU’s investment strategy could cost political capital

Author: Joey Bunch - April 20, 2018 - Updated: April 20, 2018


Chancellor Phil DiStefano thinks he knows what’s best for the University of Colorado Boulder, and that it’s best if he oversees a purse worth about $21 million each year instead of CU Boulder’s student government leaders.

“I want to inform you of a financial oversight decision I have made that is in the best long-term interest of our students,” he wrote in a public memo on April 4.

It’s grown-up stuff, he implies, to be responsible for money that goes to campus facilities, bond payments, staffing and student programs, as well as to put that money to work in the markets, to make moves when the price is right. All of that is true.

“As chancellor, I am charged with ensuring efficient use of all our funding and making decisions that are fiscally prudent over the long term,” DiStefano said in his memo.

In the long term, CU Boulder might handle its investments better, but in doing so, the university could squander its political capital.

Fifty-seven campus student government alumni signed a letter to DiStefano telling him to reconsider. Besides six current or former legislators, there are two signers who are vying for prominent offices this year: State Rep. Joe Salazar, in the attorney general’s race, and Joe Neguse, who’s running for Congress to represent CU Boulder’s district.
Some of the best-connected lobbyists in the state are on the list. There’s also Daniel Ramos and Laura “Pinky” Reinsch, executive director and political director, respectively, for One Colorado, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.

If DiStefano is talking down to students, then he’s punching up at alumni who are friends in government the university needs. As Gov. John Hickenlooper often reminds us, there’s no profit margin in making enemies, Phil.
After the backlash, he said he would give the idea some more thought.

Investing in student leaders pays off, too. Responsibility is fertile ground for future leaders, and trust builds character and accountability. So much of what a university does prepares students for the real world.

If this was a test for CU Boulder, DiStefano received a low score.

Steve Fenberg was a skinny 18-year-old with big ideas when he showed up in Boulder to learn about environmental policy. He joined student government right away.

What kind of freshman legislator was he? “A bad one, probably, but it’s where I cut my teeth in the political world,” he told me.

Fenberg remembered when he was a junior and the school administration came humbly to ask students for money to fix up buildings, because the legislature in Denver wouldn’t deliver. The law school’s accreditation was at risk.

tudent government leaders found a way to pass a student fee that covered the bond payments. It wasn’t kids’ games then.

“We did it for the good of our community,” Fenberg recalled. “We said yes, after much negotiation. We said, ‘We will do this. We will burden ourselves and take on this tax as students, but only if the money is used in certain ways.’ We put all kinds of things in there, that the buildings were LEED certified, that they used fair-labor practices, making sure they provided healthcare for their workers.”

I should mention here that CU Boulder student Steve has become state Sen. Stephen Fenberg, who represents Boulder in the General Assembly. When he left CU, he, now-state Rep. Leslie Herod and former Hickenlooper Cabinet member Joe Neguse started New Era Colorado.

New Era attracts and trains young progressive politicos. And it’s widely viewed as the emerging power base of the state Democratic Party. Neguse is looking more and more like a shoo-in to be the new congressman representing Boulder. People are starting to talk about what kind of governor Herod could become someday.

Fenberg was controlled but passionate.

“A lot of people fought over the years for the autonomy students have at CU,” Fenberg said. “This chancellor is unilaterally taking that away and erasing all that history. That history has resulted in the graduation of leaders that any formal leadership training program could not be as successful at producing.”

Herod said the responsibility she shouldered at CU Boulder directly shaped who she is today, and she doesn’t want to see that opportunity taken away from future student leaders. The school should work with students, not against them, she said at the Capitol.

The ebb and flow of liberal and conservative student governments, with competent and sometimes less competent leaders weathering good and bad decisions, is no different from the way any government works, Herod said.

“I think it’s critically important to let the students go in the direction they want to go in,” she said. “It’s their money. It’s important that the administration be there to guide and advise the student union, as well, but not to bully them or intimidate them or pull their funding.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.