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Tony Frank: On preserving what others have built

In early January, I had a chance to speak before the Joint Budget Committee of the Colorado General Assembly. This was the 16th year I’ve had the privilege of joining my fellow higher-education CEOs to share thoughts on the state of Colorado higher education and our hopes for the future with these state legislators, as they figure out how to structure the state’s budget for the coming year.

When we go in to meet with the JBC each year, we do so with the recognition that they carry an unbalanced load. On the one side are the needs presented to them as keepers of the state’s budget purse strings, from every agency that depends on state funding to function. On the other side is the limited resource pool available to meet those needs. It’s a thankless job, and yet, I am annually reminded of how seriously our elected officials take this challenge and how well they strive to balance this out-of-balance load.

Over the years, the seats of the JBC have been filled by Colorado icons and legends – US senators, Cabinet members, governors, and more than a few citizen legislators. They’ve disagreed on a lot. They’ve governed through wars, depressions and recessions, booms and busts, pandemics, and times when the social fabric of America began to look frayed. But there were commonalities across those times and across the political divides of the day: They hadn’t built what was entrusted to them, but they nevertheless felt the responsibility to leave it at least as well as they found it – a debt owed to the generations who would follow. It’s a responsibility felt by all of us who are entrusted with leading and safeguarding institutions of longstanding. We’re responsible to the constituents of today, to the legacy of those who came before, and also to the promise of generations of Coloradans yet to come.

Members of the JBC are seasoned state leaders, and they all know the current narrative that exists around American public higher education: high cost, high debt, declining value. And my colleagues and I knew going into the meeting that we had plenty of evidence to counter that narrative. I could share measurements (we used to call these facts) about the millions of graduates each year who have zero debt, whose taxes on their demonstrably higher college-related incomes refill the state’s tax coffers, who are what the businesses – large and small – that make up the American economy compete to hire. CU’s President Saliman can cite wonderful statistics on the economic impact of our research universities. President Johnson from Colorado School of Mines often talks about the economy of the future. President Feinstein of UNC rightly notes unmet demand for skilled professionals. Our colleagues throughout the Colorado higher education ecosystem can speak of access portals, pathways to opportunity, and true American success stories. And all of us can speak to the fact that these successes occur in Colorado, which has one of America’s measurably most efficient higher education systems.

But our legislators know that. They know the funding struggles of our state’s colleges and universities, they know the work that has gone into improving efficiency and keeping costs down, and they’re wary of making substantial budget cuts to a major driver of the state economy. It’s the same calculus our campuses have to use when balancing their own budgets. We have to weigh the impact of potential tuition increases and budget cuts against the risk that cutting investments in the future, investments in the area that produces all of these successes, may have long-term consequences for our state and its economy.

Colorado has one of the most efficient higher education systems in the country because our state leaders, over time, have managed their resources thoughtfully – and because our campuses, in their turn, have taken their commitment to budget accountability and continuous improvement seriously. There isn’t a public campus in Colorado that doesn’t see the need for change to open the doors of success to the people our systems are not serving. When we stand before the JBC at the start of every legislative session, we do so with a willingness to be accountable to whatever metrics they wish to set for us and to play our part in new educational models.

And we also stand there on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in today’s colleges and universities; on behalf of our tens of thousands of employees; and on behalf of that constituency that cannot vote – the generations of Coloradans yet to come. The investments we make in the education system have to sustain what previous generations of Coloradans built, or it makes it more difficult for the students of today and dims the hope of generations of students of tomorrow.

Our state legislators know this. They have difficult jobs, too often thankless. And their responsibility to the past, present, and future seems at times unmanageable. But Colorado higher education is strong and thriving because they do this work, and they do their best, year after year. For that, and for all those who commit to preserving what previous generations have built, I simply want to say “thanks.”

– tony

Tony Frank, Chancellor
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This message was included in Chancellor Frank’s February newsletter. to subscribe to the Chancellor’s monthly letter.