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Thursday, September 30,2010

A regent race that actually matters

By Jefferson Dodge

Most people around the state don’t know what a regent is, much less what a regent does.

So when it comes time to elect one, they either skip that ballot item or choose someone based on political party.

During one election when I was in my 20s, I even voted for a regent simply because his last name was Beer.

And in most years, that’s OK. After all, the governing board of the state’s flagship university doesn’t affect the everyday life of most Coloradans.

But this year is different. This year, voters have a chance to give Democrats the majority on the University of Colorado Board of Regents for the first time in three decades.

Currently, the board is controlled by Republicans, 5-4. Three positions are up for election this November, and two of those seats are expected to stay with their current parties, given political dynamics in the First and Fourth Congressional Districts. The third race, however, a statewide contest between incumbent Steve Bosley, a Republican, and CU law professor Melissa Hart, a Democrat, is a toss-up. Hart says she and Bosley are in a statistical dead heat. (Oh, yeah, and Libertarian Jesse Wallace is also running.)

If Hart wins, the board will turn blue for the first time since 1980, according to election results documented in CU historian Bud Davis’ Glory Colorado: Volume II.

You might ask why it matters.

Surely partisan politics never rears its ugly head when it comes to simply running a university, right?

Wrong. Bosley is probably correct when he says the majority of issues the regents deal with are not decided on party-line votes, but that doesn’t mean that faculty, staff, students and the public haven’t felt the effects of having a Republican-dominated board for 30 years. Hart says the board should be focused on affordable education, not “weird, extreme political issues.”

In past years there have been numerous initiatives driven by right-wing agendas, many of which have trickled down from national conservative think tanks like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

There is the periodic questioning of whether student fees are used disproportionately to fund liberal guest speakers. Republican board members consistently ask whether the faculty’s teaching load is heavy enough, and their anti-intellectual skepticism drives them to conduct assessments on how much students are actually learning.

They push for pet programs intended to strengthen the core curriculum and shore up “traditional” studies in disciplines like civics and Western civilization. They question the need for fields that encourage social justice, like ethnic studies. Over the years, right-wing regents have fought against offering domestic partner benefits and prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals. They have suspected faculty of inflating grades and pushed for more power over academic matters, which are traditionally the purview of the faculty (and rightly so). Republicans accuse faculty of being too liberal, and they introduce concepts like “intellectual diversity” — if not to get more conservatives hired, then at least to ensure that Republican students aren’t being stifled somehow in class.

At the beginning of the 2005 Ward Churchill debacle, before accusations of research misconduct arose, it was primarily the Republicans calling for Churchill’s head on a platter because he had the audacity to exercise his free speech rights and academic freedom by expressing a hugely unpopular view.

It has been this right-wing-controlled board that has started hiring CU presidents who are not true academics who understand and protect faculty rights, but Republican politicians and businessmen.

One of the most recent examples of politics playing a role in regents’ deliberations came in June when Bosley opposed taking legal action to defend his own board’s authority to ban guns from campus. He says it was primarily because he didn’t think the legal action would be successful, but he also acknowledges that his position was consistent with his desire to allow concealed weapons on campus, because people are unprotected without them.

For her part, Hart targets Bosley for attending Tea Party rallies and firing up audience members by telling them they are “the stormtroopers at the gate, waiting to take back America.” In his defense, Bosley says he was just trying to spice up one of his previous rallying cries about Republican “foot soldiers.”

While he says the term “stormtroopers” was a reference to Star Wars, not German soldiers, he acknowledges that it “was not a good choice of words.” He says he does not consider himself a Tea Party member, and that “I speak to any group that invites me.”

Hart also questions Bosley’s stance on affirmative action, and he acknowledges that he was in favor of Amendment 46, the unsuccessful 2008 measure that would have ended affirmative action in state government employment and higher education. He defends his support for the measure by saying that Proposition 209 in California did not decrease the total number of minorities enrolled at colleges and universities, and that he favors using socioeconomic factors rather than race or gender to achieve diversity goals.

Understandably, Bosley would rather talk about budget matters when campaigning, given the funding challenges facing the university and his background in banking and finance. And he’s got a good point when he says that the ongoing budget cuts are the top obstacle facing the university right now.

He even gets in his own dig against Hart, who went to Harvard Law School and clerked on the U.S. Supreme Court. Bosley says her experience in class-action and discrimination law “is not what you need when you’re in the biggest financial crisis in CU history.”

But that’s why you pay all of those budget officers in the president’s office and on the campuses the big bucks, so that they can figure out the finances.

Bosley and Hart actually agree on something: that the Board of Regents should continue to be elected — just not in a politically partisan way.

But until that happens, it’s clear that after 30 years of heading starboard, Colorado’s flagship university should be steered a bit more to the port side.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that Dodge is former editor of the CU faculty/staff newspaper Silver & Gold Record, which was closed down in 2009 with the support of Bosley and three other Republican regents.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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