CU to examine future of Conference on World Affairs

'Externally facing' event must prove its value to students, dean says

David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

Officials at the University of Colorado Boulder are taking a look at the Conference on World Affairs to determine whether the funding the university gives the event — somewhere around $160,000 — is a justifiable expense for the university.

The thinking behind the process, explains Steven Leigh, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, is that since the university now receives the vast majority of its funding from tuition dollars, an “externally facing” program like the Conference on World Affairs (CWA) must prove its academic and educational value to students. Otherwise, the university might reconsider its funding of the event.

It’s not just the CWA that is coming under scrutiny. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival, the CU Art Museum and the Brakhage Center face similar questions about their budgets, Leigh says.

“If it looks like our students are not deriving benefit from any of these externally facing enterprises, than we will have to think about that,” Leigh says.

Ten years ago, when taxpayers contributed twice as many dollars per student to the CU budget as they do now, it made sense for the university to fund programs like the Conference on World Affairs or the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Leigh says. The programs returned something to the people whose taxes helped fund them.

“It’s justifiable to take tax money and put it back into the community,” Leigh told Boulder Weekly for a March story about the Shakespeare Festival’s budget issues. “Now what we have to do is say, this is being driven mostly by tuition, so we have to make sure this contributes to our students.”

Facing budget shortfalls of almost $1 million during the past eight years, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival planned some changes, prompted by Leigh and Provost Russell Moore, to try to include a stronger academic component as part of the festival’s mission.

Conference on World Affairs Director Jim Palmer says he has spoken with Leigh about the direction of the conference, but he is not worried about any drastic changes coming down the pipe. First off, Palmer says, the conference isn’t in debt.

“We stay in the black,” Palmer says.

Palmer says he understands the top brass’s concerns about the conference, but he believes the CWA already meets an appropriate level of student and faculty involvement.

“I understand. We are kind of outliers,” Palmer says. “We are not academic programs, but the conference provides a tremendous opportunity for students as far as learning internships. Students are much involved and committed to the conference. There would not be a conference without the student involvement.”

Leigh is taking somewhat of a hands-off approach for now. He’s been on campus for less than a year, and he wants to experience the conference, which ends on April 12, before diving in and making any changes. The conference has an easier time than the Shakespeare Festival as far as proving its academic value to students, Leigh says.

“It’s a little easier for them because during the session, they’re during the spring semester. So if we want to tie students into it, it’s much, much easier to do that,” Leigh says.

Leigh says the conference provides value to the university, but during a time of crunched budgets, the College of Arts and Sciences must be very careful in how it spends money.

“This is the consequence of a new funding environment,” Leigh says. “This is the way universities have always operated. They do externally facing things. That’s the whole point of a public university. And unfortunately, the state walks away from us, takes a bigger step every year.”