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GUEST COLUMN: Good news, bad news for public higher education

By: Bruce D. Benson
March 24, 2014 Updated: March 24, 2014 at 9:40 am
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Colorado's public colleges and universities received good news recently. Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Legislature (through Senate Bill 1) propose to direct $100 million ($60 million in operating funds, $40 million in financial aid) to higher education. CU's share would be almost $17 million in operating.

After a decade-plus of steady declines, it would be the first significant funding increase for higher education. When I arrived at CU six years ago, we received $229 million in state funding. Adjusting for inflation and enrollment growth, it should be $350 million. Today, CU receives $150 million in state funding, less than 6 percent of our $3.1 billion annual budget.

SB1's proposed increase is welcome, and we appreciate the support of the governor and Legislature. Yet the long-term outlook is not as bright. Public higher education faces dim prospects for state funding.

We can sing the blues or we can help ourselves. We chose the latter. CU engaged in a deliberate process of finding efficiencies and bolstering other revenue sources over the past six years, positioning the university to thrive by focusing on our fundamental activities: learning, teaching and research.

Our plan starts with promoting and protecting our reputation. We share the great things happening at CU, from our MAVEN mission to Mars to groundbreaking Alzheimer's research to UCCS spearheading the revitalization of North Nevada Avenue. We also anticipate problems when possible and deal with them immediately as they arise.

We engage our constituents through programs such as CU Advocates, a network of 2,400 alumni and friends who help us promote our value, contributions and challenges. We developed CU for Colorado, which highlights how 240 separate CU programs around the state benefit communities large and small, and how more than 400 CU-affiliated clinics benefit Coloradans.

We also work daily at being more efficient and effective with our funding, cutting expenses and increasing revenues. We have worked with lawmakers the past several sessions to secure legislation that lets us operate more efficiently. For example, we opted out of onerous state purchasing rules, saving millions. Different legislation lets us enlist the top real estate people in the state, all volunteers, to guide us, saving additional millions. Legislation that removed international students from enrollment caps lets us enroll more international students (without turning away any qualified Coloradan), enhancing campus learning environments and bringing millions in additional revenue.

We have streamlined bureaucracy, made strategic cuts and instituted better business practices. CU's administrative overhead is 43 percent below national peer averages. We cut internal policies from 210 to 88, freeing our workforce from significant red tape. Many of our talented faculty have increased their teaching and advising loads for minimal additional compensation.

Our best and brightest faculty also lead efforts to harness new and existing technology to deliver high-quality education at a reduced cost. They are exploring massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other technology pioneered at CU to enhance learning and teaching.

We fixed an out-of-control visual identity by reducing some 400 separate university logos to a handful, led by the interlocking CU. It shows we are one university with four campuses and has led to savings.

We are now engaged in increasing two key revenue streams: fundraising and research funding. Even with successful completion of a $1.5 billion fundraising campaign, we are restructuring our fundraising operation because we can do much better. For research funding, we are creating a new business model to diversify our partner base (now 80 percent the federal government), improve our internal processes and realize greater return on our intellectual property. Research funding and fundraising combined bring us some $1 billion annually, but it's designated by funding agencies and donors and cannot be diverted to operations, our greatest need. Those are funded by state appropriations and tuition.

SB 1's proposed increase is welcome news, yet ensuring that CU sustains its commitment to our students and our state demands that we continue our deliberate approach of helping ourselves. Coloradans deserve no less.

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Bruce D. Benson is president of the University of Colorado.

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