I don’t often get the opportunity to talk publicly about the Board of Governors of the CSU System. In reality, if a higher education governing board is doing its job well – supporting our campuses, representing the interests of taxpayers, making sure our budgets balance and our policies align with best practice – their work won’t attract a lot of attention. Accountability, commitment, and sound fiscal management aren’t generally headline-making stuff.
But for a system like ours, those characteristics are profoundly important. And never has that been more evident than on June 5, when our Board approved a set of budgets for the CSU campuses that will allow them to navigate through the COVID-19 fiscal crisis in better shape than many, if not most, universities around the country.
It wasn’t easy to get here. Back in May, when we would normally be finalizing our budget planning for the year in conjunction with the Colorado Legislature’s passage of its Long Bill, we were instead starting over from scratch. Faced with a looming deficit of more than $164M Systemwide, with state and federal support still uncertain, our campuses began to plan for cuts that would have sliced deep into the quality and capacity of our universities – perhaps irreparably.
The significance of this wasn’t lost on those who understand how critical higher education is to the economy of our state and local communities. In Northern Colorado, CSU is the region’s largest employer. In Southern Colorado, CSU Pueblo is one of the largest employers. CSU Global employs people in communities around our state and around the country. Our graduates are essential workers in key industries that fuel our state’s fiscal and social well-being. We know that in the wake of the Great Recession, communities that were home to college campuses rebounded more quickly than other places. Governor Jared Polis, our Congressional delegation, and members of the Colorado Legislature all know this – and rallied along with our Board to help stabilize higher education during the crisis.
As a result, the budget the Board approved is significantly more positive than those facing most U.S. campuses, thanks to the state government’s strategic deployment of the federal CARES Act funds, and the vision of the Board in marshaling resources and preparing for emergencies over the last decade. This package leans heavily on those federal stimulus funds, pairing them aggressively with System reserves and proceeds from Board-initiated refinancing. These sources of funds allow us to substantively spare the campuses where the real work of teaching, discovery, and engagement occurs.
Let’s pause here and be clear. We are not avoiding deeper cuts because our campuses lack that will; indeed, future years may show the need for additional reductions. We avoid these cuts in no small part because of our role as a public entity, established by an act of Congress and supported for 150 years by the citizens of Colorado to build a better future. A part of the role we can play today, as we did in the Great Recession, is as a stabilizing influence in the economy of our communities and our state. Everywhere higher education turns today, one sees risk. And the easiest way to mitigate risk in an organization where greater than 80% of the costs are personnel expenses is to turn to layoffs. But layoffs into a time of high unemployment simply fuel downward economic pressure. Instead, our Board of Governors prioritized payroll protection, choosing not to take the easy path. And, not as Chancellor, but as a taxpayer, I want to publicly thank them for the position they took. By doing so, they added a stabilizing factor into our economy and planted the seeds for the economic recovery that we know will come.
Our campuses will still do some belt-tightening and feel the impact of the pandemic recession. Many positions will remain unfilled, and all of us will need to pick up that load. We will also continue to plan for the contingency of a more prolonged economic downturn than any of us hope for.
This was, and remains, a difficult budget. But it is among the budgets I’m proudest of in the dozen years I’ve been responsible for presenting them to the Board of Governors of the CSU System. This is what you, as people invested in our System, need to know: Our governing board is made up of experienced leaders and successful businesspeople who serve our state exceptionally well. These are people who ask tough questions and challenge us at every turn to be better. And because of their leadership, CSU is on solid ground heading into next year.
We don’t know what’s to come in the months ahead, but whatever that future holds, we will be able to focus on assuring students earn degrees that matter, our campuses are safe, our world continues to benefit from faculty research and discovery, and our communities reap the fruits of our engagement.