What Kind of University Does Colorado Want to Be? – Part II

RelatedPart I – A Brief History of Football and Academicscan be found here

Part II – Colorado, College Athletics and The Wild, Wild West

“If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” – Dwight Eisenhower

  1. Green Eyeshade Time

In part I, I discussed the uneasy history between academics and athletics at the University of Colorado. In this half, I will discuss why the mood among the faithful reflects the belief that conditions had changed to permanently leave CU football in mediocrity.  Other schools have moved much more aggressively on NIL programs, pulling transfers out of CU that left this team both young and thin.  (In fact, CU has kept a compliance lid on NIL, frustrating fans who believe that the school should be far more dynamic.)  Worst of all, it was clear from schools being graded to possibly follow the LA schools in the next consolidation, that Colorado was no longer a top, even middling, brand.  This added to the perception that the CU administration lacks the vision and political will to make the necessary decisions to correct the situation.

There are good reasons for supporters to sense the lack of university commitment to athletics. While CU expects its AD to balance its budget, the university also cross-charges the department out-of-state tuition (~ $40,000) for athletic scholarships as opposed to in-state tuition (~ $13,000).  This amounts to approximately $6 million in added department expenses.  While every other school in the Pac-12 used university and donor funds to survive the pandemic shutdown.  CU was forced to borrow close to $18 million from the conference to get through, repaying the debt via a cut in its conference media distribution.  (To fair, CU has occasionally  used discretionary funds from the administration to plug budget gaps in the AD.  Such a fix was almost certainly employed to allow the firing of Karl Dorrell.)

And finally, there is the matter of allowing transfer students into the university.  Colorado admissions places limits of credits CU will accept (subject, grades, application to major, etc) and demands that transfers be on-track to graduate in their major.  These requirements are stricter than most conference schools (among Pac-12 schools, only Stanford maintains as stringent transfer requirements) and have placed athletic teams – not just football – at a serious disadvantage in an era where managing transfers are becoming a competitive necessity.  Listening to Phil DiStefano at Sunday evening’s press conference, it does not appear that changes to this obstacle are forthcoming.

Well, if you have read this far dear friend, you may be asking “so what?” Why not let CU be a nice liberal arts college, with lots of out-of-state kids enjoying the Boulder lifestyle, combined with strong sciences and professional schools? Why bother with intercollegiate athletics?  Since college athletics is often a multi-billion dollar enterprise catering to irrational actors, that is a fair question.

CU might not be the “Harvard of the West”, but it remains a solid school, currently ranked 97th in the US News and World Report rankings. While this record indicates that CU is a mid-level state university, with limited state support and an over-reliance on out-of-state (and international) students, it is certainly no junior college.  But if the academic side is going to prevail in this tussle, CU should state that fact and then explain how it is going to improve that 97th place USN&WR ranking.

If CU is going to claim that athletics are important, and the schools wants to see excellence in all fronts, then it will also need to find a better model under which to operate.  In fact, CU does have one academic strength that needs to be addressed.  CU remains one of 65 members of the Association of American Universities (AAU).  What is the AAU? Good question.  The AAU is a collection of America’s (and Canada’s) top research universities.  According to its website.

Our member universities earn the majority of competitively awarded federal funding for research that improves public health, seeks to address national challenges, and contributes significantly to our economic strength, while educating and training tomorrow’s visionary leaders and innovators.

AAU member universities collectively help shape policy for higher education, science, and innovation; promote best practices in undergraduate and graduate education, and strengthen the contributions of leading research universities to American society.

Who are the AAU schools?  Most, but not all, are state supported research universities.  Fifteen of the Big Ten’s member schools belong to the AAU.  Nine of the Pac-12 schools are in the AAU.  Other prominent AAU schools include North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Texas and Florida. Sense a trend here?  Ask any CU administrator for a list of our peer schools (or aspirational schools), and most of these institutions will enter the conversation.

And this is the moment where that existential angst enters the room.  Should college football continue to consolidate sooner, rather than later, CU will find itself in a tough spot.  It was very apparent from schools listed on its wish list, that it was unlikely that CU would be invited to join the Public Ivies (i.e., The Big Ten) despite its favorable media market and faded brand.  That would leave Colorado will an unpalatable choice of moving to the Big XII, a conference CU fled a decade ago because it was tired of being the highest academic member, or the Mountain West, a conference that has five ag schools and two members who were junior colleges in my lifetime.  Not a pretty situation for a school that had its choice of conferences in recent memory.

So is it all doom and gloom? Not quite. Despite the Jeremiah’s in the press, the Pac-12 looks to survive, albeit in a diminished form.  A combination of Amazon and ESPN money, an expanded CFP playoff and the Big Ten having filled its appetite should allow the conference to survive for the remainder of this decade.  Not an ideal situation, but a situation that would allow CU to remain aligned with peer schools, reap an increase in media rights and be proactive in its approach to the future. And there is the $64 question – can CU be proactive?

Recent history indicates a gloomy picture on the planning front.  Ever since Mel Tucker was hired away by Michigan St., CU has appeared to be buffeted by the whirlwinds, unable to chart its own course as the pandemic hobbled the school and as other colleges and conferences have moved aggressively in the wake of NCAA incompetence.  The fact that budget was not in place for Karl Dorrell to build his own staff and the school’s reaction to the NIL environment added to this perception.  The defection of several starters from 2021 to other programs was a blow both to the on-field performance and fans’s morale.  Amplifying fans’ frustration has been silence from the Chancellor’s office in the wake of a disastrous start to the football season, leading folks to conclude that the school is hoping to kick this can down the road.  Again, you may ask, does this matter?

In a week when Northwestern (#10 university, USN&WR) announced plans for an $800 million football stadium, it is fair to ask why CU acts as if it cannot adequately support athletics.  One valid excuse is that many donors are either burned out or tapped out (or empty suits), and I will address that in a moment.  At a minimum, CU needed to end its silence on the topic.  Firing Karl Dorrell was a necessary, if regrettable first step. Now comes the need for Colorado’s leadership to articulate an identity and plan to achieve it.   If CU wants to tend more to the Brandeis end of the AAU spectrum than the Michigan end, state so.  But fans need to hear more than platitudes, and the school must be proactive!!

  1. The V Thing

Now I will turn to the one person who can address this dilemma: CU president Todd Saliman.  Saliman, promoted from interim role this summer, claims to support athletics.  (He can be found pre-game touring campus, meeting with fans and donors.)  But Saliman is an insider, having worked up through the university finance department. This means that Saliman was not brought in to shake up a complacent university. Saliman might not have articulated a bold vision for CU, but he does understand how athletics impact the university and has the (mixed) advantage of having a unanimous backing of Regents and no serious opposition on the campuses.  But Saliman still has the rare opportunity in front of him to act boldly.

Saliman, to his credit, understands that CU cannot be miserly at this critical juncture.  In an interview with Brian Howell on Friday, Saliman stated:

“CU always lives in a financially-constrained environment in every area where we do work – academics, financial aid, research and athletics.  It’s just the nature of higher education in Colorado. We also make investments in the areas where we think we need to that are strategic and are part of a long-term strategy for success.

“Of course finances are a consideration, but finances are never the only consideration. We look at things strategically to try to determine what will benefit us most over the long term.”

If fans wondered if Colorado would have the fortitude to move on from Dorrell, Saliman signaled it did.

CU, with the Pac-12 having bought itself some time, now has a six to seven year window to address its faded brand and resolve the divisions within the campus.  Come 2028, CU can either be a leading university in a revised Pac-10+ or an in-demand school as college athletics braces for additional consolidation. But Saliman needs to provide a vision with a capital V.  He needs to formulate a solution not only for athletics but also address the sliding academic standing of the university.  If the athletic donor pool is shallow, reach out to other sources, public and private, to make the vision a reality.  Package improved aid for athletics inside a bigger vision for the Boulder campus.  And all of this needs to take place in an era of consolidation (and professionalism) in college athletics and increasing needs for private-public partnerships on campus.  (Too bad NASA cannot buy the naming rights for Folsom Field.)  Most importantly, Saliman MUST be actively involved in the hiring of a permanent replacement for Karl Dorrell – the new coach will be the public face of the university for the next few years and Saliman needs to feel confident in the hire.

In short, it will take sustained and visionary leadership, qualities not always found at CU.  Saliman will need to engage (and challenge) alumni and donors, and not just on athletics.  Saliman will also need to work the state to devise creative solutions, reform a university bureaucracy that seems to enforce mediocracy on everything, and challenge the city of Boulder, which seems to oppose any initiative to improve CU’s standing and often hostile to the student population.  The Board of Regents – which will have three new members elected next month – needs to be on record supporting – but not micromanaging – this initiative.  And more than a few sacred cows will need to slaughtered, starting with the ideas that CU can maintain academic criteria far above its actual standing as a university and any assistance given to athletics will reduce CU’s academic standing.

Mainly, however, the Vision has to be bigger than athletics or academics. It needs to address CU’s standing as an AAU university and its place in the hierarchy of top state and research universities. It should elevate athletics by elevating academics.  It needs to be both inspirational and aspirational.  And it needs to be bold.

RelatedPart I – A Brief History of Football and Academicscan be found here

K Richard Engel is a Financial Planner and saloon-keeper living in Denver. He has degrees from both the Boulder and Denver campuses and was president of the Bay Area alumni chapter in the mid-1990’s.  His views are his own and do not reflect those of the University of Colorado, the Board of Regents, Franklin D Azar or the United Network Command for Law Enforcement.


11 Replies to “What Kind of University Does CU Want to Be? – Part II”

  1. I gotta side with ep here. All the universities have their woke-liberal leadership and factions. Yet many of them still manage to put together a good football team and a positive image of the university. Everyone can support that.

    Nobody is mentioning TABOR and how that unwoke-unliberal idea is hurting public university funding in the state of Colorado. To me this is mind-boggling with such a thriving economy, and one of the engines behind the economy is the university.

    Back to donations. I want to thank the author for laying out the need for a vision. Donors want to know what is going to be done with their money. Then they want to see an actual result — the big R. Start with actually hiring the right football coach and properly funding the staff.

    1. If they do a Part III or follow-up, I agree that TABOR must be addressed. I don’t think it matters where TABOR came from or the politics, as I think politically CU has been hurt from all sides. While TABOR was sponsored by a crazy Republican, at the time it did sound good in practice and presented a model in requiring fiscal responsibility. As I recall the People voted for it 55-45. However, it has put huge constraints on CU and all Colorado schools both athletically and academically. Overall, it really hamstring’s education–this was not adequately researched in the TABOR process. Simply, our schools do not have the flexibility in bonding for projects for anything. Did you know in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Miss a large portion of their educational revenue is from oil/natural gas royalties? The same is true with California. Sure CA may love being 1st in environmental progress/regulation, but even they will not shut off the oil flows off the Coast or even in LA county.

      IMO, CU as the flagship university needs alignment with President/Administration-AD-Coach to succeed. The school requiring full out-of-state tuition for scholarships is insane for all Colorado schools, unless that is written in law somewhere. Also, I think when CU stinks, it sort of permeates to many of our schools, except the Private Institutions. DU will compete in hockey. Mines will have good teams. Colorado College will keep their academic standing very high.

      The 97th in School rankings tells part of the story, but in 1990-94 CU was ranked in the top-15 of the public universities. Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon could not even sniff our rankings… TABOR hammered that too, as big time college professors leave for more $$ just like college coaches.

      To ep’s points, I think Saliman is a key player and needs to step up one way or another. Not some bland statements of support or confidence that with the right Coach CU can succeed, it is really heading up a panel or working group to discover all the limitations and put together an action plan, if they truly want to be competitive in College Athletics.

  2. I’m pretty sick of reading all the whiners about “woke,” elitist liberals,” and the faculty. Sure their are a few profs who have come out with death wishes for football but that extreme minority probably exists on every big football campus from SC to AL…..well maybe not at AL where anti football will get you fired in a heartbeat. But that reinforces my assertion that if we were even above 500 and going to bowls the big wigs in admin would be totally on board and a lot more proactive in maintaining momentum.

    The number one thing why CU doesnt have a viable football program boils down to one thing……winning. and the root cause of that is coaching. There are other problems for sure but winning (and getting a coach who isn’t brain dead) would take care of or alleviate a lot of them.

    When I was attending half the students were from outside the state, both coasts, including my new classmate/friends…..as well of course the entire state transient population. Getting a coach who can win will gain the attention of a lot more of the alumni that is out there maybe to the point where Stuart will spend full time moderating posts.

    Winning will bring the fans, spending money and thusly the NIL ads. The Buffs being at rock bottom when College football finally opened the curtain on pro was more bad fortune caused by half-arsed coaching. Putting the money cart before the horse aint gonna work here and so far the same goes for coaching and those ludicrous king’s ransom buyouts.

    So its time for the Rick and Lance show to really do the extreme due diligence on finding a new guy out in the weeds somewhere, who has never been fired and isnt on a super yacht in the Mediterranean figuring out how he is going invest or spend his recent buyout. He wont have near the passion the guy in the weeds has……….and dont hire some damn committee to look for him. Do it yourself, taking full responsibility to find the weed passion. (sorry about the pun, but at this point shrooms may be an option). Learn from the horrid mistakes made after Barnett. In the end this program has nothing to lose except for millions more dollars on a flim flam or someone who really wants to be retired.

    And finally, if football continues to sink out of sight in Boulder it wont be the end of the world….mine any way. In high school it was all chics and ball and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my future. The only reason I went to CU was because I had a buddy whose brother was up there regaling us with tales of party. I was fortunate that I was a clean slate idiot who learned so much not just from the curriculum and profs but other students from all over the country and several other countries….and of course there were the party’s, Tulagi, the sink, Toms Tavern and o and on.
    With hindsight If I could go back and make the choice again to go to Boulder if it didnt have a successful football program at the time or attend Kornkob Kummunity Kullege (thank you VK) and be merely a grain of sand in the sea of red “best fans in the world” (gag) the choice would still be Boulder.

  3. As an alum of CU who currently has a kid at CU I think the administration is kidding itself about CU’s elite academic status. We are a solid state university 97 sounds about right……. Charging the athletic department out of state tuition is ridiculous. It’s wooden nickels. Howell explained the transfer issue. Becuase we don’t have a general studies major we can’t transfer all of the credits and fulfill the ncaa rules regarding completing degrees. Maybe the death of the ncaa will fix that, or maybe we could work with our administration to apply more credits to a degree?

  4. Hear hear, Richard. It is that vision, plan and accompanying pr campaign (internally as well as externally) that needs to emanate from Todd’s office to change the narrative, and underlying reality for CU athletics and academics.

    I actually agree, that Todd seems to understand that, and will work to get there.

    Maybe when Rick said he will be advised by Buffs, that basically meant Todd? He is a Buff, after all.

    There are many instances where agents work with the president of a university, not the ad, on placing their head coaches, particularly for football and basketball.

    Go Buffs

  5. Excellent analysis. I fear that it will all fall on deaf ears unless Saliman has more intestinal fortitude than he has demonstrated thus far, and as long as Phil D is involved it may be an insurmountable impediment. They seem to be a bunch of academic posers, pretending to be better than they are. They way they act on the academic side you’d think they’re Top 10 rather barely Top 100. the City and the University deserve each and I can see nothing to indicate any changes will be made. I hope I am wrong, but talk is cheap.

    To restate in a crude way – they think their bleep don’t stink.

  6. Here’s a pretty simple plan. Go back to Nike and gage their interest in moving their Corporate Campus to Boulder. They did at one point, until Regents and the City of Boulder told them to pound sand. They basically told Nike we don’t want your half billion long term investment. I’m sure our state taxpayers would be happy with this choice. There is a small contingency of Boulder elites and the academia elites that have zero interest in what’s best for the University. I’m pleased this article really highlights how the Academia elite shot themselves in the foot. I’d still like to see who was involved in the decision making in regards to Nike… are they still involved in City of Boulder politics are they part of the regents teams that said no thanks, we have no intention of selling Nike part of the land the University owns for Nike to build its campus. I hear Phil is stepping down in the Spring, let’s home Tom get’s it that academia and athletics (mind and body) are the peanut butter and jelly of creating a thriving University. Please can someone go back to Nike and gage their interest in Boulder, they thought at one point it was a better fit for their brand, yes…. Maybe it’s water under the bridge… but you never know until you ask.

      1. No, it’s not mentioned in the article. Which is why I’m pointing it out to the writer who has done a wonderful job documenting what ails the University (academia elite). I can’t help you if you don’t think it happened it did. I’d tell you to call Rick George and he would confirm it… or any other contacts you may have within the athletic department. This isn’t some great secret. The scary part was how easily the University and the city washed it under the table.
        The good news, Phil D steps down in the spring. Time to put pressure on the university to find someone with actually real world business experience to take his place.. for me. Right now, who ever replace him is just as important as the new Coach.

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