University of Colorado President Bruce Benson tried to speed up a vote on this year's proposed tuition increase, sending an e-mail to the Board of Regents in January that warned "the more opportunities the media has to bring up the issue, the more difficult it becomes for us to communicate what we are doing."
Benson's Jan. 20 e-mail, in which he acknowledged "there may be some concern about the pace at which it is moving," came nine days after administrators unveiled a proposed 15.7 percent tuition hike for in-state students on the Boulder campus.
CU regents asked for, but as of Thursday still had not received, alternate tuition proposals. The board's chairman ultimately pulled the rate hike off the agenda for the regents' Feb. 1 meeting in Colorado Springs.
The increasingly public battle over CU's tuition now is expected to be resolved when the divided Board of Regents votes on next year's rates either in March or April.
Earlier this week, a regent told state lawmakers that the 15.7 percent increase was scuttled altogether by public outrage over the Camera's report in late January that last year's 9.3 percent tuition increase funded raises for top Boulder campus administrators, including a $49,000 raise for Chancellor Phil DiStefano.
Both the idea of expediting this year's tuition vote and Benson's concerns about press coverage upset some regents, while others defended the president's actions.
CU turned over Benson's Jan. 20 e-mail after it was requested by the Camera.
"As one of the four regents who voted against the tuition increases last year, I was very troubled and frustrated at the prospect of the tuition vote being rushed through this year without public input," said Joe Neguse, D-Boulder. "I strongly disagreed with what President Benson proposed and I was very disappointed with the idea of this tuition vote being sped up in what appeared to be an effort to avoid further scrutiny."
Neguse voted against last year's tuition increase, along with Sue Sharkey, R-Windsor, Jim Geddes, R-Sedalia, and former Democratic Regent Monisha Merchant.
Jan. 11: University of Colorado administrators propose a 15.7 percent tuition hike for in-state students on the Boulder campus during a budget retreat in Denver. Tuition for full-time students in the College of Arts and Sciences -- which enrolls the most students -- would increase from $7,672 this year to $8,875 next year. Some regents ask the finance chiefs to come back with other options, including re-introducing a plan that would lock rates for in-state students.
Jan. 20: Bruce Benson sends an e-mail to the Board of Regents that requests they consider voting on tuition rates at the board's Feb. 1 meeting. "The more opportunities the media has to bring up the issue, the more difficult it becomes for us to communicate what we are doing, in addition to the challenges it poses for our legislative agenda," Benson writes.
Jan. 21: Regent Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, sends an e-mail to his colleagues raising concerns about the timeframe of the proposed vote, saying the public should have an opportunity to respond to tuition proposals, and that the decision-making process shouldn't be based on press concerns.
Jan. 25: Board of Regents Chairman Kyle Hybl, R-Colorado Springs, sends an e-mail to the board saying the tuition vote will not be on the Feb. 1 agenda, citing board concerns over the timetable.
Jan. 29: The Camera publishes a story about how revenue from last year's tuition increase funded raises for top administrators, including a $49,000 raise for Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano, who now earns $389,000. In response, some regents say they've received e-mail from the public balking at the of a tuition increase this year.
Feb. 1: The Board of Regents meets in Colorado Springs but does not vote on tuition.
Feb. 26: The Denver Post publishes an opinion column that quotes Benson as saying "the 15.7 percent (tuition increase) is gone" -- and was never as reported. "It's not going to look like 15.7," Benson says. "I can assure you of that." Still, no other tuition proposals have been made public.
Feb. 27: Regent Sue Sharkey, R-Windsor, testifies before the House Education Committee during a hearing for a bill about higher education transparency. She says: "I have every reason to believe we are off of the 15.7 percent (tuition) increase because of the public outcry, because of transparency. But that would have been voted on at a February meeting had it not been for the public response -- and we would now have a 15.7 percent tuition increase for next fall."
-- Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas
In an interview Thursday, Geddes said that as a public institution, CU needs to be transparent and accountable to the citizens of Colorado.
"I am concerned and disappointed that President Benson suggested the Board of Regents vote on next year's tuition assessments far earlier in the year than usual based on his concerns surrounding media scrutiny," Geddes said. "During that time frame -- the latter part of 2011 and the first two months of this year -- a massive tuition increase was proposed by President Benson for the Boulder campus, which he knew at least several of the regents adamantly opposed."
Tuition hikes 'never popular'
In response to Benson's Jan. 20 e-mail, Neguse wrote to his colleagues on the board, making the case that the public should have more time to share concerns about tuition proposals. He also suggested the decision-making process shouldn't be based on press concerns and the university should wait until it has a better idea about state funding for the upcoming year before the regents vote.
Neguse pointed out that a Feb. 1 vote would be premature and unprecedented; last year, the board voted on tuition in April, and, in previous years, votes have taken place in March, May and even as late as June.
On Thursday, board Chairman Kyle Hybl, R-Colorado Springs, said he had individual conversations with board members before sending an e-mail on Jan. 25 announcing that the tuition vote would not be on the Feb. 1 agenda because of board members' concerns.
Hybl said that regents want to be diligent in making decisions that are in the best interest of students, their parents and citizens.
"Tuition increases are never popular," he said.
Benson, in his Jan. 20 e-mail, told the board that CU didn't expect a dramatic shift in state funding between January and when the Long Bill, which is the state's budget legislation, is finalized in the spring. He said prolonging a discussion and vote on tuition could pose challenges for the university's legislative agenda.
'Doesn't seem to serve anyone'
Regent Stephen Ludwig, a Denver Democrat with a professional background in marketing and communications, said CU -- being the state's flagship university -- draws more attention than any other college in the state when it comes to tuition increases.
"The board has an obligation to hear from people and to consider all of the facts that the administration brings forward and to consider what kind of revenue is needed to move the institution forward and to keep our quality high," Ludwig said. "There is a point of dragging out the conversation over months and that doesn't seem to serve anyone."
CU system spokesman Ken McConnellogue said that funding for higher education is complex and tuition is one piece of it.
"While the state is backing off of its investment in per-student funding, it's also backing off of its investment in financial aid and capital construction," he said. "Those are substantial holes that the university is left to fill."
State funding for the Boulder campus is at 5 percent of CU's budget, which is the lowest in the nation, campus officials have said.
Fate of 15.7 percent hike
On Monday, Sharkey appeared before the state House Education Committee, which was considering a bill designed to make state colleges more fiscally transparent. She told legislators she had "every reason to believe we are off of the 15.7 percent (tuition) increase because of the public outcry" to the administrators' raises.
Her testimony, however, came a day after Denver Post columnist Vincent Carroll wrote about a conversation he had with Benson, noting, "Benson says 'the 15.7 percent is gone' -- and was never as reported."
In an interview Thursday, Sharkey reiterated her position: "I believe the public response is what prompted a decision to re-evaluate a 15.7 percent tuition increase. President Benson said in The Denver Post last Sunday that the 15.7 percent increase is 'gone and never was as reported.' I'm going to disagree with his statement that it was never as reported because that was exactly what was reported in our Board of Regents meeting on Jan. 11."
On the Boulder campus, some students are closely following the tuition debate.
Liz Klasinski, a junior, said she's responsible for paying for her education. To stave off debt, she moved back into the dorms and is a resident adviser, partly because she is compensated with free room and board.
Klasinski, an English and education major, said she wants to pursue a career in teaching -- but is concerned about paying back her estimated $25,000 in debt on a teaching salary.
"I know you need a higher education to get a good job," she said. "But it's like a gamble."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or email@example.com.