Interview: CU’s Todd Saliman on the cost of higher education and diversity on campus

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11min 39sec
Paolo Zialcita/CPR News
Todd Saliman, the University of Colorado system’s sole presidential finalist, at the CU Boulder campus, Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

Todd Saliman is on the precipice of ascending to the presidency of the University of Colorado, the state’s flagship higher education system of four campuses and over 67,000 students. 

Saliman, who has been serving as the system’s interim president since last year, was unanimously nominated as the sole finalist of the open presidency. For the past week, he has embarked on a tour of all CU campuses, hearing feedback from supporters and critics alike. 

His nomination comes at a time when higher education in Colorado, and the nation, is at a crossroads. As colleges come out of the isolation stage of the COVID-19 pandemic and attempt to entice students back to classrooms, tuition and cost of living expenses continue to rise, making degrees even harder to obtain. 

At the same time, the CU community is looking for a leader to make progress in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. The previous president, Mark Kennedy, was censured by various groups for “failure of leadership” on DEI issues, and left his post shortly after. 

Saliman, if officially confirmed as CU’s president by the Regents at their upcoming Wednesday meeting, will have to address these issues and more on one of the tightest budgets in higher education. Although the state legislature has been steadily increasing funding for its public universities, Colorado still ranks close to the bottom in terms of state funding for higher education.

Saliman joined Colorado Matters as one of his final stops before the Regents convened to make a final decision on his candidacy.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Ryan Warner: Todd, thank you for being with us.

Todd: Well, thank you for having me.

Warner: The CU system hasn't had an academic in charge since about 2005, when historian and economist Elizabeth Hoffman was in the role. Is that notable to you or incidental to the role, seeing as you are not coming at this as an academic?

Saliman: I think it points out kind of what the job is and isn't. [A university president is] not a chancellor. Their job is to talk about the university, promote the university, advocate for the university, to manage the university's finances with their team and to be a spokesperson for CU and for higher education in Colorado.

Warner: You don't think the role of president is fundamentally an academic role? It sounds more like a business role.

Saliman: It is not fundamentally an academic role. That's a role that resides on the campuses: our faculty are in charge of the curriculum, and the chancellors and provosts oversee those faculty. My job is to support them so that they can be successful.

Warner: Fundraiser — do you think that's a big part of the job?

Saliman: That is a big part of the job and I work with the donors closely, but I coordinate closely with the campuses as well.

Warner: When you took the job as interim president, you said you had no intention to apply for the permanent job. Yet here you are as the sole finalist from a pool of some 40 candidates. What or who changed your mind?

Saliman: Well, I said I wasn't going to apply but when I started doing the work, I saw that I could do this very well and I could move the university forward. So I threw my hat in the ring and I went through the same process as everyone else, and I am very grateful to the regents that I have emerged to this point in the process.

Warner: There are critics who say you're not qualified to lead on diversity, equity and inclusion. The previous president Mark Kennedy was censured by several groups, including the board of faculty assembly for what they saw as his failure of leadership in this arena. Can you point to something in your professional history that demonstrates you can lead on the diversity, equity and inclusion front?

Saliman: You bet. Just recently, we initiated an effort to put additional resources into this priority on the campuses. We have a strategic plan that I helped create along with our business school dean from CU Boulder, Sharon Matusik, and that strategic plan has goals in it and metrics in it for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Warner: Give an example of a metric.

Saliman: We look at the percent of new faculty, students and staff who are coming to our campuses from underrepresented groups or [who are] veterans. We just did a survey on our campuses to look at the campus climate and to see the extent to which various communities feel like they belong on our campuses.

Warner: Is measuring enough?

Saliman: No, it's not. You have to take action. We just recently allocated almost $70 million exactly for that purpose. It's for scholarships on our campuses, and we're investing in efforts to increase the pipeline for faculty and staff recruitment from underrepresented groups.

Warner: There is growing concern that some faculty, grad students and staff can no longer afford to live in their communities due to the rising cost of living. How would you tackle that?

Saliman: Yeah, that's a huge challenge for all employers in the area. Since the cost of living is going up quite a bit, the CU Boulder campus actually just finished off a new long-term planning project where they included plans for future housing for graduate students and undergraduate students. It's going to continue to be a challenge on all of our campuses, just like it is for all employers.

Warner: I hear you saying that part of the answer is more housing for graduate students, and that is presumably below market rate housing.

Saliman: More housing for graduate students, and more housing for undergraduate students, as well. But CU Denver is largely a commuter campus, UCCS does have quite a bit of housing, but a large number of students there are commuter students, as well.

Warner: What do you do for faculty that struggle to find housing?

Saliman: It's a challenge. We do have some programs for some faculty to help them with down payment assistance, but housing costs are increasing so rapidly in the area. We've had faculty who have been offered jobs and who haven't accepted those jobs because of housing costs. In higher education in Colorado, we don't have the resources that other institutions [have] in other parts of the country. 

We're [ranked at] 47th [in funding] in the country, when it comes to higher education. Not to say that the legislature and the governor don't support higher education — they do. In fact, they provided an 11 percent increase for higher education this year, which is incredibly helpful. But we're still 47th in the country, which means that our faculty and our staff get paid less than many of our peer institutions. One of the impacts of that is it makes it harder to pay rent or to pay the mortgage and to find housing that you can afford.

Warner: There was a renewed push from workers in higher education to gain collective bargaining rights. The state actually has to consent to that, and a draft bill appears to exclude public colleges and universities. What's your stance on this?

Saliman: From the very beginning of that bill, we said that if higher education was going to be included, then language needed to be included that guaranteed the state was going to cover the cost that was associated with implementation of that bill.

Warner: Your point was if there's going to be collective bargaining that results in higher salaries, higher wages, where's the money going to come from? Is the state going to backfill?

Saliman: Exactly. Because if the state doesn't cover the cost, we would have to either make cuts or increase tuition to cover the costs. We would love to be able to pay our faculty and our staff better, but frankly, it's not overly complicated: you just need the additional revenue to do that, and the state was in a position to provide that guarantee and state law, and so we expressed concern with the bill.

Warner: Couldn't you just fundraise more? In other words, when you need to build a new building or a new stadium, there's all kinds of money to raise, couldn't you do that in this arena?

Saliman: Generally, when we raise money, the gifts are very restricted by contract. So it ends up with what the donor is interested in, like a building, a program or a scholarship — things like that.

Warner: So you're saying if you went to donors and you just said, "Hey, our salaries are low, help us beef them up across the board," that would not be a winning message.

Saliman: It would not be a winning message. The cost associated with increasing salaries is an ongoing cost, where many times when donors give gifts for a one-time benefit.

Warner: You were Governor Bill Ritter's budget man during the 2008 recession. At that time, you and the administration introduced the negative factor. This is a tool which has withheld billions of dollars from Colorado's K through 12 schools since it was put into place. It’s like a giant IOU to districts. Do you think that played a role in how many high school graduates went on to college? That's a rate that's particularly low in Colorado.

Saliman: The negative factor — now called the budget stabilization factor — is something that was implemented during the great recession when we were cutting billions of dollars from the state budget, and it was one of the strategies to make sure that we were trying to spread the impact of the economic downturn across the state budget.

Warner: They were very tough times for the state.

Saliman: They were very tough times and it was one of the very last things we did because it was a priority for the governor, as [it was] a priority for me, to protect K through 12 and higher education and the critical services of the state. The negative factor, or the budget stabilization factor, lives on. The legislature is trying very hard to eliminate it. Our schools are underfunded in Colorado, just like higher education, and that underfunding probably is a contributing factor to the high school graduation rate.

Warner: Is that a legacy of democratic leadership? In other words, the last three administrations have been democratic.

Saliman: No. I've worked with quite a few governors, and quite a few legislators and legislatures, and they all have been supportive of higher education. We have challenges in our state and we've had a few recessions along the way, which of course are bumps in the road. But because of some of our constitutional funding restrictions, it makes it challenging to appropriately fund higher education, to appropriately fund K through 12.

Warner: I imagine you're pointing at least in part to TABOR, the taxpayer bill of rights.

Saliman: I am, and we're in a situation again where the TABOR surpluses are going to be enormous and those dollars could be directed to K through 12, could be directed to higher education to address some of these problems.

Warner: Senator Bernie Sanders has once again called for the cancellation of all student debt. Would that be a healthy step for the country?

Saliman: These broad brush approaches to things, when it comes to debt or free college — I'm not sure that's the best use of dollars. I think it would be good to take a more targeted approach and really focus on folks who have the greatest amount of need. That being said, there is a lot of student debt in our country. It's really important when you think about student debt that you separate out the conversation between public institutions and private institutions. When you are a resident student and you go to school at an in-state institution in any state, it's much, much more affordable than I think many people believe.

The one where I think we really should focus first is Pell, and doubling the Pell Grants.

Warner: These are the federal grants.

Saliman: It's the federal Pell Grant, and those grants are available to students who go to public institutions and private institutions. They're focused on low-income students, and we actually led the effort to write a letter to our federal delegation from all the institutions in Colorado, public and private institutions together, asking that they double Pell. 

Warner: Thanks so much for being with us.

Saliman: Thanks for taking the time to chat.