Colorado’s Board of Regents explained and who’s running

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Old Main at the University of Colorado Boulder campus, Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.

Who’s running to be a CU Regent?

The University of Colorado Board of Regents, the governing body of Colorado’s largest higher education system, has four seats up for election this year. 

The board consists of one statewide at-large members and one regent from each of Colorado’s congressional districts. Starting with this election that includes the newly-created eighth district. Regents serve six-year terms, and are termed out after two successive incumbencies.

The board’s main responsibilities include overseeing the system’s taxpayer-funded budget, hiring its president, finalizing sports coaches’ contracts, and setting tuition prices for each individual campus. 

CU Regents only oversee the four campuses that make up the University of Colorado system, not any of the state’s other publicly funded universities. All of those schools are overseen by governing bodies that are appointed and nonpartisan, unlike the Board of Regents. 

Republicans held a majority on the board for decades until 2020, when Democrats won control for the first time since the 1980s. 

In recent years, the board has come under fire for its handling of presidential searches. The Democrat-majority board faced its first major hurdle when Mark Kennedy resigned as the system president after just two years. Regents named Todd Saliman as sole finalist for the job, and subsequently approved him, despite facing pressure to name more than one finalist after the previous presidential search was criticized for lack of transparency.

The board's makeup is changing with this election. When Heidi Ganahl, the Republican's nominee for governor, vacates her at-large seat in January, that position will be permanently dissolved in favor of the eighth district's new seat. The change was mandated through the passing of SB22-013 earlier this year.

Editor's note 11/7/22: This article was updated to include information about a new law that dissolved the at-large seat currently held by Heidi Ganahl.

District 1

Wanda L. James (Democrat)

Denver entrepreneur Wanda James is centering diversity as she campaigns for the open CO-1 seat on the University of Colorado Board of Regents. 

James, a graduate of CU Boulder and a Navy veteran, has a background in Democratic politics. She successfully ran Governor Jared Polis’ first campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the unsuccessful 2006 congressional race in the fifth district for Jay Fawcett. James has also been heralded as a leader in the cannabis industry. She served on the task force that helped institute rules for recreational cannabis and opened a recreational dispensary in northwest Denver. She is believed to be the first Black woman to own a marijuana business in the United States. 

James’ campaign has been centered around improving diversity at the University of Colorado system. Recent numbers from the Colorado Department of Higher Education show white students make up 62 percent of the CU system’s undergraduate population. 

“I wanted to make sure that not only were the doors open for people who look like me — Black [or] brown and women — I wanted to make sure that the doors are busted wide open so that there is a free flow of different diversity coming through the university. And I do mean diversity of age, race, thought, gender,” James told CPR News. 

James said she doesn't want to commit to championing specific policies unless she wins her election. But she said she would make sure the university system is meeting its diversity, equity and inclusion goals by centering its new strategic plan

The CU alum also said her vision of diversity at CU also includes having an eye on who works in the system. 

“CU is the third largest employer in the state of Colorado. We've got to do a better job of recruiting and maintaining people of color throughout the entire system. And that includes staff and faculty, professors, the tenure track,” James said. 

James has raised over $63,000 for her campaign — the most by far of any regent candidate across all districts. Her opponent, Amy White, has yet to report any contributions to her campaign and her website does not have a donation function. 

Amy Naes (Republican)

Amy Naes, a children’s rights lawyer, is the Republican candidate for the open CO-1 seat on the University of Colorado Board of Regents. 

Naes has not responded to CPR News’ interview requests. 

According to her campaign website, she has worked as a law clerk in Denver Juvenile Court and was the executive director for Denver CASA, a nonprofit fostering foster youth. She is currently a senior assistant city and county attorney in Broomfield.

The CU Boulder alum said she will focus on four key issues if elected regent: accountability, accessibility, affordability and student support. 

According to the Colorado Secretary of State’s website, Naes has not filed any campaign finance disclosures so far, although it is not required if she hasn’t raised or spent any money. 

District 4

Frank McNulty (Republican)

Frank McNulty is a former Speaker of the Colorado House, who served eight years in the legislature. After being out of politics since 2015, he’s hoping to return as a Regent for the University of Colorado. 

McNulty, who lives in Highlands Ranch, currently works at a political consulting firm. He graduated from CU Boulder in 1995; he joked that he “survived as a conservative” graduating from what he perceives to be a place where “the Left goes to feel at home.” Following his time at CU, he worked in politics while finishing law school at the University of Denver.

In an interview with CPR News, McNulty said his passion for his alma mater led him to run for regent. 

“It is a place where I think we can make a difference, where we need to put into practice what we tell our children about serving and about the opportunity to give back,” McNulty said. “And this allows me to play out that passion that I have for the university in a way that's meaningful.”

The former lawmaker said he wants to champion a “continued push on diversity,” which to him includes “diversity of backgrounds, geographic diversity, diversity of how and where people were raised.” He noted that the district he hopes to represent is largely rural and said residents are hesitant to attend CU because it lacks these types of diversity. 

McNulty also expressed support for more centers and programs like the Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization’s Conservative Thought and Policy Program. The program recently came under scrutiny when its visiting scholar, John Eastman, became a prominent figure in President Donald Trump’s efforts to stay in office after losing the 2020 election. Eastman appears to be the target of investigations by the Department of Justice and the state of Georgia for his role in trying to overturn the vote. 

“I think it is important that we have these positions in place to encourage students to think maybe a little bit differently and to really open up the way in which they think,” McNulty said. 

McNulty also said he would continue to support the athletics programs at CU, claiming some former Regents have wanted to completely do away with collegiate sports. He said CU can offer top-level sports and academic programs at the same time. 

“I think, for my kids, for me, even as I was in college, being involved in intramurals, athletics, clubs, internships, that all helped me grow as a person,” McNulty said. “Making sure that we prioritize both sides of the equation, including and up to our Division One sports, needs to be a priority and I think we'll build better people because of it.”

McNulty has raised $22,600 for his campaign, putting him vastly ahead of his opponent, Jack Barrington, who has only reported about $1,100. 

Jack Barrington (Democrat)

Self-described “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-some”, Jack Barrington is hoping his eccentric background can propel him to the University of Colorado Board of Regents. 

The Bent County Democrat is in the race to succeed 4th Congressional District Regent Sue Sharkey, a Republican, who is termed out. 

Barrington said his long and varied professional experience would bring a fresh perspective to Colorado’s flagship university system. Barrington is a Navy veteran, who previously worked as a mechanic and a teacher, after going back to college in his 40s. He currently has a traveling act as a Renaissance Festival performer: “I developed a comedy show where it's basically like dad jokes converted to pirate jokes and it plays pretty well in different places.” 

“My line for my campaign is ‘people not politics,’” Barrington told CPR News, “because I really believe that with the background that I've got in a diverse line of skills and experiences, I can bring my focus on making sure that the people, the students, the staff, and the faculty at the University of Colorado are taken care of.”

Democrats in CO-4, an overwhelmingly red district that covers all of the Eastern Plains and parts of the I-25 corridor, struggled to find someone to run against Republican Frank McNulty for the regent position.

Eventually, Barrington, who previously ran for Bent County commissioner as an independent in 2016, stepped up. He said he’s concerned that McNulty, a consultant and former Speaker of the Colorado House, brings too much of a political perspective to the Board. Instead, he believes he could center “empathy, inclusion and transparency” as a regent.

“Instead of just becoming a paper candidate and having a name on the ballot, I've been actively going around and truly pursuing the role of CU Regent because I really do believe we do not need politics in the decision-making process of the university. We need to be focused on taking care of the people,” Barrington said. 

District 5 

Ken Montoya (Republican)

Less than a year after being appointed to the Board of Regents by Gov. Jared Polis, Ken Montera is hoping voters will let him hold onto his seat.

The Republican was named to fill out the term of former regent Chance Hill, who vacated his District 5 seat to move out of state. Montera has since been elected vice-chair of the board. 

Montera grew up in Pueblo and graduated from CU Boulder with a degree in marketing and international finance. His career brought him to companies like Johnson & Johnson, Pepsi Co. and the parent company of Bath & Body Works. 

Since returning to Colorado seven years ago, Montera has taken on roles with the Salvation Army and the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. He ran unsuccessfully for a statewide regent seat in 2018. He said he’s wanted to be involved with higher education because of how formative his own college experience was. 

“It launched my career, but probably as importantly, it gave me a high degree of curiosity and just an understanding of a broader look at the kind of community we live in, the country we live in and how important education is for that,” Montera told CPR News. 

Montera said even though his tenure as CO-5’s Regent has been short, he’s been able to find success in the role.

“What I bring is a nonpartisan approach to how we make decisions collectively for the betterment of the university. This isn't about politics for me,” Montera said. “We've been able to hire Todd Saliman as the president of the university system with a 9-0 vote. At the university affairs level, I was instrumental in helping bring the second aerospace program and the engineering program to UCCS.”

A big part of Montera’s platform is a promise to bring back what he called the “rich tradition of higher education” of teaching students “how to think, not what to think.” He told CPR News he hopes to address make attending a CU campus more accessible by keeping tuition affordable and ensuring the university continues to cultivate an “intellectually diverse environment.”

“It's really about making Colorado someplace that is available to every young person in Colorado, if they have the capability to go. And I think right now, the University of Colorado, especially Boulder, is seen as somewhat elitist,” Montera said. 

In his September 19 campaign finance filing, Montera’s campaign reported it raised about $17,435, dwarfing his opponent, Ron Casados, who has raised $315. Of that, Montera has given his campaign $7,500. He’s also received donations from former CU president Bruce Benson and current CO-7’s Democratic Regent Nolbert Chavez.  

Ronald Casados (Democrat)

Retired educator Ron Casados spent over two decades working in Colorado’s schools and he wants to bring that experience to the University of Colorado Board of Regents as CO-5’s representative. 

The El Paso County native started his undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado’s Colorado Springs campus, but dropped out before he finished. He ended up earning a B.A.  in education and counseling from the University of Northern Colorado in 1978. He said he’s spent the majority of his career as a teacher’s assistant, working with autistic children in public schools, and at disabled peoples’ work centers around Colorado Springs. 

Casados was nominated from the floor of his local party assembly to be the district’s Democratic nominee for the race. He said it was important to have a name on the ballot for a district that skews quite conservative. 

“El Paso County has a long history of being a Republican county without much competition, and I'm here to be that alternative choice to the opposing party,” Casados told CPR News. 

Casados said his primary goal is to keep CU campuses accessible. One way he hopes to achieve that is to bring fiscal responsibility to the university and keep tuition in check by cutting down on unnecessary spending. He criticized the board’s current members for “frivolous spending” in a time when students are suffering financially. 

“It's my understanding that recently the board spent $85,000 on a retreat on the Western Slope, for no other reason but to get to know one another. There was no business taken care of at that retreat, and it's the kind of thing I wouldn't have attended,” he said. 

The three-day annual retreat is when regents get together to strategize about the coming year. No formal actions are taken during the retreat, however the board attends panels featuring guest speakers to learn about how they aid the university in its growth. 

Casados said he also hopes to maximize financial aid opportunities for Coloradans and optimize the pipeline between community colleges and CU. 

District 8

Yolanda Ortega (Democrat)

Retired higher education administrator Yolanda Ortega has over 30 years of experience working with Colorado’s college students, and now she’s hoping to take that background to the University of Colorado system as the Regent for the new 8th Congressional District. 

The seat Ortega is running for is brand new — when Colorado was allotted a new congressional district after the 2020 census, state rules meant that district also got a seat on the Board of Regents.

Ortega comes from a military family and found her way to Denver after college, working as a secretary in the Chicano Studies Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She gradually moved her way up the ladder, ending her tenure there as the Vice President of Student Affairs. Ortega also served on the Auraria Board of Trustees, the governing body for the Auraria campus — which houses MSU Denver, the Community College of Denver, and the University of Colorado Denver on its grounds. 

The Westminster-based Democrat said she’s missed being involved in education since she retired in 2017.

“[The Democrats] were looking for candidates and it just seemed like a natural progression,” Ortega told CPR News. “It was somewhere where I felt that my experience could really benefit from giving service to the University of Colorado.”

Most of Ortega’s professional background comes at MSU-Denver, which mostly serves commuting students, many of whom are from non-traditional educational backgrounds or are first-generation students of color. It’s a stark difference from the CU System, whose flagship campus in Boulder mainly serves traditional students straight out of high school. But the difference in campus culture is precisely why Ortega believes she’d be a good fit on the Board of Regents. 

“I think the University of Colorado, throughout my career, has had this need to not just recruit, but retain and graduate students of color,” Ortega said. “I am extremely excited about helping with that goal because I've enjoyed the success of doing that at MSU, through a lot of the projects and the type of work that I was involved with.”

Ortega’s campaign has so far raised over $19,000, putting her well ahead of her Republican opponent Mark VanDriel, who has reported about $1,700 in contributions. 

Mark VanDriel (Republican)

Greeley Republican Mark VanDriel believes his long history as an educator would serve him well as the University of Colorado first regent representing the newly created 8th Congressional District. 

VanDriel was born and raised in Greeley, where he graduated from University High School. He went on to earn a degree in physics from the University of Colorado Boulder. Following that, he got a Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina. He stayed on the East Coast for 10 years and taught undergraduate classes at USC. VanDriel moved back to Greeley about two years ago, where he founded a college-coaching business. 

The Greeley native said his passion for teaching inspired him to run for CU Regent. 

“I became concerned over the last few years that my students were receiving a worse education than I had been receiving,” VanDriel told CPR News. “They were in a worse place when they came to college and they were paying more and getting a lot less.”

VanDriel doesn’t have any experience in administration or politics. But he said his long experience in every level of higher education — from student, to grad student, to professor — would help him on the Board of Regents, which crafts policies for the four CU campuses, all of which have differing needs. 

“It is very possible and even frequent, for administrations to think that an idea will work because they have one conception of what higher education is or of what the CU system is. And they don't have any conception of how that would apply to three other campuses or to 80 percent of the units on a campus,” he said. 

VanDriel said he has three main focuses: accessibility, affordability and accountability. He would like to address these issues as Regent by centering student needs while introducing and voting on policies, rather than “serving faculty interests.”

One of his primary focuses, accessibility, echoes the language of other Republicans, including fellow regent candidate Frank McNulty. The goal, they say, is more support of “free speech” on-campus. 

“The temptation for political assimilation must be resisted not just in policies, but in practice,” VanDriel writes on his campaign website. “As a Regent, I will ensure that systemic audits help the campuses of CU to live up to our long-held ideals.”