COLORADO SPRINGS – Three decades ago, the University of Colorado’s all-but-assured new president Todd Saliman, with a CU degree, aimed to advance his own higher learning at graduate school — until he fell into politics.
A statehouse seat representing Boulder came open. Saliman ran, winning the Democratic primary by four votes, just as multiple acceptance letters were arriving. He stayed his course. But the benefits of more education “stayed in my mind. I knew the value of a graduate degree,” he said in a recent interview.
At the legislature, he dove into policy depths on the Joint Budget Committee that guides public spending. He grew so adept in Colorado finance and state budgets that two governors later tapped his talents. He eventually returned to CU when then-president Bruce Benson hired him as chief financial officer. And now he’ll be trying to persuade a skeptical public of that value of higher education.
Over the past few months, Benson, a conservative oilman who ran CU for 11 years, helped lead a behind-the-scenes push by 37 current and former lawmakers and others who urged CU’s nine elected regents to pick Saliman, now 55, to be the next president of CU’s four-campus system. The regents on April 12 voted unanimously to nominate him as their sole finalist after other candidates declined to continue when regents said finalists would be publicly identified, Board of Regents chairman Jack Kroll revealed this week. “Given this reality, all but one declined.”
Since then, Saliman has been meeting with faculty, staff and students, and will dine with donors, ahead of a final vote by regents next Wednesday to formalize his selection for the job.
“We need to do better. We are not retaining students the way we would like. We are not graduating students the way we would like. That is not acceptable,” Saliman said at the first of those forums this week in an auditorium on the CU-Colorado Springs campus.
“We don’t reflect the diversity of this state. Not with the students. Not with the faculty. Not with the staff,” he said. “It’s about more than just recruiting people from diverse communities to teach here and come to school here. We need to have a culture that makes people feel welcome. This is all of our house.”
At the forums, he addressed concerns of activists, including Latino groups that signed a Colorado Latino Leadership and Research Organization complaint asking Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate the fairness of CU’s secretive presidential selection process.
“He’s definitely saying the right things,” Colorado Latinos Vote director Chuck Montoya said after the Colorado Springs forum.
“The proof is always in the pudding,” Montoya added, though he said he now considers himself a supporter.
Students for the most part were busy and didn’t attend. But several who skipped the forums said they’re bothered by campus hostilities.
At CU-Colorado Springs, “mending bridges between students of color and the campus police department and the faculty and staff” looms as a challenge where a committed new president might make a difference, said senior Miles Jones, 22, a pre-law and communications major who serves as chapter president of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.
Jones was outside the auditorium after Saliman addressed staff and administrators, sitting in a courtyard with fraternity members who were soliciting funds to help low-income elementary schools. He was straight-jacketed in plastic bags and allowed passersby to spray him with shaving cream in return for donations. He said recent incidents on the campus where students alleged they were harassed, possibly with racist motivation, have piqued concerns.
“There’s not a lot of trust, and there’s hasn’t been much action,” Jones said.
Latino students from rural areas often struggle, Gloria Martinez, who attended the forum, said in an interview afterward. Martinez pointed to the experience of a cousin who left the Colorado Springs campus before the end of his first year and transferred to Pueblo Community College. “He said the culture is so different. He just didn’t feel that warmth of family.”
Colorado leaders in their letters to regents emphasized Saliman’s demonstrated ability to work with regents over the past nine months as CU’s interim president — following the resignation under pressure last June of former president Mark Kennedy, a conservative former congressman from Minnesota.
CU regents say they’re looking for stability after Kennedy’s turbulent two-year tenure. The faculty censured Kennedy for “failure to lead” on matters of diversity, equity and inclusion. Saliman’s initial interim presidency contract stipulated he would not seek the permanent job, and he said he would not, but regents in September amended the contract, and Saliman later changed his mind. He disclosed to the Denver Post in December that he would apply.
Benson wrote to regents saying “Saliman is the right person for the job” and that private donors — essential for Colorado higher education because state lawmakers provide relatively low funding (the state ranks 47th in funding for higher education) — “tell me they are confident in Todd’s ability to lead the university and that they are impressed with him.” Benson told regents “donors want to know that the university is well run and that their investment in it is in good hands.”
Saliman grew up south of Denver in Littleton, graduating from Littleton High School, before majoring in political science at CU. He lives in Boulder with his spouse, a musician, and their college-age children. Friends describe him as soft-spoken, humble, contained and confident. He enjoys wood-working. He plays guitar. He’s a Democrat.
“That’s all right. He never wears it on his sleeve,” said Benson, in an interview, acknowledging Saliman lacks fund-raising experience but saying he’s confident he can operate in conservative circles. Benson cited a lunch with Republican donors where he invited Saliman to help represent CU.
“He knocked it out of the park. He sat down and talked about how we get things done. And, with the legislature, he works very well with both sides of the aisle. Todd gets it. He is smart.”
His greatest professional achievement, Saliman told CU administrators and staff, was balancing Colorado’s budget during the 2008 recession in a way that minimized pain for residents who rely most on public health, education and social services.
Now he’s planning an ad campaign promoting CU “so people will see higher education as a worthy investment in our state,” he said Wednesday at a forum on the main Boulder campus. “People are not ready to make these investments yet. It’s going to take time.”
That’ll be the toughest for CU’s next president — securing public funding, said former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, who has served as president of both the University of Northern Colorado and of CU.
Saliman “is an outstanding public servant. They’re lucky to get him,” Brown said.
“But he faces significant challenges. The legislature has given a low priority for higher education. So you’ve got a real squeeze in all of the institutions,” he said.
“He’s very diplomatic in the way he works with people. That fact that he’s the single nominee means he has the confidence of the regents. He’s as well prepared for the business as anybody we have had for a long time and his personality is such that he will be an excellent fundraiser and an excellent administrator.”
The forums at CU campuses drew between 50 and 85 participants with up to 290 more watching online. Questions could be submitted anonymously or posed directly in the forums.
CU officials said improvements at the university — from research and development to financial aid for low-income students — depend largely on adequate funding.
So money managing abilities matter – which favors Saliman, said Jevita Rogers, director of financial aid for CU-Colorado Springs.
“He has a really good connection to the state budget,” she said, “and the budget rules our world.”
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