Skaggs approved as new CCHE executive director


January 11, 2007

By Marianne Goodland

Silver & Gold Record reporter

The first day of the 66th General Assembly featured confirmation hearings for six Cabinet appointees, including approval of former Colorado Congressman David Skaggs as executive director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and director of the Department of Higher Education.

“I want the department to be seen as an advocate and friend of higher education,” Skaggs told the Senate Education Committee, during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday. “Resources are stretched too tightly to [engage in] internecine conflict.”

The committee unanimously approved Skaggs’ nomination and sent it to the full Senate for final confirmation.

Skaggs told the education committee that he intends to hold open office hours so that faculty, students and the public can feel free to discuss higher education issues with him. In response to a question from Sen. Josh Penry (R-Grand Junction), Skaggs said his priorities include addressing morale problem in higher education, caused in part by funding and governance issues. He said the morale problems “spill over into recruitment and maintaining the quality of faculty.” Skaggs said he also will address the financial stability of the higher ed system and deferred maintenance issues.

Skaggs added that he views his role as executive director as being “respectful of the authority and responsibilities” of the governing boards. “My approach will be to be as collaborative as possible,” but still mindful of the responsibilities given to the CCHE by the General Assembly, he said.

“Your work in civility [as a member of Congress] will serve you well in this post,” Sen. Sue Windels (D-Arvada), chair of the Senate Education Committee, told Skaggs during the hearing.

Skaggs’ appointment was the first Cabinet nomination announced by Gov. Bill Ritter on Dec. 28. In his announcement, Ritter said Skaggs has “distinguished himself as a thoughtful, engaging and forward-looking member of Congress. I know he will bring his passion for higher education to this new assignment.”

Skaggs, a Democrat, served in Congress as a representative of the 2nd Congression-al District from 1987-98. He is a founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Council for Excellence in Government, based in Washington, D.C.

Colorado statutes require the CCHE executive director to have “substantial training and experience in the field of higher education.” That language was part of the statute when the CCHE was reorganized in 1985. At the time of its implementation, the CCHE was headed by Blenda Wilson, former senior associate dean of the Harvard Graduate School and a former assistant provost at Rutgers. Wilson left the CCHE in 1988 to become chancellor of the University of Michigan at Dearborn. She was succeeded by David Longanecker, formerly the state higher education executive officer in Minnesota and a former higher ed policy analyst in the Congressional Budget Office. Longanecker left in 1993 to become assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education. He was succeeded by former CU-Colorado Springs Chancellor Dwayne Nuzum, who also had served as dean of the CU-Denver College of Architecture and Planning.

In 1999, then-Gov. Bill Owens appointed former state Rep. Tim Foster (R-Grand Junction) as CCHE executive director. Foster served until 2004, when he left to become president of Mesa State College. He was succeeded by Rick O’Donnell, who left last year to run for Congress. Information supplied by the Owens administration at the time of Foster’s and O’Donnell’s appointments did not show that either had experience or training in the field of higher education, and the statutory requirement was never raised at their confirmation hearings. However, the requirement became an issue when O’Donnell left the post last year. It was raised by Windels, who reminded Owens of the statute prior to his appointment of Jenna Langer as CCHE executive director. In April 2006, Windels told S&GR that she did not believe Langer had the requisite training and experience for the CCHE job but said she would not oppose the nomination, given that Langer’s appointment would likely be short. “She can keep things going until we have a new governor who can [make an appointment] that meets the criteria specified in state law,” Windels said.

During his campaign Ritter committed to following the statutory criteria. In a questionnaire submitted to all the gubernatorial candidates by S&GR, Ritter said he would enforce the statute. “The executive director of the Department of Higher Education must be more than a capable bureaucrat,” Ritter said in his response. “He or she must also be able to understand and respond appropriately to faculty issues, make prudent decisions regarding the allocation of state resources, protect the best interests of students, and put the best interests of the citizens of the state before partisan or ideological goals. To accomplish these goals, I would appoint an executive director with substantial training and experience in the field of higher education. The responsibilities of the executive director position require more than loyalty to the governor or a particular political ideology; they demand experience in the field.” (Responses from the gubernatorial candidates to S&GR’s question on the CCHE director were not published due to space constraints.)

When asked about Skaggs’ qualifications as CCHE director, Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer emphasized Skaggs’ experience as an adjunct faculty member and his experience in policy, government, legislative issues and curriculum. “We are extremely confident that Rep. Skaggs more than meets the `substantial training and experience’ statutory requirement, and most certainly lives up to the parameters the governor-elect outlined in the questionnaire,” Dreyer told S&GR.

Skaggs taught for three semesters at UCB, including undergraduate courses on environmental policy, democracy and technology, and a law school seminar on separation of powers. “He is a frequent guest lecturer in Washington at programs sponsored by American University,” Dreyer said, adding that Skaggs served on the boards of trustees for Wesleyan University and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. “He has a deep and fundamental understanding of what it will take to propel Colorado’s institutions of higher learning forward,” Dreyer said.

On Wednesday Windels said that while she had reservations about Skaggs’ nomination at first, she spoke further with the Ritter administration and then “felt better” about Skaggs’ qualifications for the CCHE post. Windels said the statute does not define “substantial training and experience in the field of higher education” and that she would like the education committee to discuss that definition this spring.