CU Boulder's Bold Plan to Neuter Student Government Hits a Bump

Protesters at last week's rally in support of University of Colorado student government, also known as CUSG.
Protesters at last week's rally in support of University of Colorado student government, also known as CUSG. CU1 via YouTube
For decades, the University of Colorado Boulder student government, known as CUSG, has been among the most powerful organizations of its type in the country, overseeing cost centers valued in excess of $20 million per annum. Last week, CU Boulder administrators announced their intention to strip all but a token amount of that responsibility from the group, only to temporarily back down in the face of protests by students and former CUSG members led by state senator Steve Fenberg. But Fenberg fears Chancellor Phil DiStefano and his staff plan to push through their proposal over the summer, when they have a better chance of dodging demonstrations.

"I really hope this doesn't mean they'll wait to do this again until the students aren't around anymore," Fenberg says.

Fenberg authored a letter to DiStefano decrying the decision (it's on view below), and his fellow signatories demonstrate how CUSG has served as a launching pad for electoral politics in Colorado. Among those sharing his concerns are state representative and attorney general candidate Joe Salazar, congressional candidate Joe Neguse and current state legislators Leslie Herod, Dan Pabon and Jovan Melton.

Also on record as opposing the move are my twin daughters, who served separate terms as CU Boulder tri-executive — the equivalent of student body co-presidents — and my nephew is presently involved in CUSG. As such, I've had a close-up view of the organization in recent years and see it as a remarkable symbol of concrete student empower. But I can also understand why the administration, whose initial press release and a subsequent statement about the delay are also shared here, might view the entire enterprise as an incredible pain in the posterior.

Right now, CUSG is down to only two tri-executives, President of Internal Affairs Troy Fossett and President of External Affairs Carter Gruba; the third member of the original triumvirate, Betsy Sabala, resigned in November in order to study abroad in Barcelona, Spain, this spring. But if DiStefano thought Fossett and Gruba would meekly accept their annual budget being unilaterally slashed from $23 million to $1.9 million, he was wrong.

CU Boulder spokesperson Ryan Huff, corresponding via email, notes that "the Chancellor and Provost [Russell Moore] met with the two CUSG co-executives Wednesday afternoon [April 4] to discuss the plan. We were not planning to publicly announce it until the CUSG leaders had a chance to review it and have further discussion. When the student government leaders contacted the [Boulder Daily] Camera and published social media posts on Wednesday evening, we felt we needed to inform the campus about the issue at that time."

CUSG's subsequent social-media outreach includes the following video:

The next day, April 5, the CU Board of Regents — the body that would have to sign off on the DiStefano plan — held its regular meeting in Colorado Springs. During the session, students told the regents about their displeasure, prompting a DiStefano acknowledgment that "I will be pulling back on the timing of this move in order to allow for further conversation and engagement with the students."

In the meantime, a protest on the Boulder campus attracted a crowd that one participant estimated at 500 students.

Here's a video of the gathering:

For his part, Fenberg found out about the development "from a student who emailed me out of the blue. He said, 'Please help. The Chancellor has just announced that they're essentially taking control of student fees from student government.' I think he sent it to several legislators, but I happen to be very familiar with CU student government, because I was in it. And I understood the severity of a move like that."

He points out that "I ran as a representative in my freshman year for what's essentially the legislative council of the student government — and I won. I served for a year or two, then became the director of capital construction, which sounds like an odd position to have in student government. But keep in mind, CUSG operates and in some cases actually builds buildings on campus. We invested millions of dollars as the student government to build the new law school, the new business school and the new art school. My position was to oversee the contracts we were awarding to build those projects. And then finally, in my senior year, I was chief of staff for the tri-executives. There's an executive staff of twenty or some people that are essentially like the tri-executives' cabinet, and I was the chief of staff for them."

Having so much responsibility at such a young age had a profound effect on Fenberg.

"There's no question I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for those experiences," he points out. "It's an emotional shift to think of yourself as someone who can make big decisions like that and be in the public eye — and it's not just me. There are so many people in the public arena today who met in student government at CU, and I don't think many of us would be there without CUSG."

click to enlarge State senator Steve Fenberg wrote a letter to Chancellor DiStefano objecting to the plan regarding CUSG. - STEVEFENBERG.ORG
State senator Steve Fenberg wrote a letter to Chancellor DiStefano objecting to the plan regarding CUSG.
CU Boulder has been steadily chipping away at CUSG's power base; a few short years ago, its budget was $28 million. So Fenberg wasn't surprised by the action. In his words, "I was afraid the administrators would try to do something like this. It's an incredible amount of power and authority for a student government to have, and with that comes the authority to make decisions that sometimes the administration would rather have control over. But there's a rich and deep history of how CU student government came to be. It came out of serious issues of unrest back in the 1970s, when an agreement was reached about how the student government and the administration would move forward. In terms of governance, that agreement has largely been honored for forty years — up until last week."

To Fenberg, the way CU Boulder handled the process amounted to "an ambush," and as of yesterday, no one at the university had reached out to him in response to his letter, despite the dozens of impressive individuals who added their names to it.  But he isn't simply going to let the matter end there.

"I would hope that with such a big decision, they would understand that they should communicate with the legislature in one way or another, especially considering how many of us have close ties to that decision," he says, adding, "Institutions like CU often talk about leadership development and shaping the next generation of public servants and well-rounded citizens — and I think this is probably the best leadership development program a university could ever ask for. Because it's real leadership, actual leadership that tests your abilities to make tough decisions. And I think it would be a real shame for the university and the community if this leadership opportunity went away."

Continue to read DiStefano's initial announcement and update, as well as Fenberg's letter, complete with signatories.

Phil DiStefano, chancellor at the University of Colorado Boulder. - YOUTUBE FILE PHOTO
Phil DiStefano, chancellor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
YouTube file photo
From the Chancellor: Changes to CU Student Government model and financial oversight
April 4, 2018

I want to inform you of a financial oversight decision I have made that is in the best long-term interest of our students and the university — and one that won’t have an effect on day-to-day operations of student-run facilities.

For many years, CUSG has overseen a multimillion-dollar budget and been responsible for many operations, such as major campus facilities, bond debt, personnel and student programming. It’s a tall task for anyone to have that responsibility and can be especially difficult when student leaders managing the funds turn over every year. This model makes it challenging to engage in meaningful long-term planning. While the chancellor has ultimate authority over how student fees are spent, the responsibility has been primarily delegated to student government leaders through an agreement with CUSG.

After careful review and in consultation with Senior Vice Chancellor and CFO Kelly Fox, Provost Russell Moore and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Christina Gonzales, I have decided to move the majority of the CUSG funds oversight to Student Affairs staff. CUSG will be relieved of the burden of managing professional staff and facilities such as the University Memorial Center and Recreation Center but will remain responsible for programming and funding student organizations with a $1.9 million budget. My executive team and I look forward to working with the current and incoming CUSG leaders on a smooth transition.

This decision is not a reflection on the current CUSG leadership, nor due to any malfeasance. Rather, over the years, I often saw opportunities missed for major savings and efficiencies as short-term priorities took precedent over long-term planning needs. Decisions by CUSG leaders have not addressed important necessities, such as keeping up on the maintenance of our student-run facilities.

For students who are concerned about how this will impact the services you value and pay for, let me be clear: You won’t see a difference in day-to-day operations. For example, the Recreation Center and UMC will operate as normal. Student organizations will continue to be funded. Student-run boards will still bring speakers of their choosing to campus.

In fact, based on cost savings in this new model, I am allocating an additional amount of nearly $150,000 to go toward student-run groups such as the Distinguished Speakers Board, Cultural Events Board, Program Council and student organizations. CUSG leaders and their appointees will continue to manage this $1.9 million budget and plan associated programming. The student body will continue to have a voice on the fee advisory board and other advisory committees.

The new model will also allocate an additional $250,000 in student fee funds directly to the United Government of Graduate Students (UGGS). This will allow funds to be dedicated to meet graduate student needs without passing through CUSG.

As I made this decision, I considered how other student governments operate among our Pac-12 peers. Most Pac-12 schools have student government budgets of $1 million to $2 million and focus on student organization and event funding—not oversight of facilities and professional staff. Arizona State University, for example, has nearly double the number of undergraduate students at 59,000, yet its student government budget is $2.4 million. This decision brings CU Boulder in line with our peers.

As chancellor, I am charged with ensuring efficient use of all our funding and making decisions that are fiscally prudent over the long term. To that end, I also want to keep tuition and student fees as low as possible while continuing to achieve our academic mission. Earlier this academic year, I announced the Be Boulder Pact, which includes boosting scholarship programs and eliminating course fees next fall at an annual savings of $8.4 million.

I believe having CUSG continue to manage student programming while turning over long-term fiscal planning to Student Affairs staff is in line with this philosophy of spending every dollar wisely.

Philip P. DiStefano

Updated statement from chancellor regarding CUSG budget
April 5, 2018

Chancellor Phil DiStefano and other campus administrators have been hearing from students about questions regarding changes to management of the CUSG budget. CUSG leaders addressed the Board of Regents today at a regularly scheduled meeting in Colorado Springs expressing concerns about the changes, and Chancellor DiStefano responded at the meeting with the following:

"I just want to take a moment to thank the students for coming, making their statements. I have to say that I was really affected by and impressed with our student leadership who spoke today. I want to respond to your concerns and hear your voices. So, I am committing to the board and students that after conferring with President Benson, Board Chair Sharkey and Vice Chair Shoemaker, that I will be pulling back on the timing of this move in order to allow for further conversation and engagement with the students. This will give us time to hear all points of view. I look forward to working with you and will charge my administration to immediately commence those conversations. I will bring the Board of Regents an update at your next meeting."

Letter to Chancellor DiStefano

Dear Chancellor DiStefano,

As former leaders of CUSG (then UCSU), we read about your recent decision regarding CUSG student fee autonomy with great dismay and shock. The opportunity we were afforded to be part of such a powerful and unique institution has had a profound impact on our lives. Simply put, we would not be where we are today if it wasn’t for our experience in the CUSG system. We’re concerned that your decision will effectively erase that opportunity for future student leaders.

The power of the CU-Boulder student government goes back long before we attended CU. CUSG is one of the only student governments with student fee autonomy and that is a significant factor in what has allowed CU-Boulder to produce so many future civic leaders. As you know, the principle of student fee autonomy is based on an historic Board of Regents resolution and subsequent agreements that were forged between the student body and the CU administration more than 40 years ago. To reverse such a longstanding norm by a unilateral decision of your office is, to say the least, incredibly concerning.

We strongly urge you to reconsider your decision and instead to reaffirm CU’s longstanding commitment to student fee autonomy and student self-governance. Those principles are what made our experience at CU rich and meaningful for us as young leaders. The University of Colorado has long invested resources into a mission of instilling values of service and leadership in the students who walk the halls of that great state institution. However, we believe that your recent decision all but removes the most impactful and successful leadership development program that has ever been in place at CU. For that reason, we sincerely hope you will reverse your decision.

We look forward to discussing this further with you.


Senator Steve Fenberg, Senate District 18
Former UCSU Legislative Council Rep-At-Large & Chief of Staff
Representative Leslie Herod, House District 8 (Representative Leslie Herod)
Former UCSU Legislative Council President
Representative Dan Pabon, House District 4 (Dan Pabon)
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Representative Joe Salazar, House District 31 (Joe Salazar for Attorney General)
Former Chair of Ethnic Student Coalition
Representative Jovan Melton, House District 41 (Jovan Melton for State Representative - House District 41)
Former Board of Directors, Black Student Alliance
Joe Neguse, Former CU Regent and DORA Executive Director (Joe Neguse for Congress)
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Scott Martinez, Partner at Snell & Wilmer
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Lisa Kaufmann, Chief of Staff for Congressman Jared Polis
Former UCSU Elections Commissioner
Daniel Ramos, Executive Director of One Colorado
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Former Senator Jessie Ulibarri, Senate District 21
Former UCSU Legislative Council Vice President
Andrew Luxen, Senior Deputy District Attorney, 2nd Judicial District
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Hadley Brown, New Mexico Public Defender
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Dustin Farivar
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Courtney Law, Communications Director at Denver Department of Finance
Former UCSU Legislative Council Rep-At-Large
Benjamin Waters, Waters Public Affairs
Former UCSU Executive Staff & Distinguished Speakers Board Member
Sergio Gonzales, Senior Policy Advisor for US Sen. Kamala Harris
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Brittany Morris Saunders, President of Local Affairs at Sewald Hanfling
Former UCSU Public Relations Director
Lynea Hansen, Senior Vice President of Strategies 360 Colorado
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Laura Reinsch, Political Director of One Colorado
Former UCSU Legislative Council President
Corey Wiggins, Volunteer Resources Coordinator at Metro Caring
Former UCSU Health & Safety Director
Jessica Bralish
Former UCSU Executive Staff
Ryan Biehle, Deputy CEO for Policy & External Affairs for Colorado Academy of Family Physicians
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Israel Garcia, Community Education Director at La Puente Home, Inc.
Former Chair of UCSU Cultural Events Board
Rob DuRay, Civic Engagement Consultant
Former UCSU Environmental Director
Obinna Onyeali
Former UCSU Arts & Sciences Co-Senator
La'Neice Littleton
Former UCSU Arts & Sciences Co-Senator
Megan Cannon, Administrative Supervisor at City of Houston Health Department
Former UCSU 2nd Vice President of Legislative Council
Zach Serrano, Dean of Culture at Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello
Former UCSU Executive Staff, Liaison to Student Affairs
Merici Vinton, Engagement & Business Design Director at Fjord/Accenture
Former UCSU Executive Staff, Liaison to Student Affairs
Anthony DeLaRosa, Chief of Staff of Leadership for Educational
Former UCSU Chief of Staff
Boyce Postma, Architect at Bora Architects
Former UCSU Legislative Council President
Amy Harris
Former UCSU Sustainability Director
Sara Davine Roston
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Jazmin Chavez
Former UCSU Arts & Sciences Co-Senator
Armando Samoza
Former UCSU Arts & Sciences Co-Senator
Ruba Mansouri
Former UCSU Executive Staff
Karen Shimamoto
Former UCSU Diversity Director
Chelsea Canada, Advisor to Colorado Senate Minority Leader
Former CUSG Tri-Executive
Logan Schlutz
Former CUSG Tri-Executive
Richard Muniz
Former UCSU Representative-at-Large
Marco Dorado
Former CUSG Tri-Executive
Ellie Roberts
Former CUSG Tri-Executive
Charles Johnson, Management Consultant at Burns & McDonnell
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Ara Cruz, Executive Director at Cafe Cultura
Former UCSU Rep-At-Large, Diversity Director, and Community Development Director
Hillary O’Brien
Former UCSU Representative-At-Large
Jon Buerge, Chief Development Officer at Urban Villages, Inc.
Former UCSU Tri-Executive
Blaine Pellicore, President, Ursa Major Technologies
Former UCSU Legislative Council President
Ben Beall, City Engineer, City of Steamboat Springs
Former UCSU Legislative Council Vice President, Engineering Senator
Cynthia Molina
Former UCSU Chief Appellate Court Judge
Kyle Huelsman, Policy Director at Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition
Former CUSG Representative At-Large
Lora Roberts
Former Tri-Executive
Wyatt Rider
Former CUSG Chief of Staff
Lauren Emily Cross
Former CUSG Communications Director
Julia Harrington
Former CUSG Legislative Affairs Director
Katie Wolf, Senior Associate at Michael Best Strategies
Former UCSU Legislative Council First Vice President
Eugene Pearson
Former UCSU Representative-At-Large
Garrett Jaso
Former CUSG Director of Legislative Affairs
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