As an Adjunct Professor at CSU-Pueblo this year I have had a relatively close-up view of the unfolding budget crisis. From where I stand neither the faculty nor the administration deserve much praise for the way they’ve conducted themselves. The administration has done a poor job of presenting and clarifying the budget picture and the faculty has held plenty of protest rallies but has offered very few thoughtful solutions. I find it disappointing that a University (and a larger University system) with so much talent to call upon has turned what could have been a creative problem solving challenge into something more akin to a congressional budget showdown.
What is clear, not just at CSU-Pueblo but across the country and not just in colleges but throughout the education system, is that what we’re doing for students isn’t working well enough. High schools are churning out graduates who aren’t prepared for college and colleges are churning out graduates who aren’t prepared for the work force. Teachers are asked to do too much with too little. Parents are expected to pay too much for tuition. Students are asked to navigate a system that emphasizes standardized test scores and grade point averages only to find a job market that only cares about real know-how. And the administrators in public institutions are stuck within a ridiculously complex bureaucracy that resembles something out of a fictional Alice in Wonderland world where we seem to have unlimited funds to build new facilities but never any money to invest in the people who create real value.
I read recently that CSU-Pueblo President Lesley Di Mare (who I think by the way is doing a good job; my guess is that she is stuck between a rock and a hard place with the CSU System on one side and CSU Pueblo on the other) stated that the millions slated for remodel of the Occhiato Center cannot be re-purposed to help address the budget shortfall. How will the CSU Pueblo Foundation feel if they spend loads of cash on a modern student center but then don’t have any students enrolling to enjoy these deluxe facilities? More teamwork is needed. And we should be focusing a lot more on successful long term student outcomes and a lot less on fancy facilities, especially since the University campus sits on a remote desert outpost where only minimal synergy with the community of Pueblo is possible.
At the end of the day, Pueblo and CSU-Pueblo are in the same boat. Both entities are spending too much on new construction with too little vision or thought paid to creating an *effective* environment where people want to live, learn, innovate and invest.
So, in the spirit of offering solutions and not just criticism, here are a few ideas that I will throw out there. My hope is that we can use this budget crisis as an opportunity for collaboration and innovation rather than trench digging and name calling. My approach to brainstorming is that all ideas are worth sharing but not all ideas are worth pursuing. So, you won’t hurt my feelings if you want to shoot down any of these ideas but I would encourage people to offer their own ideas along with any critique. The key is to get as many ideas as possible on the table for discussion, debate and analysis rather than becoming entrenched on 2 sides of only one plan.
Here goes. This assumes that instead of spending money to improve campus facilities and amenities across the road from Belmont, we reallocate funds to build a more innovative and appealing learning community where students will want to enroll and stay after graduation.
Idea 1. Create a Pueblo think tank that conducts applied research on key issues we’re facing in Southern Colorado. Maybe call it the Pueblo Prospertity Institute. Don’t spend a penny on a new facility but dangle a bunch of money out there to recruit the very best minds in Urban Planning, Water Resources, Economic Development, etc for fixed term (maybe 1 year with an option for a 2nd year?) appointment during which they must think, talk, write (but all publications must be freely available to the public – no peer review obscurity or indecipherable ivory tower mumbo-jumbo) and research one or more key issues facing Southern Colorado. Do not restrict the search to professor types! Think tank members should come from industry, government, academia, non-profit. They might come from other parts of the US or from abroad. Anywhere and everywhere. Find the best people, period. Pay them well. And listen to their suggestions. In addition to thoughtful discussion we may just attract more people, good students included, to Pueblo once these superstars figure out how nice the weather is here and how little housing costs.
Idea 2. Bring College Hockey to Downtown Pueblo. Instead of a fancy indoor lacrosse stadium located at the desert outpost why not renovate/expand or simply utilize (heaven forbid we forgo luxury boxes) the Pueblo Plaza Ice Arena and build a quality CSU Pueblo College Hockey team (can John Wristen coach hockey too?) with all home games in the heart of Pueblo. This would create opportunity for restaurants, hotels and other businesses downtown and improve the overall quality of life in Pueblo because people love hockey games. Plus, wouldn’t it be cool to have a team that could compete against Colorado College and Denver University? This is how community pride is built. I will commit to season tickets right now if we can get CC and DU and a few other top programs to come to Pueblo. Maybe we can do the same for baseball at Runyon Field? How about Basketball at Central High? I know. Massari is a lovely facility but have you noticed the empty seats? If you price tickets correctly, you would pack the house for a good college basketball game in the heart of the Mesa Junction. Teams in the RMAC would be terrified to play in Pueblo where local fans raise the roof. Gee, you might just build a fan base along the way.
Idea 3. Create a world class Biological Sciences Campus on the State Fairgrounds. Offer an Animal Sciences (Veterinary, Zoology, etc) program in one of the many existing facilities that is left underutilized except for 1 week per year. Build lab, classroom and meeting facilities where our brilliant scientific minds who practice medicine at St. Mary-Corwin and Parkview can incubate new technologies and business ideas. Start small but think big. Maybe the Nursing School could move in and eventually grow to include a Medical School and a Dental School with nearby access to hospitals where graduates could apply their skills. Heck, while we’re at it why don’t we knock over the Berlin Wall structure surrounding the State Fairgrounds? I don’t mean to suggest that we give in to the snobby elitists in Denver who want to move the State Fair to Denver Metro; rather, why not host a State Fair where we open up the entire community? Music events not just at the fairgrounds but also on the River Walk? Carnival rides not just at the fairgrounds but also downtown near the El Pueblo Museum. Cotton candy at Taffy’s on Abriendo for a reasonable price instead of paying the inflated price within the fairgrounds. And, as an aside, can we stop looking at the State Fair as a money making opportunity for a few people and instead look at it as a community event for everyone in Colorado? Stop charging ridiculous prices for admissions and food. And stop this crazy card payment system that is only useful for locking up people’s change rather than providing value. It’s absurd. Same goes for all of Pueblo’s “Public Event Industrial Complex” festivals. Here’s a news flash for Pueblo’s community leadership: the reason that attendance is down or flat at the State Fair and the Chile Fest and others is because it costs too damn much and offers too little value. Duh. Give people a good reason to come to Pueblo where they’ll spend money with local businesses.
Idea 4. Build a giant Solar Farm near the CSU-Pueblo campus. Allow faculty and students to participate in all phases of the solar farm, from planning and construction to on-going maintenance. It’s an opportunity to capitalize on Pueblo’s uniquely abundant solar resources while also creating an innovative applied learning environment for students. Perhaps the solar farm can power the entire campus and save a bundle? Perhaps the solar farm can become so productive that we can send Black Hills back to South Dakota where they can fleece their own neighbors with ever-increasing electricity rates rather than robbing our community. Here’s a thought. Maybe we can build an expansive solar farm north of Pueblo in the area slated to become “Pueblo Springs Ranch” so that, instead of short-term construction jobs that produce sprawl and traffic congestion (with all profit going to an out-of-state real estate development company), we can collect/produce solar energy and sell it to residents in Colorado Springs and Denver. Do you want prosperity in Pueblo? Well, instead of building another Pueblo Exurban Wasteland residential development that creates a larger footprint for dwindling government resources to manage why don’t we actually produce something of value and then keep the wealth in our own community. We could establish something like the Alaska Permanent Fund whereby residents of Pueblo not only enjoy more reasonably priced home-grown solar power but also receive a regular dividend for revenue that comes in if and when we export energy. I can hear the conservative voices, “Government isn’t the answer – let the private sector create a competitive market place.” Well, I’m sick of the private sector monsters with their all too familiar “too big to value customers” approach to business. Sometimes government has a role to play when the “invisible hand” fails. I’ll take the Pueblo Board of Waterworks over Black Hills and/or Xcel any day of the week. That said, let’s keep local government agencies and union mentalities out of the way where they won’t interfere. We can have a cooperative structure where residents elect a board of directors who ensure proper governance and profit returned to residents so that the institution will exist for the people of Pueblo, rather than being held captive by employees who feel entitled to life-long employment and overly generous retirement benefits.
So, there are my ideas. Crazy? Probably sounds completely insane to the old guard in Pueblo who think the answer to our woes will come from some big company that brings in 1,000 low-skill, low-wage jobs. You know the story – we provide tax incentives and they come in for a few years and then leave for greener pastures after the tax benefits expire. No, my friends. Pueblo is on the move but our current mindset regarding economic growth needs to be abandoned. Instead, we must learn to create and produce our way to prosperity. We have to think like entrepreneurs.
CSU-Pueblo can help lead the way by championing innovation rather than in-fighting.