A standing ovation. Tears. Hugs.
Emotions spilled over among CU Denver students, as well as among University of Colorado leaders, during a discussion of a proposed CU Denver wellness center at Friday’s CU Board of Regents meeting in the Student Commons Building. The center proposal, which started two years ago, culminated last week with students voting in record numbers to pass the measure to increase student fees to fund the center, 61.1 percent to 38.9 percent. After the emphatic ‘yes’ from the student body””an unprecedented turnout of 20.4 percent in a CU Denver Student Government Association (SGA) vote””the regents added their approval, on a 7-2 vote, to the center’s student fee.
SGA President Scott Cao heralded it as a “new time” for CU Denver.
“If you think about those numbers, it’s pretty significant,” he said of the election results. “Usually, student referendums pass in the low 50s (percentile). This vote really shows that our students came out to bat for the wellness center.”
And so did the regents. When Cao and junior Allie Kriese, chair of the Wellness Center Project Team (CU Denver staff and students, plus architectural and statistic consultants), presented the proposal to the regents in February the board was divided on the subject. Several board members said they would support the effort on the conditions that SGA drew a sizeable voter turnout (SGA set a goal of 12 percent; 4.6 percent turnout is the historic average) and that the project’s overall cost and student-fee obligations were lowered. CU President Bruce Benson subsequently met with the students to discuss building price-tag reductions and partner funding sources.
On Friday, Cao and Kriese reported a slew of strong numerical data. They detailed the historic vote and noted that the overall cost of the wellness center had dropped to $42.4 million (from $53.8 million) and 85,000 square feet (from 105,000 square feet). Significantly, the student fee requirement dropped by nearly 20 percent, to $6 per credit per term starting in fall 2015. “The regents said, ‘We love what you’ve done. You heard our input,'” Cao said. “Because (the regents) did a turnaround, I think that’s what made it so emotional. We had done enough work to sway them to vote ‘yes.'”
Regents Steve Bosley, Michael Carrigan, Irene Griego, Steve Ludwig, Sue Sharkey, Linda Shoemaker and Kyle Hybl voted in favor of the measure; John Carson and Glen Gallegos voted against.
Ludwig said he was initially a “pretty hard no” on the proposal, but noted that he received two enlightening letters “written to me personally” from the students. “The work you’ve done to reduce the costs and the partnership that you’ve made with the chancellor, and the effort that the chancellor and the president are taking on this,” swayed his view, Ludwig said. “I’m pretty much blown away by what you guys have done, and you have my support.”
Carrigan told the students that CU Denver was already doing great things when he joined the Board of Regents 10 years ago, but it was still mainly viewed as a commuter campus. “I’m so proud now …. to see the growth with residence halls, a mascot, club sports,” he said. “This campus is really such a jewel for the entire city of Denver and entire state of Colorado, and it wouldn’t be true without leadership like yours. We set a high bar for you, and you jumped way higher.”
While acknowledging that he worked on the effort every day for the past year, Cao is quick to give credit to the many students who worked hard to make the wellness center dream a reality. It started with SGA leadership in 2013 who asked CU Denver administration to evaluate the feasibility of a new student-funded wellness center. The effort picked up steam with focus groups and surveys””over 1,500 students participated in the 100-question survey””and this spring’s get-out-the-vote campaign. Cao noted that the Project Team kept a neutral stance toward the project, allowing an informative website as well as posters and fliers about the center do the talking. “I think a big thing with the regents was that we educated students. We didn’t force anything on anyone,” said Cao, a sophomore who next year will serve on the student Senate. “We were very transparent about the fees.”
The regents’ vote came after an informative and impassioned presentation by Kriese and Cao. Cao gives much credit to Kriese, who’s “done a tremendous amount of work. I don’t think any of this would be possible without Allie,” he said.
During the campaign season, Kriese served as chair of the Power Team, a group of 30 student volunteers. She said it was heartening to watch how students jumped into the project.
The Board of Regents vote is still sinking in for Kriese and Cao. “I couldn’t really tell you why I cried on Friday,” Kriese said. “I cried during the presentation, after the regents’ vote, and later that day with my friends and family. Part of me wants to say it’s because we’ve worked hard to get where we are. … Part of me is anxious about focusing more closely on my academics, and part of me is so excited that the students who volunteered their time and focus are getting the recognition they deserve.”
The wellness center will include fitness facilities such as a lap pool, gymnasium, a lounge for CU Denver students between classes, bike repair shop, and other features. The regents’ approval is made with the understanding that limited outside memberships, rentals, donations and gifts will help further reduce the fee.
Chancellor Jerry Wartgow, who introduced the students at the board meeting, wrote in a “Chancellor’s Communique” to the campus community Friday that student leaders “have demonstrated, once again, that CU Denver students are fully equipped to turn their dreams into reality.”
Wartgow pointed out that a few steps remain in the process. The wellness center plan needs to be signed off by the Auraria Board, and the regents’ capital subcommittee needs to approve a detailed construction plan. Also, CU Denver continues to engage potential external funding partners to reduce the project costs and student fees, he said. The student fee will increase to no more than $12 per credit hour per term starting in fall 2017 (fees will not be charged to online-only students).
Cao said CU Denver’s diverse students made their voices clear that they want a place in which to exercise, but also study, or just hang out, between classes. “It’s really going to support the identity and community we’re trying to foster for CU Denver,” he said. “This is a new time for CU Denver.”
Kriese said she keeps telling people that she’s never been more proud to be a Lynx. “I am so proud that the CU Denver administration and the CU system support their students the way they do,” she said. “At a bigger school, this wouldn’t have been possible. Part of me didn’t even think it was possible here. But we did it, and more than the building itself, I will always treasure that fact.”
Also Friday, the regents enjoyed a performance by Lark, CU Denver’s award-winning, all-women a cappella group, and received an update about the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship from center Director Madhavan Parthasarathay, PhD. During the latter presentation, the board enjoyed a delivery of fresh-baked bagels from Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen, whose owner, Josh Pollack, participated in the 2012 Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition.