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Higher education is a public good and civil right, says state higher ed leader

DU alum Rico Munn serves as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

In Nov. 2009, Gov. Ritter appointed Rico Munn (JD ’96) executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. Munn says it’s important for Coloradans to remember that higher education benefits everyone.

“It’s not just to the advantage of individuals, but it serves our entire community when we have an educated workforce and an educated populace,” Munn says.

Those who participate in the process by supporting programs, initiatives and candidates that benefit higher education are helping Colorado secure benefits the state has long enjoyed, he says.

Among the challenges Munn faces is a shrinking education budget. The state’s budget crisis has been exacerbated by Colorado’s constitution and limitations. The nation’s deep recession necessitated cuts that hit higher education particularly hard. Munn says the higher education budget will be nearly $200 million less next year than it was in 2008–09.

“The most important job that the department has right now is to try and find a way to protect our priorities in a time of declining revenue,” Munn says.

Senate Bill 10-003 — also known as the tuition flex bill or SB 3 — was signed into law in June and allows public colleges to raise their tuition by more than 9 percent to make up for anticipated state fund losses.

“Nobody wants to raise tuition,” Munn says, “but it’s a reality that [tuition] is one of the revenue streams that you have to look at. One of the cornerstones of Senate Bill 3 was a requirement that schools have to demonstrate how they will protect accessibility and affordability in the higher tuition structure.”

In addition to budgetary concerns, Colorado has the largest “achievement gap” in the nation — the distance between the levels of college attainment between the majority (Caucasian) and the largest ethic minority (Hispanic). Munn says the state has moral and practical reasons to address the gap.

“The Hispanic population is our largest growing demographic. Ten, 15 years from now that is going to be some of the largest parts of our workforce, and if we want Colorado to be the Colorado that we have today — where we have incredible opportunities and incredible economic development because of our educated workforce — we need to make sure we do a better job of educating that significant demographic,” Munn says.

Munn is an ex-officio member of the Higher Education Strategic Planning (HESP) steering committee, which is assessing the state’s higher education system and developing ways to address issues like the achievement gap. Since January, the committee has been developing a master plan for public colleges and universities.

Jim Lyons, co-chair of the HESP steering committee, says he’s confident that after a public comment period, a final recommendation will be sent to the governor in November. Lyons says Munn is an “indispensible participant,” attending steering and subcommittee meetings where he applies his knowledge of policy and passion for education. “He’s been a truly inspirational leader for education in this state,” Lyons says.

A first-generation college graduate, Munn says his parents made it clear from early on that he would go to college. He earned a degree in secondary education from Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Neb., and he was a Chancellor’s Scholar at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

“Education, particularly in today’s society, is the gateway to opportunity, to realizing the American dream,” Munn says. “If you don’t have an opportunity to access education those doors are closed to you, and that obviously goes back to Brown v. Board of Education. That is what the whole fight was about. It was [about] getting an equal opportunity for education.”

Munn’s education has served him well. He practiced law for a decade after graduating from DU, and he’s served as an adjunct professor at Sturm. From 2002–07, he represented Colorado’s first Congressional district on the State Board of Education, which provides oversight for Colorado’s K-12 public education system. He was executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies from 2007–09, until Gov. Ritter tapped him for his current role.

Munn credits his education at DU for helping prepare him for the work he’s doing today, saying its partly the breadth and depth of a legal education that prepared him for so many different opportunities, and in particular, the education he received at Sturm.

“DU has such a hands-on, practical approach to the way it educates lawyers that you are from day one thinking about how your education applies in a practical setting. That is a tremendous skill … that a lot of people don’t get in their formal education,” Munn says. 

Editor’s note: Rico Munn will return to law firm Baker & Hostetler, LLC, as a partner effective February 1.

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