As John “Jack” Kroll wraps up his six-year term as the District 1 representative on the University of Colorado Board of Regents, he will leave the door open for two ambitious candidates in Wanda James and Johnnie Nguyen for the Democratic primary.
James is the CEO of Simply Pure cannabis dispensary. She has political experience between Denver and Los Angeles, including working for Gov. Jared Polis’ transition team, and she is a former member of the CU Alumni Board of Directors.
Nguyen is fresh out of law school and recently worked for the law firm Lewis Brisbois, but he said he put in his two weeks’ notice recently to focus on his campaign. During his time in college, he was the national chair of the American Bar Association’s Law Student Division, and eventually was on the ABA’s governing board.
The nine-member Board of Regents’ responsibilities include policymaking, proposing tuition changes, and handling the annual budget, which reached $5.2 billion for this fiscal year throughout the statewide CU system.
The one Republican who is currently running for the CU Board of Regents in District 1 is Amy Naes. The The Denver North Star will reach out to her campaign for the general election. The primary election is June 28.
James said she believes the CU system is working optimally, as it has research facilities and climate change programs, but the college does have work to do when it comes to reaching more students in places where CU historically has not been able to recruit them.
“The bigger issue that I think that CU has, quite frankly, is that the entire system has a marketing issue,” she said. “I think that we could do a better job of going into these communities and really offering insight into where these pots of money exist to … make college more affordable than what we think it is.”
Based on her work with the Colorado Board of Tourism, James noticed marketing that didn’t feature a diverse group of people in its advertisements about three years ago. She said she’s able to spot deficiencies like these to help show CU’s diversity.
James said CU also needs to explore the different ways students want to access education, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to work and go to school remotely.
“One of the bigger issues that we have seen and talked about is how many students we bring in. The real number in my mind is how many students we graduate and what is happening at each stage as to why we lose student retention,” James said. “Is it affordability? Is it mental health? Is it feeling lost on a large campus or not getting the type of experience that you thought you were going to get?”
James said the board should focus on what causes people to drop out of the college system and at what point in their education, and what they can do to fix that.
“My career spans from military training to corporate executive to small business owner to consultant to political and government experience,” James said. “This board requires experience to be able to run a board of this magnitude.”
James has raised about $45,000 for her campaign and has received endorsements from former Mayor Wellington Webb and Colorado District 2 Rep. Joe Neguse in addition to various CEO and military endorsements.
Nguyen was working for the law firm Lewis Brisbois when he started his campaign, but he left the firm in April after nine months to pursue the Board of Regents position. He received his bachelor’s in political science and ethnic students from CU Denver, and his law degree in Boulder.
During his time in college, he said he held student leadership positions and sought different ways to fund higher education. He said he also led protests on campus when students thought the university’s leadership “wasn’t doing its best.”
Nguyen said that as a first-generation American college student, he is grateful for the programs at CU that helped him navigate college.
“But I also recognize that not every student even knew how to get access to the programs, or there’s still a lot of other barriers in place that would send back a lot of students who didn’t either have financial backgrounds that weren’t strong or have people guide them through higher education, like a lot of students who have multi-generations in Colorado,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen said he would also like to see the CU system set up a program that would teach students about investing and retirement savings as well as other skills for after they immediately graduate.
He also said that he thinks every public school student in Colorado should visit a college campus at least once because it had a profound effect on his life ventures. Nguyen said he wouldn’t want to make it a requirement that could burden local schools, but it should be emphasized.
From his experiences with college organizations and the ABA, Nguyen said he is the candidate with the most recent experience in helping students.
“I got to be that bridge between law students and the association that was running the credentials of American law schools, so that was really integral for me to understand …the people I represent and make sure their interests were being best advocated,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen said his government experiences and his time at the university make him the best candidate to represent the 1st District.
“I want to be that modern student voice for the current modern issues that students are facing,” Nguyen said. “But I also bring executive leadership skills that I think a lot of people don’t know about. I kind of bring the best of both worlds. I think I’m a really good balance.”
Nguyen has raised about $23,000 for his campaign and has received endorsements from various state representatives, Denver City Council members, as well as Colorado State Treasurer David Young and Colorado Speaker of the House Alec Garnett.