Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the Hickenlooper administration’s most prominent voice on education issues, is resigning both his elected post and as head of the Department of Higher Education.

Garcia will become president of the Boulder-based Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, an organization of 15 western states that works to improve access to higher education. The timing of his leaving the state roles is to be determined.

Garcia told Chalkbeat Colorado he decided to leave state service because of the timing of the career opportunity. Longtime President David Longanecker is retiring and urged Garcia to seek the job.

“It was tough, because I love what I’m doing now,” Garcia said. But moving to the new position “gives me the opportunity to work on the same things I’ve been working on for the state,” such as college access, completion and affordability.

Asked if he felt any dissatisfaction with his current roles, Garcia said, “Not at all. This governor has been great to work for. Most lieutenant governors don’t have the kind of support I’ve had.”

Garcia, a former president of both Colorado State University-Pueblo and Pikes Peak Community College, was something of a surprise pick when Hickenlooper chose him as running mate in 2010. Garcia hadn’t previously run for elected office.

Hickenlooper popped another surprise in January 2011 when he named Garcia executive director of the Department of Higher Education. The lieutenant governor’s office has few duties of its own, and appointing the lieutenant governor to head a state agency was unprecedented.

The appointment signaled a key administration role for Garcia on education issues, including implementation of K-12 reforms, early childhood education and college affordability, which the governor and Garcia made their top education priorities.

Garcia has been closely involved in such issues and initiatives as coping with college and university budget cuts, creation of a higher education master plan and implementation of the higher education performance-funding system mandated by the legislature in 2014. He also was a leading voice on issues of higher education access, affordability and completion.

He’s also had a high profile on early childhood issues, including centralization of state early childhood education programs and the state’s ultimately successful bid for federal Race to the Top early childhood funding.

Last January, as criticism of testing and other state requirements mounted ahead of the 2015 legislative session, Garcia spoke out and urged state leaders not to back down on education reforms.

Garcia said he is most satisfied with his role in passing education legislation, including READ Act early literacy law and early childhood education bills.

“I’ve been very pleased with the progress we’ve made,” he said.

Asked about future education challenges for the state, Garcia cited lack of investment in education.

“We should not be cutting higher education and K-12 in a time of rising prosperity,” he said. “… One of the biggest challenges will be convincing the people to invest in our future by investing in our educational institutions.”

Hickenlooper has joked that Garcia was the more glamorous half of the team. Garcia’s shaved head, goatee and fondness for motorcycles made him a distinctive figure.

Garcia said he kept Hickenlooper informed about the opportunity with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education all along.

“I listed him as a reference,” Garcia said. He was offered the new job about a week ago.

Hickenlooper said in a statement, “Joe will be nearly impossible to replace. He has been an exceptional lieutenant governor and in leading education efforts for Colorado. He has given five years selflessly to the success of this state and the future education of our children.”

The state constitution requires Hickenlooper to nominate a candidate for lieutenant governor who must be confirmed by majority vote of both houses of the legislature. The terms of Hickenlooper and the new lieutenant governor will end after the 2018 election.

Garcia said he’ll stay in office as long as Hickenlooper wants him to but needs to start his new position by July 1.

Asked about any future interest in elected office, Garcia said, “I have not thought about it. I’ve enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it is the right role for me.”

Higher ed leaders praise Garcia

Other higher education leaders were complimentary in their assessments of Garcia’s work. Here’s a sampling:

  • “Lt. Gov. Garcia has been a great advocate for higher education in Colorado and will truly be missed. I wish him well at WICHE and know that he will continue to be a leader nationally in higher education and a strong advocate for student access and success.” – Nancy McCallin, president of the community college system
  • “I am sincerely happy for Lt. Gov Garcia. His unique background as a community college and university President, as well as the executive director of CDHE will be a true asset to WICHE. I look forward to continuing to work with him to enhance student opportunities and higher education policy among the WICHE institutions and states.” – Steve Jordan, president of Metropolitan State University
  • “Joe Garcia has had a long history of service to education and has added much to the discussion.” – University of Colorado President Bruce Benson