The Breakup


Cole Drozdek

CU and the City of Boulder’s relationship is on the rocks.

I guess I should begin with the disclaimer that I’m not a relationship counselor. But the question of qualification has never stopped the tabloid truth-seekers from plunging into the details of famous relationships, so it’s not going to stop me. The writing on the wall here is in all caps, so I don’t need a comfy sofa and a box of tissues to translate these feelings: CU and the City of Boulder’s relationship is on the rocks. 

I know People will be kicking themselves for not grabbing this story because talk about high net worth individuals with lots of dependents! But this is an Owl exclusive, so let’s get into it. 

The History

In high school, a relationship that lasts a year has basically lasted 10; in Hollywood, a relationship that lasts 10 years is practically paleolithic. The relationship between the City of Boulder and CU really is paleolithic, or close at least close to it—having been together for 159 years, everyone thought they were meant to be.

It was a sort of Bachelor/Bachelorette scenario: in 1861, before Colorado even became a state, money was provided to establish a university. If a bidding city didn’t get the university, they could still have the state prison as a consolation prize. The fledgling university was very attracted to the Flatirons, so it presented Boulder with the rose. Cañon City ended up with the state prison; I think it’s fair to say that there’s an obvious short end of the stick in this situation. 

The rest, as they say, is history. Together, Boulder and CU grew from a measly 3,000 inhabitants and 65 students to 105,000 and 30,000, respectively. They became A-Listers, each with billions in their pockets and esteemed reputations. At parties, CU would say, “oh, Boulder’s in politics, they’re like the happiest city in the US or something.” Boulder would blush and say, “CU’s really impressive too—they have five Nobel Laureates.” The public was infatuated. What an absolute power couple. 

The Fallout

Just when we thought they were immune, the pandemic put a serious strain on Boulder and CU’s relationship. They spent the whole summer talking about COVID-19, trying to set some guidelines for themselves. Given their careers’ public natures, how were they going to perfect the work/life balance? 

“It’s an election year, so I really need people to be happy with me right now,” Boulder said, perching on a living room chair and nervously twisting their wedding ring around their finger. “I won’t do well in the polls if my constituents are dying left, right and center. I think we’ll need to take this virus pretty seriously.” CU was sitting on the sofa, watching highlights from the previous football season. Popcorn was spilling out of a Costco-sized bag onto the carpet, where Ralphie, their pet buffalo, eagerly ate up the kernels. 

“Yeah, totally,” they said without looking up. “I agree that this is a very serious situation. But what if we can’t have a football season this year? Can you even imagine? I mean, what’s even the point of life without college football?” 

“CU!” Boulder said. “I’m serious! The health and safety of my people are not second to your institutional whims!” 

“Calm down,” said CU, reaching for the TV remote and turning up the volume. “I’ve had a lot of meetings about this; a lot of smart people are working on it. We have a whole website devoted to this very issue and I’ve ordered some masks and hand sanitizer.” 


And then CU decided to play beer pong. And go to parties with 30,000 of its closest friends and not wear a mask. That didn’t go down too well. Boulder published a big long rant about how immature CU was being in the most passive-aggressive strategy for handling relationship problems that I’ve ever seen. The public’s ears perked up; the cracks were beginning to show. 

“I’m sorry,” CU said when they stumbled into the kitchen at two in the morning after a very busy Friday night. “Please don’t be mad. I was just excited about hanging out with my friends again. I haven’t seen them all summer.”

Boulder was sitting rigidly at the kitchen table with a mug of herbal tea; work papers spread out in front of them. “Need I remind you that it’s an election year and my constituents can’t vote for me if they’re dead?” Boulder said, scribbling comments on a memo in red ink. “I saved you some dinner, by the way. It’s in the microwave.”

“Calm down,” CU replied, taking one look at the assortment of vegetables and ancient grains and opting instead for some peanut M&M’s. “I’ll figure something out.” 


On Sept. 24, 2020, 145 years and four days since the university began construction on its first building, Boulder pulled the plug. CU came home after a long day of virus triage to find their stuff piled on the porch. The door was locked. Boulder opened a window and peeked out. 

“What’s going on?” CU asked. “Are you mad that I forgot our anniversary?”

“You can’t be here anymore, you’re too infectious and negligent,” Boulder said. “I heard they’re expanding the quarantine dorm, so go book a room there.” 

“Wait!” said CU. “Can we at least talk about this?” 

“No,” said Boulder. “I’m busy. I’ve released an ordinance that forbids gatherings of any size among your students; I’ve identified specific properties that are to be placed under stay-at-home orders. I know you said you would switch to virtual learning, but that’s not enough, so I’ve taken matters into my own hands.” 

“What about my football team?” CU asked. “The season starts in November! I just got them a new head coach—what am I supposed to tell Karl?” 

“I don’t really care about your football team,” Boulder said. “Please leave now. My lawyers will be in touch. Happy anniversary.” 

The Future

So what happens next? Will a prenup be released for public scrutiny? Will a custody battle ensue? It’s pretty straight-forward in terms of Boulder getting the residents and CU getting the students, but what about the residents who are CU employees? Are we looking at some kind of 50-50 arrangement? Maybe 70-30? Obviously, CU will get The Hill, but what about Pearl Street? How do you split up Sanitas? 

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Perhaps everything is going to work out just fine. Every relationship has its rough patches, so it could be that they seek help from a professional and come back with a newly reunited front. I mean, they’re synonymous—they’re CU and Boulder—they’re so much less without each other. It must take more than a global pandemic to split up a power couple of 159 years, right? 

We’ll see what happens in the court of law, but judgment will be harsh when it comes to the court of public opinion. Many Boulder residents are frustrated with CU, given that the increase in local COVID-19 cases is mainly due to its students, and would be quick to side with the city. But CU has been in an unenviable role these last few months, balancing the whims of its students, the interests of its staff and its sprawling campus, which so often overlaps with neighborhoods and public outdoor spaces. Its students, who are paying thousands of dollars in tuition and want the college experience they were promised, will likely take the university’s side. You thought the election was getting crazy but just wait. Settle in and pick up your favorite binge-watching snack, because the breakup is heating up to be a battle royale.