Has the University of Colorado sold its soul to the devil?

I’m worried about the University of Colorado, the school where I earned my doctorate. Last night, in one of the more controversial moves in some time, the CU Board of Regents elected Bruce Benson to be the university’s new president. The 6-3 vote fell along party lines and marked the first time in nearly 35 years that a president has been approved by a split vote.

The main point in favor of Benson seems to be his reputation as a fund-raiser, and there’s no question that CU needs somebody to bring more money into the system. CU has been hamstrung ever since the early 1990s, when perennial pigfucker Douglas Bruce managed to get Amendment 1 passed. That particular “taxpayer’s bill of rights” (TABOR) has not served the state well, and education in particular has suffered.

TABOR Has Contributed to Declines in Colorado K-12 Education Funding

  • Under TABOR, Colorado declined from 35th to 49th in the nation in K-12 spending as a percentage of personal income.
  • Colorado’s average per-pupil funding fell by more than $400 relative to the national average.
  • Colorado’s average teacher salary compared to average pay in other occupations declined from 30th to 50th in the nation.

TABOR Has Played a Major Role in the Significant Cuts Made in Higher Education Funding

  • Under TABOR, higher education funding per resident student dropped by 31 percent after adjusting for inflation.
  • College and university funding as a share of personal income declined from 35th to 48th in the nation.
  • Tuitions have risen as a result. In the last four years [2001-2005] system-wide resident tuition increased by 21 percent (adjusting for inflation).

One of the results is that the state isn’t producing enough quality grads to meet the labor demand here.

Despite the number of its public colleges, Colorado does not produce enough graduates of its own to meet the demand from local companies, according to a study released Monday on the impact of public higher education in the state.

The report highlights a trend that companies will have to begin relying more on “importing” educated workers, Clark said.”

The report shows that we have these high incomes and this highly educated workforce but that we’re still near the bottom in the country as far as funding in higher education goes,” he said. “We don’t spend much time growing our own children into the workers that can take advantage of the job opportunities technology is creating.”

“Increased funding equates to more jobs that are better-paying, a more efficient workforce, higher standards of living and other tangible and intangible benefits,” she said.

A well-trained workforce plus the ability to provide specific industry- based training is the top priority for companies seeking to relocate or expand to Colorado, the study says.

So if the contention is that CU needs to get serious about getting more money into the system, you’ll find no argument here. Further, even Benson’s detractors don’t indict his potential as a development official.

The problem is that being a university president is about a lot more than fund-raising, and on any number of other criteria Benson’s appointment is troubling, at best. His candidacy encountered significant and vocal oppositon from students and the faculty assembly opposed hiring him by a vote of 40-4. That the regents would ignore this kind of landslide opposition from its professorate is disturbing, although perhaps not unexpected. Colorado’s regents are elected in a process that’s subject to the worst kinds of anti-intellectual partisan claptrap, and citizens who truly understand and value the role of education in the state have long had reason to dread Republican majorities.

The case against Benson is laid out in spades in a document circulated on February 11 by Dr. Margaret LeCompte of the CU Department of Education and president of the Boulder campus’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. I encourage you to read the entire indictment, but the following points are especially troubling for me.

  • His affiliation with ACTA, an organization dedicated to eroding the status and qualifications of senior academic officers, a move that seems aimed at empowering non-academic administrative entities. Most colleges need more PhD-level authority, not less, and no university of CU’s stature should be in the business of deminishing the power of its intellectual component. He can say he plans on leaving academic decisions to academic officers, but that’s not consistent with ACTA’s history. ACTA is also affiliated with David Horowitz, a reactionary faux-consumer rights shill-for-hire asshat of the first order, and while I try to avoid getting all ad hominem if possible, Horowitz is in a rare class of people (along with folks like George Bush and Dick Cheney); if they’re for it, the rest of us should probably be against it.
  • Benson poses a dramatic threat to the contractual rights of tenured faculty. Quoting from LeCompte’s document: “Upon his installation as President of Metropolitan State University’s Board of Trustees, he had the Faculty Handbook completely re-written without discussion or consultation with the faculty. (The person rumored to have done the job had previously re-written the management guide for Quizno’s). In the new Faculty Handbook, the RIF (Reduction in Force) policy was changed so that in case of a financial shortfall (not exigency), rank or tenure no longer need be considered in decisions about elimination of teaching positions. He then fired tenured faculty. Metro faculty sued, and the case still is in the courts. What would Benson do to further weaken faculty rights and due process at CU?” Frankly, this is all I’d need for a no vote were I a regent. (I once contemplated running for regent, actually, and if I thought I had a chance of winning it’s something I might well take up again in the future.)
  • Benson has never taught, researched or been an administrator and holds only a Bachelor’s degree, placing him among the 1% least educated college presidents in America. He would not be eligible to hold tenure at CU, and this is a very big deal in a university. It undermines his ability to earn the respect of those he must lead, it makes it difficult for him to comprehend the university’s critical research programs, it leaves him unable to contribute meaningfully to discussions about the school’s teaching mission, and it raises a very real question about his ability to respect the achievements of his PhD-level faculty.
  • He may be able to build bridges and forge a bipartisan spirit, but there’s nothing in his history to suggest that this is the smart way to bet. He co-founded the Trailhead Group, a 527 that exists pretty much to bash Democrats, with Pete Coors and former governor Bill “Today Colorado is on Fire” Owens (a man who did more in service of the state’s War on Education than anyone since Doug Bruce).
  • Oh yeah – he doesn’t believe in global warming. Not that this would have anything to do with his background as an oil executive or that it would in any way impact university research programs in this area (or, for that matter, the state’s increasing profile as a center for research and development of alternative fuels).

I have so many questions I want to ask Benson. Questions like:

  • Why should we expect you to be different in the future than you’ve ever been in the past?
  • Do you understand why tenure matters?
  • Can you describe your vision of academic freedom?
  • Do you understand the difference between education and training?
  • What intellectuals have most influenced your view of the proper role of the academy in a democratic society?

I’m not optimistic about the presidency of Bruce Benson. I fear the university I love so much has sold itself to the devil. I hope I’m wrong, but I wouldn’t bet a plug nickel on the man.

I have no doubt that he’ll raise money. I just worry what he’ll do with it.


Postscript: Benson must be resisted and the Regents must be removed


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  • Sam,

    When it comes right down to it, I believe Benson shouldn’t be hired, though I have strong feelings that some of the arguments against him are red herrings. Not that it matters to me, personally. All the highly academically skilled kids I know avoid CU like the plague, and I would have to think long and hard before forking over tuition money there for my own kids.

    I probably wouldn’t do it.

  • CU isn’t an elite academic institution, although it has some great programs. But the fact that you’re not elite doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim a little higher than this.

  • CU is a great college, at least in theory. Unfortunately sometimes it seems to be more famous for its party reputation, its athletics and its bad administration apples. Hiring a businessman is not gonna fix that rep.

  • This sounds exactly like what happened at Gallaudet University from last year when Dr. Jane Fernandes was appointed the next President and there was a huge campus uproar with protests and over 100 arrests of students/alumni, some who were involved in the 1988 Deaf President Now protest. Finally, the Board of Trustees saw their wisdom return and appointed a different President, much more qualified and suitable. If Gallaudet can win, so can U of Colorado students/faculty/alumni. Fight for it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • “Benson has never taught, researched or been an administrator and holds only a Bachelor’s degree, placing him among the 1% least educated college presidents in America.”

    The perfect post-Reagan college president. By golly, he’ll run it like a business. Enron, anyone?

  • Me learn lots in Colorado — last time I learnt me how to use spoon! Me so happy here!
    Bob S. Current CU undergrad

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  • I left Grand Junction, CO and Mesa State College a little over three years ago–where I had a lectureship. I started off at $25,000 a year with full benefits–state matching retirement funds and state contributing medical insurace of 80%–for a non-tenure track position. I worked for four years. By the time I left–in those four years–my salary was bumped a total of 1% for cost of living (that’s .25% per year) and each year the state contribution or matching funds declined until they were paying nothing and I was paying everything out of pocket. This all happened after Tim Foster was appointed President by the MSC Board of Regents. Foster was on Gov. Owens’s staff (having something to do with education, but that’s still unclear) and I say “appointed” because that’s what happened. The Regents had a closed-door meeting and decided on Foster over two other well-qualified (better qualified) candidates. He was appointed because he was a MSC alum with a law degree and had ties to Owens.

    The first thing Foster did was ask for the resignations of all the deans–that’s right, the Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Dean of Education, the Dean of Wellness and Recreation, all of them, so that he could save some money. Then he hired two of his cronies from the state’s office and created positions for them (at six-figure salaries). He heaped the duties of all the Deans onto the individual Chairs of departments (I do think, maybe, there was a small bump in salary for them–but not much). Then he sought the resignation of many of the tenured professors, ones who were close to retirement, so that he could hire “Instructors” (ones with Bachelor’s degrees). Then he lowered the entrance requirements so that students who scored a 13 on the ACTs could enroll. Enrollment went up and so did revenue, but the quality of students went down and the classroom size went up. But the numbers looked good–meaning the college was inching toward getting out of the red and into the black. This. This. This is the real “accomplishment” or bottom line of Republican “educators” and “administrators.”

    And the above is no shit.

  • Colorado politics has been dominated by it’s talk radio giant KOA 850 and it’s sister stations. At night it reaches over 20 states. One day in southern CO out of five stations i could get on my car radio three had limbaugh on.

    When it comes to electing regents the right wingers go all out. They’ve been whining about liberal boulder for decades and with the talk radio monopoly one blowhard and a big microphone carries the weight of tens of thousands of concerned citizens donating a few hours of concern or dollars here and there. Their constant talk radio attacks on ‘liberal’ CU has been paying off and progressives need to wake up as to their most effective propaganda tool- the same one instrumental in sellling us this bush disaster.

    If Co citizens want to get some sanity bat into their state they need to take their free speech demonstrations and boycotts to the root of the problem- their local right wing talk radio station.

  • DRA – Thanks for sharing the horror story. I’m going to hazard a guess that none of this made Mesa a better school.

    I at least hope you’ve found a place that appreciates you a little more….

  • Dr. Slammy,

    Thanks for the sentiment. Yes, I’ve landed on my feet. Thank you. As for Mesa, its decline (in reputation and quality–and I’m not alone in this assessment) is directly linked to its president and his decisions. The remaining tenured professors are terrific–at least the ones in my former department are considered to be so. However, they’ve been impacted and so have the students. Mesa, at one time, had a good reputation and had been building it even further. No more.

    (btw, the paltry salary I confessed to was a result of accepting the first job offer when I got out of grad school. I know better now.)

  • Why are you all so surprised??? Your state, Colorado, welcomes and is home to some of the worst fundamentalist Christian nutjobs who back Bushco and the Republicans who are against Education because it would mean a better educated populace who could see through their fear-mongering, undemocratic ways. It’s unfortunate because Colorado is really a very beautiful state with a lot to offer, but alas, you’ll see a flight of highly educated people leaving the state as the only thing left Colorado will have to offer after all the land has been mined, schools have been downgraded, etc. is the military complex still in place.

  • RyeLiz: I don’t recall saying I was surprised. On the contrary.

    Yeah, it’s a state with some serious wingnut problems. However, it’s also a state that has elected a Dem majority in the legislature and a Dem governor. We have Colorado Springs, but we also have Boulder and Denver. So it’s a complex region.

    In any case, I ain’t leaving, and I ain’t shutting up.

  • another nail in the coffin for completely ending this country as we know it
    slowly byut surely we are planning our own demise

    justice dept, eductation you name it

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  • I’ve been working up a website listing climate scientists by order of most highly cited, with links to their academic homepage (linked at my name above.) I get the sense that the hotbed of climate science in Boulder includes lots of tie-ins to CU: there are CIRES, INSTAAR, the Western Water Assessment, and my impression is that many NCAR researchers also have teaching roles at CU.
    Thus I can only imagine the reaction of the prominent climate researchers there to this development, especially the reports that Benson is a person in denial about AGW.
    You might find my listing useful for tracing who at CU is particularly widely cited on climate.

    Jim Prall
    Toronto, Canada

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