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CU President Bruce Benson: Keeping up with him…a losing battle

CU President Bruce BensonDo not come to philosophize.

Nor to talk politics.

Or shoot the breeze.

Do not even come to talk about education, as in what happens in the classroom.

“I’m not here to tell the English teachers how to teach English,” says Bruce Benson, who has a knack of being quick, direct, precise, and also friendly, relaxed and welcoming.

“The president of a university needs to sustain the university,” he says.

Budgets. Fundraising. Enrollments. Washington. Growth.

This is what a university president should focus on.

At least, this is what this university president focuses on.

Get that word: focus.

Bruce Benson is very focused.

He’s defines his duties and delegates all the rest. He’s not a control freak.

He’s a growth freak.

An innovation freak.

And a travel freak — as in, go to the four university campuses around the state, and to many more, too, to figure out ways to team up with other institutions to get a CU education to their students.

That’s just the beginning.

Go to the potential students themselves.

Sell the university to them.

And sell it to donors.

Sell it to politicians in the state legislature and in the Congress.

Sell it to present and potential Nobel Prize winning faculty.

Sell it to community college students who never even thought of attending the highest public university in the state.

No, don’t shoot the breeze with Bruce Benson.

Be prepared for a wild and exciting tour of his mind, ideas and actions for CU.

I ask what I think is a logical and simple question: “What is your vision for CU?”

If I were a boxer losing in the ring, I would have to characterize his answer as a series of lefts and rights coming at me unseen, each one landing.

Says Bruce Benson: The goals of the university change all the time.

One goal, certainly, is to address the problems. Perfect the athletic program. “Get a spotless operation.”

Seize the opportunities.

As in, let CU help build a great medical campus at Fitzsimons (CU’s “Anschutz Campus”).

“We need a lot of great pieces.”

Pieces? As in pieces of a puzzle, something small like that?

Hardly. Pieces, as in a huge new VA facility (“we’ll build a tower with the VA — we get 150 beds and they get 100 beds — it’s in the works”).

He ticks off more “pieces.”

“We want to be the destination, not Anderson, not Mayo’s, but Anschutz. Fitzsimons.

“It will have greatness,” he summarizes of his vision for Fitzsimons.

Our conversation is five minutes old. Snippets. More pieces: “15,000 employees . . . the goal: 30,000 employees.”

“We need a new interchange off of I-225.”

(What’s this, a traffic engineer? Actually, yes, if that’s one of the critical items to bring greatness to Fitzsimons. So Benson clicks it off, a new interchange off I-225.)

Another snippet: his wife.

Talk about a power couple.

“My wife has serious horse power. Ran the Reagan Fellows for Bush One. On the SCFD board. On the UNC board.”

(That’s a partial list.)

Then, a snippet about himself: “Chaired the $1 billion capital drive for CU a few years back.”

Imagine the details in raising $1 billion! For Bruce Benson, it’s merely another item.

Because it’s going to take a lot of items to grow a first-rate university.

Another item: the Ward Churchill thing.

Benson wasn’t in the president’s seat when the now fired professor’s plagiarism monopolized the press for a couple of years. Benson’s got it all boiled down: “Because of Churchill, we’ve tightened up tenure”; i.e., there won’t be another tenure scandal. Now, move on.

Incidentally, is tenure good? bad? For Benson, the philosophical possibilities are uninteresting. It’s really quite simple: “Without tenure, you can’t run a university. No one would teach.”

Precisely because of this, “before you award tenure, you better be sure you’ve got the right person. When you award tenure, you’ve just signed a two to three million dollar contract.”

A big item.

A slew of big items, in fact.

That why Benson tightened up the tenure process.


I called the day after our interview. I had a question.

Benson was not in.

He was in Montrose, Colorado.

“Creating relationships,” as he puts it.

That day in Montrose.

Other days, in Trinidad, Lamar, Pueblo, La Junta, Ft. Collins, Durango.

And lots of other places.

Benson’s moving.

Trying to get “the community college students ready for UCCS.”

“UCCS” is the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Not a forgotten sister.

It’s one of CU’s four major campuses.

It’s where Benson is “working with the Olympics. We don’t want them to move [from Colorado Springs]. Can we build a joint arena?”

Another item, another piece.

I confess. The geography of Colorado Springs is not my top expertise.

Benson goes into the detail about Nevada Street.

That’s “the gateway into the UCCS campus. We’re working with economic developers, the liquor stores, the shoddy hotels . . . ” — in other words, how can CU buy a critical piece of property to redevelop for UCCS?

Soon I am dizzy as Benson clicks off, “private money raised, the CU Real Estate Foundation, other budgets.” Nevada Street will become the showcase entrance to UCCS.

Benson will put it together.

Another piece.

By the way, “the CU Real Estate Foundation is where people give property to the university” — that’s separate from the capital campaigns, the annual fundraising, and tuition.

Tom Cech is coming back to CU. He won the Nobel Prize. Benson’s lured him back. “He’s a magnet.”

John Hall.

“Our most recent Nobel Prize.”

And a rare moment of mock confidence dropping for Bruce Benson, “I supposed I’ll have to sit next to these guys and I won’t be able to keep up the conversation.”

These top professors bring a great strength to the university because CU will enable them to “get back to the trenches: research.”

Benson wants CU to “work on renewables.” Storage Tec has bought 423 acres “because they want to be next door to great research.”

“And that’s why we’ll be working with Conoco Philips.”

The Colorado School of Mines, CSU, NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) — and CU — will become a building block of research on renewable energy.

Another Benson “piece.”

Just like the $23 million science building going up at UCD.

Its funding was stymied by the legislature.

That was on a Thursday.

Benson got to work.

Pulled in the governor.


Worked the phone the whole weekend.

By Monday night, the funding was there (“general fund money, federal mineral lease money,” etc. etc.)

The building’s going up.

That’s because UCD had facilities for 15,000 FTEs.

(That’s higher education lingo for “full time students equivalents.”)

But UCD has 30,000 FTEs.

There’s an underlying condition to all this fundraising. It’s quite simple: the legislature is cutting back. Gone are the days when high ed in Colorado was funded by the legislature.

Which leaves two alternatives: Complain.

Or get the job done another way.

Benson, to be sure, will still be working the legislature.

That’s why Benson moved the CU president’s office from Boulder to Denver. At 1800 Grant St., he’s close to Colorado’s corporate community — and three blocks north of the State Capitol.

But he knows that it’s a new day, a new reality at the legislature.

(“For FTEs, Colorado operational funding is down 20%.”)

Yes, he’ll be working the legislature.

But he’ll be putting together deals lots of ways.

New ways.

In the case of the science building, for example, it will be split among Metro State, UCD and the Community College of Denver.

Another underlying condition: It’s great to raise the quality of CU’s incoming class. He cites higher GPA and SAT scores with relish.

Not just for their own sake.

Higher scores mean a better university.

Which means more out-of-state students.

Which means more out-of-state tuition, which is far higher than Colorado students pay.

But Benson is equally concerned about the “quality of the lower end.”

That’s why he’s traveling the state, to pull in community college students.

That’s why he co-chaired the “Ref C & D fight,” a citizen initiative that let the state keep higher tax revenues. But, “in two years and 17 days it runs out.”

Count on Bruce Benson to be back.

And not just for the reasons already enumerated.

“In every other state agency, if the state raises the salary, the state will pay for the raise.

“But the state doesn’t give raises to higher education.”

About one-third of the work force at CU is Colorado state personnel. The state raises the salaries, but doesn’t pay for them.

Expect this to be at the top of Benson’s agenda at the legislature next year.

Not least, because of fairness.

And he doesn’t mean the basic fairness of the issue.

He means this: “If we raise the state employees, we raise everybody else. For fairness, we have to give raises to all.”

That’s the money going out.

Benson needs more money coming in.

But something else, too. Benson is doing an evaluation of the university’s internal regulations. Is it overregulated?

Is there waste?

He doesn’t want so many regulations in place “that we have to spend $1 million to save $50,000.”

And he wants more money from Washington (“the trick is to match needs with sources”).

And from NIH.

And from private philanthropy. CU raised $133 million in 2007, “and 2008 will be more.”

Translation: Benson is on the job at 7 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 6:30 or 7 in the evening.

Translation: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

“I’m having a ball.

“I like challenges.”

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IJN Executive Editor |

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