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In Colorado's Chosen Chief, Faculty See Tenure Foe

February 7, 2008

The sole finalist to become president of the University of Colorado system was, as a state teachers' union describes it, “the architect and chief proponent” of changes at Metropolitan State College of Denver that "eliminated tenure as we know it.” Bruce Benson, the owner and president of an oil and gas exploration and production company since 1965, served as chair of Metro State’s Board of Trustees during the 2003 policy alterations.

“Just to have someone like this who’s worked so hard to undermine academic freedom being the only person considered for the president at CU just blows our minds,” said David Sanger, president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Colorado chapter. The union sued over the 2003 changes to the faculty handbook, which deleted earlier protections ensuring that, in the event of layoffs, non-tenured faculty would lose their jobs before tenured professors and that the university would make efforts to relocate tenured faculty within the institution, in addition to changing hearing procedures.

The lawsuit is now pending in the state's Supreme Court; a trial court originally ruled there was no breach of contract, although the Colorado Court of Appeals in March 2007 reversed the ruling in part to uphold the union’s claim that “providing the president with final authority to dismiss a tenured faculty member even though the president is not an impartial decision maker” violated faculty members' due process rights. The union had complained that the new handbook gave the president both the original authority to dismiss a faculty member and the ultimate authority in any appeal.

"It's just unbelievable that he is the lone finalist for the position," Sanger said of Benson. "It looks like a political power grab."

Even the system spokesman calls Benson a “lightning rod.” An energy industry executive with impressive fund raising credentials but only a B.A., Benson has faced tough questions, as the Rocky Mountain News has reported, for his lack of advanced degree, his old driving record (relative to driving under the influence), and conservative ties (he’s a former state GOP chairman and is national co-chair for the Romney for President campaign). But ultimately, said Joanne Addison, an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Denver, most professors’ problems with the possible president fall into two main categories: his lack of credentials and record on tenure.

“I’m quite concerned that when I say to people on the search committee or to regents who are supporting his efforts, ‘He doesn’t have the experience required of someone to lead a major research institution,’ I receive one of two responses,” said Addison. “One is, he was on the board of Metro State, and he chaired the [Colorado Commission on Higher Education]," which is charged by lawmakers with long-range planning for state colleges.

But the problem, she said, is that “if you’re holding these sorts of things out as evidence of his experience, well, what he did [at Metro State] was work to dismantle tenure.”

Asked whether Colorado professors are justified in their concern, Hal Nees, the Faculty Senate president at Metro State, a 21,000-student public institution, said, “Based on what the Board of Trustees did at Metro State College, yes, I would be concerned.”

“Whether he would attempt to do that at the University of Colorado, I have no idea,” said Nees, an associate professor of criminal justice and criminology.

Metro State's president, Stephen M. Jordan, said in a letter Wednesday that he was convinced that Benson understood “the difference between governance and management, an important distinction in a system with three campus chancellors.” And at least one faculty leader at the University of Colorado said that while the tenure issue was a concern, so are Benson's prodigious fund raising skills a boon.

Benson, whose name graces a geology building on Boulder’s campus and who chaired the system’s billion dollar campaign from 1997 through 2003, has donated an estimated $8 million to the University of Colorado. In the 2004 election season alone, as The Denver Post reports, he raised more than $3 million for the state and national Republican Party and $2.1 million more for President Bush’s reelection campaign. (Interestingly, however, Benson finds himself as the chosen one for Colorado's presidency in a Democratic climate. The state's governor is a Democrat, and its General Assembly is Democratically controlled.)

“He visited with us, the faculty, on Monday, and he said very clearly that he supports tenure, but I’m afraid he sees it from a business point of view, not from an academic point of view," said Uriel Nauenberg, a full professor of physics at the university’s Boulder campus and chair of the Faculty Assembly there. "So he needs to understand the academic society, and he said that he was here to learn and that he would only concentrate on monetary issues for the campus -- mainly how to increase the funding.” (Benson has reportedly said he would leave academic decisions to the campus chancellors.)

“Very frankly, we are at a critical threshold.... He is quite good at getting funding.”

“The critical issues for us are funding, funding, funding,” added Ken McConnellogue, associate vice president for university relations for the University of Colorado. Colorado is ranked 48th in the nation this year in terms of both appropriations per $1,000 in personal income and per capita appropriations, according to data from Illinois State University’s Center for the Study of Education Policy. McConnellogue pointed out that Benson was a leader in pushing the successful Referendum C campaign, which offered some short-term relief to Colorado universities squeezed by the state’s TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) law severely limiting state spending.

“Not only is he perhaps the most prodigious fund raiser in the state in general, but he’s shown he can work to develop coalitions of education and business leaders,” McConnellogue said. And, while Benson was not available for an interview Wednesday afternoon, McConnellogue pointed out that his response to questions on his stance on tenure has been consistent.

“He’s been asked that question a couple of times during the open forums that we’ve been having for him,” he said. ”Number one, obviously, and he tells folks this, he has to be cautious because there is some litigation. But one of the general statements he’s made is that he’s learned a lot from that whole experience about tenure, about working with faculty. He said there were mistakes made on both sides of the fence on the issue. Learning from mistakes was an important part of that whole enterprise.”

But Sanger, of AFT, scoffs at the argument that Benson changed his views, pointing out that the board could have backed down at any time while Benson chaired it through 2007. And more generally, Addison, of the Denver campus, questioned the wisdom of bringing in a chief fund raiser as president without disavowing him of academic oversight.

“The response I hear is that the role of president is changing. The role of president at many universities is primarily as a fund raiser. Someone like Bruce Benson could be helpful,” Addison said. “The problem is, even if you believe that -- and let’s say we do -- then the regents would have to change the laws and the policies of the university to make clear that the president is not the chief academic officer and has nothing to do with curriculum or tenure or any of those other things. But that has not happened.”

The system’s Board of Regents, which announced its choice one week ago, is statutorily required to wait at least 14 days after naming a finalist to appoint him or her president. Such an appointment would follow upon Benson’s heavy involvement with local educational issues through committee and commission work: He’s served as finance chair for the City of Denver Public Schools “pay for performance” and bond campaigns, currently sits as chairman on the Denver Public Schools Foundation, and is chair of the P-20 Education Coordinating Council, in addition to his service on the statewide higher education commission in the 1980s and, more recently, on Metro State’s board. (He also served on Smith College's Board of Trustees and Parents' Advisory Council in the 1990s.)

“He is a very straightforward shooter,” said Nauenberg of Boulder, who added that the Faculty Assembly will meet today to discuss the potential president and that he’s still withholding judgment. “He doesn’t hide in wording or speech nuances. I take him at his word: that academic freedom and tenure are not something that he will monkey around with.”

 

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