Bruce Benson, a wealthy Republican businessman, is off to a bad start as the nominee for president of the three-campus University of Colorado system. One objection is that he lacks a Ph.D., which is unusual, but not unheard of. Dwight Eisenhower ruffled few feathers as president of Columbia University before his run for the presidency. Eighteen sitting presidents of Canadian colleges and universities have no doctorate. Benson, owner and president of the Benson Mineral Group, abandoned postgraduate work to pursue a career in oil and gas. Though he has only a B.A., he has a long list of credits as a supporter of higher education at the University of Colorado, Smith College, the University of Denver and the Metropolitan State College of Denver. Still, the Boulder faculty assembly voted 40-4 to reject Benson. Chairman Uriel Nauenberg said the issue is not Benson’s lack of a doctorate, but rather “a lack of managerial experience in an academic institution.” Many students are roiled over the Benson nomination, particularly his involvement in oil and his doubts about global warming. A “Boycott Bruce Benson” web site is in operation. Benson still has to be confirmed by the regents.
The real objection to Benson is that he is a Republican politician named primarily because of his success as a fund-raiser. Like Hank Brown, the retiring president of the University of Colorado, Benson has been a conspicuously conservative activist. He was national co-chair of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. On the fund-raising front, he chaired a billion-dollar campaign for the university and successfully lobbied for a state law to give universities more money. The University of Colorado has a $2 billion annual budget and state funding covers only $180 million. As many see it, his primary job is to use his political connections to squeeze more money out of the legislature in hard times.
Conservatives are hoping he will do more than that. The university has been reeling for years from a variety of crises, from the lingering rape scandals involving university athletes to the Ward Churchill affair and the bruising fight over David Horowitz’s academic bill of rights. The conservatives want him to take charge of the university and its stature as a left-wing outpost that created and tolerated fashionable crazies like Ward Churchill. But so far, Benson has not given conservatives much reason to support him. His question-and-answer sessions with faculty and students have not gone well. Asked his position of shared governance of the campuses, he replied, “What’s that?” Worse, he has positioned himself as the narrow fund-raiser his critics believe him to be. Benson said: “People say, ‘what are the most important issues?’ I say, funding, funding, funding. I don’t think you need to have a Ph.D. in anything to talk to legislators and raise money. We have highly educated chancellors. I will work with them.” No cheer there for those who believe that funding can’t be the number one, number two and number three major issues on our troubled campuses.