Decision day: Will Benson be CU’s next president?
February 20, 2008
DENVER – The University of Colorado regents faced a touchy decision on whether to appoint oilman and former Republican fundraiser Bruce Benson as president of the CU system.Critics said his ties to the energy industry, his partisan activism and the fact that he has no advanced college degree made him a questionable candidate. Supporters said Benson could bring the school something it desperately needs: big donations.CU’s nine regents were holding a meeting Wednesday to vote on Benson, named the sole finalist for the job in January.Benson would replace Hank Brown, who is stepping down 30 months after he was hired to right the university amid multiple scandals.Like Benson, Brown is a prominent Republican. But Brown, a former U.S. senator, brought academic experience that Benson lacks, having served as president of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley from 1998 to 2002.Brown holds two law degrees. Benson earned a B.A. in geology and was pursuing a master’s degree when he abandoned formal study to form his own company, Benson Minerals.Faculty at CU’s flagship Boulder campus last week voted down a resolution supporting Benson. The student government passed a resolution asking him to withdraw his candidacy. They and others questioned Benson’s credentials to oversee a university with a $2 billion budget and 52,000 students, 24,000 employees and campuses in Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs.Others at CU – whose climate researchers shared a Nobel Prize with Al Gore – were nervous about his commitment to research to combat global warming.Critics also questioned the funding Benson provided the Trailhead Group, a 527 that aims to put more Republicans in office.But Benson has often worked with prominent Democrats in advocating more resources for education in Colorado and chaired a $1 billion fundraising campaign for CU.He served as co-chair of Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter’s P-20 Education Coordinating Council, and he also successfully lobbied for Referendum C, a voter-approved measure in which taxpayers forfeited potential refunds to provide more funding for higher education and other items.Benson has said CU could lose $88 million when Referendum C expires in less than three years. That would come at a time when annual state funding for CU has dwindled from about $210 million to $180 million in the last six years.Higher education has been a frequent target for cuts in the state budget due to conflicting constitutional mandates. One requires funding for K-12 education to keep pace with inflation and then some, while the other limits overall tax increases.