Morgan Liddick: The Buffaloes are being trampled by politics
February 11, 2008
Whatever is wrong with Bruce Benson being president of the University of Colorado? Mr. Benson, for those of you who do not keep up with things academic ” or read the Denver papers ” is a 69-year-old well-to-do businessman and philanthropist who has great interest in higher education in Colorado.
He has received high praise for his service on educational “task forces” of both Democrat and Republican administrations. He has been a generous supporter of the University of Colorado, both personally and as the chairman of the university’s four-campus billion-dollar comprehensive fundraising campaign.
So why does House Majority Leader Alice Madden call the considered opinion of a search committee ” which just might be more tuned in to the university and its problems than she is ” a joke?
“Credentials,” some insist. Like most Americans, Mr. Benson does not have advanced degrees. But does this make him ineligible to lead the University of Colorado? I’ve met, worked with and for quite a few people with Ph.D. and other letters after their names. Some were unnervingly intelligent. Some were driven and disciplined. Some, I would trust to spend my money wisely, or to manage people.
Others, none of the above. A credential doesn’t necessarily make you a good administrator. Or spokesperson. Or Arbiter, fundraiser, advisor ” or university president. And if other educational leaders are going to feel demeaned by lowering themselves to speak with one of the hoi poloi, well … To use that old saw from diversity training, “Doesn’t that tell you more about them than it does about you?”
The answer, as you know, is yes.
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Jim Martin, a former CU Regent, uses another angle. Criticizing Benson’s business background in Feb. 7’s Denver Post, he cites Charles William Elliot, the president of Harvard University who transformed the institution in the years after the Civil War.
“A university,” he quotes Elliot as saying, “cannot be managed like a railroad …” His swipe fails to note that the principle reason for Elliot’s reforms at Harvard was the institution’s failure to address many of the needs of America’s rapidly expanding industrial community.
In a letter to a cousin written while studying European systems of technical education, Elliot noted “The Puritans thought they must have trained ministers for the Church and so supported Harvard College ” when the American people are convinced that they require more competent chemists, engineers, artists, architects, than they now have, they will somehow establish the institutions to train them …”
Charles Elliot understood the crucial relationship between education and business in America, and the necessity for institutional change.
We should examine objections to Mr. Benson not only for what they are, but for what they tell us about his critics. For the most part, these people seem to think the American academy’s performance is superior. They see no problem with behavior in Liberal Arts faculties that, if engaged in by patrons of a bar would probably result in a brawl ” or, in Texas, contagious gunfire. They feel themselves above criticism by the lower orders and, above all, entitled to the support of a grateful nation. To them, the selection of Mr. Benson is an affront.
Beneath both the “credential” and “businessman” objections is the long-standing image of the university as a Platonic Ideal, a place apart and unsullied by the world, where untrammeled discourse is the rule, where grand concept trumps mundane reality and where the only role permitted to the uninitiated is the provision of generous stipends. This view is no more real today than it was when it ignited “town and gown” conflicts in the nascent university towns of Paris and Bologna in the 13th century, but it obviously appeals to certain academic circles, and their supporters.
For almost half a century, American universities have been home to the most poisonous of discourse. Our economy, most of our politics, our society, even our psychology has been subjected to the wildest calumny, and CU is no exception.
Meanwhile, we import software designers from India, engineers from China and physicists from Poland, The response to this situation from many in higher education is “Give us more funding, and go away.” Perhaps, as in Charles William Elliot’s day, reform of an academy that is no longer serving our needs is necessary. In which case, someone like Mr. Benson may be an enlightened choice.
Or perhaps the fear and loathing is dredged up by the fact that he’s a Republican.
No, it didn’t stop Governor Ritter from making him co-chair of the state’s P-20 Education Coordinating Council. No, there were no objections when he directed the university’s fundraising efforts. And seven of the CU’s nine regents didn’t think it was an issue. But new ideas and viewpoints often threaten entrenched interests, so we may expect more of the same regarding Mr. Benson.