Sustaining an Empire

When last we heard from Marshall Kaplan, the embattled dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver was hinting that the public might not have him to kick around for much longer. No more big community confabs, no more big community controversies fueled by endless missives from Kaplan, with each new message miraculously arriving just minutes after the close of the conversation that Kaplan was now clarifying. In March 1995, after yet another power play, then-CU president Judith Albino and UCD chancellor John Buechner finally had accepted one of Kaplan's many resignations. Ending days of press speculation, Kaplan announced that, after fourteen years as GSPA dean, he'd be leaving his $100,000 post that May.

No more.
Today Albino is gone, and Buechner has moved to Boulder as her replacement. And Kaplan? He's still with the program, still occupying his old office in the Chamber of Commerce building. Although the GSPA has moved back on campus, where Buechner wanted it all along, Kaplan's not going anywhere. And why should he? As executive director of UCD's Institute for Policy Research and Implementation, he's got the influence without the academic duties. He's got the power without the political infighting. Most of all, he has a new, prestigious project devoted to "sustainability." And certainly, no one understands sustainability better than Marshall Kaplan.

But first, about that Russian raid on the mini-bars. The media had that all wrong, Kaplan says.

In the early Eighties, Dean Kaplan, fresh from a stint at the Carter White House, was pushing his program into the thick of some of Colorado's biggest public-policy issues. He helped broker the deal between Denver and Aurora that would have allowed for Bill Walters's Galleria shopping center--if that pesky S&L scandal hadn't gotten in the way. He helped create a charter for Greenwood Village, helped establish Denver's comprehensive plan--all the while helping make the GSPA an increasingly important power locus, adding six centers to the school. By the late Eighties, in fact, the GSPA had outgrown mere metro matters and set its sights globally.

Enter the Russians. Kaplan first brought them to Colorado six years ago, to the initial Aspen Global Forum, a project far from UCD's original mission as an urban school but close to Kaplan's heart. It was just after the coup, and it was tough getting a group of community leaders out of Russia and into a ritzy resort. But Kaplan managed. ("Off-season," he says of the rooms at the Little Nell. "Very cheap rates.") Eighty percent of the Russians couldn't speak English; naturally, they were confused by the open bars in their rooms. Naturally, they thought the bottles of liquor were gifts. Naturally, they loaded them into their bags and took them home, leaving Kaplan holding the tab for a $10,000 bar bill. But once the dean explained the situation, the hotel was very understanding and whittled the charge down to cost. It was a small price to pay for furthering international understanding.

Then there was the time the Russian minister of industry got lost on his way to the Aspen Institute. And, of course, the episode when $2 million worth of donated food and pharmaceuticals, part of the Rocky Mountain News-sponsored "To Russia With Hope," got lost on their way to Kaplan, who was waiting in Moscow with TV and newspaper cameras at his side. Turns out the truck driver had stopped en route from St. Petersburg to visit his girlfriend for a day-and-a-half-long assignation. Sometimes public affairs can go too far.

But the Russian thing led to something very positive, Kaplan says. His group wound up being asked back to help consult on the country's new laws ensuring a free press.

Despite the stories that have appeared about him over the years--the mini-bar raids, the academic infighting, the feuds with fellow movers and shakers who long ago left Denver, while he is still here--Kaplan believes in a free press. He believes in rewarding a free press.

But wait. Media rewards are just part of an ambitious, seven-pronged project that Kaplan has introduced at his institute. Well, actually, the GSPA's institute, which technically existed before Kaplan came to town, but "I filled it with several of the centers while I was dean," he explains. After Kaplan resigned his deanship--and held on to his position as a public-affairs professor--he "volunteered" to head up the institute and built it into a "major think tank and activist organization for doing good in Colorado and, I guess, the nation."

The institute was already home to the Tim Wirth Chair in Environmental and Community Development Policy, the only endowed chair at UCD--"the only endowed public-policy chair in CU," Kaplan points out--which Kaplan had established in November 1993 with a $1.3 million endowment. That money, however, does not go to the institute, except to fund the Senior Wirth Chair Fellows, who speak out on matters sustainable. Now, in order to keep the institute growing, Kaplan has to raise several hundred thousand dollars a year, with nothing coming from the university--except, that is, some money for his secretary's salary. She, too, is based at the Chamber of Commerce building rather than on campus.

From just a few seminars a year, Kaplan has built the institute up to include programs of "major impact." Both Mexico and Brazil now participate in those Aspen meetings; in fact, the last Brazilian confab, which focused on energy privatization, was held in Colorado two weeks ago. Kaplan was just back from coordinating a Ford Foundation-backed gathering of fifteen American universities and their counterparts in Mexico, with a goal of forming partnerships. Closer to home, the Tim Wirth Chair has an ambitious slate of projects for the new year, including adding junior fellows to the senior fellows program; hosting a national conference in January to present a progress report on the President's Council on Sustainable Development and Recommendations Concerning a "Sustainable America"; sponsoring a town meeting on Colorado's sustainable development efforts; initiating awards programs for faculty and students, as well as for cities and counties across the state that display outstanding sustainable development initiatives; and hosting speakers from all sides of the issue in a "dialogue of civility." In his spare time--since the Eisenhower administration, Kaplan has slept only two hours a night, which he points out gives him a half-day start on the rest of us--he edits a public-policy journal, and he writes op-ed pieces encouraging metro residents not to stop at approving a new stadium but also to set up a housing initiative, and he toys with the notion of hosting a media briefing when the G-7 Summit comes to Denver in June.

With all that going on, it's no surprise that professor Kaplan didn't teach any classes this fall.

And now, about those media awards. In November, twenty months after he left the public eye, we once again heard from Kaplan. He sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to the media, introducing the Tim Wirth Chair's "new and innovative Media Awards Program" honoring "significant achievements with respect to the coverage of sustainability." Winners will receive a "beautiful plaque" and can designate the recipient of a student scholarship. Never mind that CU, which has an environmental reporting program, hadn't been consulted about this new UCD awards program in its own field, or that many of the members of the star-studded Tim Wirth Advisory Board had yet to hear about this contest they will wind up judging. Or that the institute giving the awards is actively involved with training public-policy makers who could well become the subject of such stories.

In the world of sustainable development, in Marshall Kaplan's world, there's no room for sustained skepticism.


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