Big Flack Attack

So far, Hank Brown is definitely earning his paycheck at CU -- and thanks to him, nearly a dozen others won't.

Before his first day at CU was done, Brown had eradicated ten staff positions: six that were vacant, two occupied by personnel planning to retire by year's end, and the public-relations slots that his predecessor, Betsy Hoffman, had created in December 2004 for Ray Gomez and Mike Hesse, whose well-publicized salaries each topped out at $150,000 a year. Days later, Brown erased another gig, moving associate treasurer Don Eldhart into the treasurer's chair and redlining his previous post.

These cuts saved more than $1 million, and had they been made two months earlier, when CU was arguing for a massive tuition increase, the university might have received a warmer reception. Fiscal responsibility is "a message we want to get out," Brown confirmed. "But, frankly, it's something we ought to do whether we're raising tuition or not."

Talk about a turnaround -- and it's hardly the only one. While the regents had fought to keep the grand jury's report on CU secret, Brown supports officially unsealing the often damning document. "There were rumors out there, rumors that were believed, and the university couldn't address these rumors because of legal restrictions," he says. "Being freed up from that in the long term would be to the university's advantage, so we could put everything into context. That's not to say it was our finest hour; it wasn't. But the truth is, it's better to address something, take care of it and move beyond it, and that's why it's helpful to get all the information out."

Like the regents, the CU Foundation should be prepared to live with the report's contents -- rather than sue over their leak. "I think it was a mistake," Brown said of the foundation's now-dropped suit against Channel 9. "The foundation is a separate entity, and to the extent that I get to counsel with them, my counsel is that's not the way we do business."

As this comment demonstrates, Brown has been speaking bluntly since taking the wheel at CU, and in an interview with Westword, his forthrightness created some awkward moments for Hesse, whose last day is November 1. Hesse sat in on the chat, which found the president casually explaining why the vice president for advancement's job was nixed along with Gomez's slot of vice president for university relations. "When I came aboard, I asked various vice presidents if there were positions that could be eliminated without damaging our productivity and our functioning," Brown allowed. "The first ten fit in that category."

Gomez was spared the ignominy of hearing why his boss saw him as dispensable, having jumped before he could be pushed. He resigned on July 25, saying the next day that his decision was motivated in part by Brown's impending arrival and his impression that the interim president might prefer to pick his own public-relations managers, not make do with hand-me-downs. "Since he's an interim president, he may be here six months, he may be here a year," Gomez said. "And even if he didn't want to bring in his own people, once the new president is here, we'd have to go through that exercise all over again. So there were two periods of uncertainty I was concerned about."

Gomez was also eager to cohabit again with his wife, Linda, an executive at Irvine's Vision Solutions, who'd remained in California even after Gomez, whose mother works at CU's Colorado Springs campus, became a university employee. Having flown to the Golden State on a bi-weekly basis for months, he looked forward to travel-free weekends.

But even when he stayed in Boulder, Gomez's ride was bumpy. Before he and Hesse officially joined CU's staff in December, the press needled him for his salary and his previous employment with the Walt Disney Company, which provided editorialists an easy way to label CU's public-relations arm a "Mickey Mouse operation." And then there was that dust-up with the Boulder Daily Camera after Gomez wrote an e-mail declaring that reporter Elizabeth Mattern Clark wasn't "the sharpest knife in the drawer," only to have Hesse accidentally forward it to Clark herself -- a faux pas that was recounted in a raft of publications, including this one.

Clark had requested a copy of the draft report on the rebranding strategy created by Gomez and Hesse that was given to regents in June. Its introduction, which Gomez had never intended to receive wide distribution, sported an astounding rundown of disasters suffered by CU in the first three months he was at the university: "Investigative reporting of university spending at bowl games," "Breakdown of negotiations with the VA over a hospital site at Fitzsimons," "Former University PR director David Grimm's allegations of financial mismanagement" and much, much more. In his e-mail, Gomez suggested cutting out this material before giving the rest of the draft to Clark.

After the e-mail went public, of course, the media focused almost entirely on the portions of the document that he'd wanted to remove, and not on the plan itself, which aimed "to restore and reposition the University of Colorado's image, reputation and credibility among its key stakeholders through a sustained program of targeted, segmented and research-based communication and outreach." The program's four main components were research to "assess, measure and understand prevailing public opinions of CU"; an "issues-driven public-relations campaign (local and national)" intended to "highlight positive achievements by the university"; a "proactive, strategic marketing campaign using paid media to bring favorable attention to CU"; and the updating and standardizing of "University graphics, logos, symbols and usage guidelines to create a unified, uniform look and feel, appropriate and befitting of the University's communications vehicles."

According to Gomez, the contents of that report didn't deserve to get lost in one more PR debacle. "I think it's the road map, the key to the future at CU," he stressed. "I hope they look very carefully at the strategy we developed and give it the highest priority."

But that seems unlikely.

With Hesse, co-author of the report, sitting across the room from him, Brown said he hadn't read the plan yet, and while he'd like to do so someday, "my sense is that even the best folks in public affairs cannot change the reality, and that our problem was in the reality of what was going on, not in the way it was packaged. That doesn't mean better packaging isn't important, but the substance is our major challenge."

To that end, CU must establish a reputation with the media for being "open, accessible and accountable," Brown continued. "It's basically a way of changing our thinking, so that instead of responding to what reporters ask for in an open-records request, we try to provide the information they want, as well as people to help interpret it. With that mindset, we can run the university in a truly open, transparent manner, not just comply with the law."

And if more bad news comes down the pike? Rather than catalogue CU's calamities, as Gomez and Hesse did, Brown prefers to concentrate on turning the university into a no-whining zone. "We can lament the fact that so much attention has been given to our shortcomings and so little attention to the wonderful things that continue to happen on our campus," he said. "But that's what a free and open society is all about. The strategy on our part is to be open about those shortcomings, address them where we can and move on, knowing that coverage and attention to our accomplishments and our pluses will come. They may not be on the front burner, or the front page, but they'll come."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts