Heckuva Job, Brownie

Former Senator Hank Brown, who announced yesterday that he plans to resign as University of Colorado president just over a year from now (find CU's press release here), was the right man for the right job at the right time.

Prior to Brown's decision to accept the position in 2005, CU had gone through an unbroken string of embarrassments that previous pres Elizabeth "Betsy" Hoffman and the institution's PR department regularly exacerbated via stonewalling or obvious attempts to spin the unspinnable; for a reminder of these disasters, check out Westword's gaffe roundup. Unlike Hoffman, however, Brown preferred to tackle problems head on, without kowtowing to any of CU's innumerable constituencies -- and he made no apologies for his straightforward approach. For proof, look no further than an interview he conducted with Westword for a sidebar that accompanied the feature cited above. During the conversation, Brown calmly described his reasons for eliminating ten staff positions while the person who'd held one of them -- PR pro Mike Hesse -- was sitting across the room from him.

In the years that followed, Brown's insistence upon openness slowly but steadily undermined the culture of secrecy that had developed prior to his arrival. That's not to say the university has achieved total transparency. The handling of a matter involving student Max Karson, whose controversial newsletter inspired CU's vice chancellor of student affairs to hint at censorship, was botched badly by interim spokesman Barrie Hartman; see this November 2006 column for details. However, Bronson Hilliard, Hartman's successor, acquitted himself well when quizzed for the current Message, about an often profane pro-Ward Churchill blog overseen by CU instructor Benjamin Whitmer. Rather than dodging or equivocating, Hilliard answered sometimes uncomfortable questions in the same plainspoken manner that Brown has employed while conducting his CU duties.

Brown has given CU plenty of time to find his successor, but replacing him won't be easy. The university needs to find someone capable of understanding the right move in a given situation and the guts to make it without giving in to the various power brokers trying to push him one direction or another. Unfortunately, such administrators are mighty rare, and if CU settles for another Hoffman type, the school may soon start generating the wrong kind of headlines again -- and Brown might not be available to ride to the rescue again. -- Michael Roberts

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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