The CU Regents want public input for their hiring search for the university’s next president, who will succeed Bruce Benson. Benson is stepping down after more than a decade at the helm of the state university system, which includes four campuses, nearly 70,000 students, 34,000 employees and a $4.5 billion budget.
“It’s important that we hear from the people of Colorado about what they would like to see in CU’s next president and what issues face the university and our state,” search committee co-chairs and regents Heidi Ganahl and Irene Griego said in a statement. “CU serves the entire state, and Coloradans have a big stake in who its next leader will be.”
While anyone can submit comments, requests and general input electronically, Westword wanted to prime the pump (see: oil metaphor!) for public commentary by putting our heads together and coming up with a few suggestions for the incoming university — and statewide — leader.
1. Define “Academic Diversity” Differently
Bruce Benson told the Denver Post earlier this year that one of the things he’s most proud of in his work for CU is “his push to increase academic diversity.” Sounded great until Benson continued, specifying that what he was talking about was bringing “conservative voices to the left-leaning Boulder campus.” It was important enough to Benson's agenda that he committed $1 million of university funds to bringing conservative voices to CU back in 2012. While a wide spectrum of political viewpoints might make for a healthy conversation at the university level, it’s not the sort of diversity that’s arguably most needed at the collegiate — or city or state — level. Besides, conservative victimhood is so 2016.
2. Work on Being Press-Friendly
Let's face it, serving as university president is as much about being the face of the CU system as it is about being the "buck stops here" guy. Mainly because the buck usually doesn't get that high — the system is designed to mostly prevent it, except in the most extreme of cases. So CU needs someone like Stan Lee was for Marvel — an ambassador to the world who has the charm to pull it off.
Historically, there’s been a focus on CU Boulder as the main player in the CU system. While Boulder is still arguably the flagship institution of the four, the years when it was in a class of its own are effectively gone. The other campuses have more than made up the distance: UCCS isn’t just the smaller Colorado Springs version of Boulder. Anschutz has come to attract not just major research dollars, but also national attention from prospective students. And CU Denver has boomed right along with its namesake city: Far from the commuter campus it was just a decade ago, in 2018 freshman enrollment is way up, the school is building its first proprietary campus dorm and instituting a new Greek system, and the average age of the student body has dropped from the upper 20s to 22. In short, there’s a lot more to CU than Boulder.
4. Be Competitive With Other National Institutions
Attracting students to come to Colorado for their higher education can’t begin and end with CU Boulder being occasionally named the “Best Party School” in the country. The system has to be marketed — all four campuses, mind you — across the country and around the world. And it’s not just students: Marijuana and mountains can't make up for a woeful lack of benefits to draw top national teaching talent, either. Salaries might be semi-commensurate, if on the low side, but it's the benefits where CU pales in national comparison. Most universities, for example, offer free tuition to the families of employees, which is a major perk for those faculty with near-college-age kids. CU offers only a handful of free credits per year, and they’re only good at the campus where the parent teaches. Not the best incentive when you’re also paying one of the highest national housing costs (at least in Boulder and Denver) at the same time.
Most of the people who work at the university have PERA as their retirement, which means that they're putting all their eggs into that singular basket. They don't pay into Social Security, which means if PERA goes belly-up, they end up with nothing. PERA isn't the responsibility of the university, but the university has to commit to working together with the state to help secure it in the future. In this, the CU president has the opportunity to be not just the hero of the employees of the system he or she serves, but also the hero of every employee of the State of Colorado. It’s a big job, and someone has to do it.
6. Advocate for State Funding Increases
State funding for higher education has taken big hits in the past couple of decades. The scourge of TABOR is a huge factor in this (something that Benson was admittedly on the right side of, back when he was one of the major sponsors of Referendums C&D, which allowed the state to keep some of its surplus money in 2005), and with the newly elected Democratic state legislature, maybe something can be done to stop the stupidity of a state refusing to acknowledge its responsibility for paying for itself not just right now, but in the future, too. The new university president needs to make increased revenue by way of state funding one of his or her top priorities.
7. Embrace the Apolitical
Benson was a problematic figurehead for the university from the jump because he'd affiliated himself so strongly with the Republican side of Colorado politics. He financed Trailhead Group LLC, which in turn paid for attack ads against Democratic challengers; he raised millions in the state for the George W. Bush campaign; and he was a GOP player extraordinaire. Granted, he claimed to renounce partisanship upon his nomination, cancelling some scheduled red-state appearances. And to some degree, he lived up to that promise during his tenure (his notable pride on the inclusion of conservative speakers on campus notwithstanding). But given the political status of Colorado, which has gone purple (and verges now on the decidedly azure) since the early 2000s, the CU system deserves a leader who isn’t red or blue: The new prez should be black and gold all the way.