The man nominated to lead the state’s flagship university is an oilman, not an academic. In a sea of Ph.D.s, he has only a bachelor’s degree. But he does offer this: A reputation as a formidable fundraiser.
Bruce Benson’s nomination may be bitterly dividing this 52,000-student, three-campus institution, but it is a sign that dollars, not degrees, are playing a bigger role in choosing college presidents. Though Benson would be one of only a fraction of college presidents without an advanced degree, he says he’s not worried about doing the job.
“People say, ‘What are the most important issues?’ I say, funding, funding, funding,” Benson said. “I don’t think you need to have a Ph.D. in anything to talk to legislators and raise money. We have highly educated chancellors. I will work closely with them.”
Campus observers have fiercely protested the selection, which has yet to be approved by regents. A “Boycott Benson” Web site questions the selection process and criticizes his background as a conservative Republican activist. The student government has voiced complaints, and a campus portrait of Benson was defaced with graffiti that said, “I’ve given CU enough $ for an individual right-wing nut like me to be CU’s president.”
State House Majority Leader Alice Madden, a Democrat and CU law school graduate, declared that Benson would be “the least educated president ever considered in modern history.”
Benson is the sole finalist for the job overseeing three campuses in Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs. In recent years, CU’s president has been more of a chief executive officer, with chancellors leading individual campuses.
He would join a small club of college leaders without advanced credentials. A 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education survey of 764 presidents and chancellors found fewer than 1 percent held only a bachelor’s degree. More than 83 percent held a doctorate, while most others held master’s or professional degrees.
“Generally speaking, for major research universities and colleges and liberal arts colleges, it would be indeed rare to appoint somebody to such a high position with no more than a bachelor’s,” said Jonathan Knight, associate secretary of the Washington-based American Association of University Professors.
Benson, 69, insists his professional experience gives him an edge. He has chaired a $1 billion fundraising campaign for the school, successfully lobbied for a state law to give universities more money, and served on several education boards.
After earning his bachelor’s from CU in geology, he abandoned a master’s degree to pursue a lucrative career in oil and gas. He went on to become owner and president of Benson Mineral Group, a Denver-based oil and gas exploration firm, and was CEO and President of United States Exploration Inc., a Montana-based oil and gas producer. He has served on numerous corporate boards.
He recently was national co-chair of Mitt Romney’s recently suspended presidential campaign. That qualification, combined with his background in oil, has rankled many students and faculty at Boulder, whose climate researchers shared a Nobel Prize with Al Gore last year. Benson, however, says he quit politics after being named a finalist for president.
That Benson is familiar with the university and Colorado tipped the scales in his favor over out-of-state candidates, said CU Regent Steve Bosley, who led the presidential search committee. Regents, in seeking a president, said an advanced degree would be advantageous but that they wanted a president to be a visionary, leader and fundraiser.
Fundraising will have to be a priority for the university’s next president because a voter-approved measure in which taxpayers gave up billions of dollars in potential refunds to pay for higher education is expiring in a little more than two years. CU has a $2 billion annual budget, but Benson notes state funding only covers $180 million, and some of that is at risk in 2010.
“We do have a financial crisis in this state in funding higher education, so we’re looking for somebody who could immediately have an understanding of the finances and a demonstrated ability to work with legislators across party lines,” Bosley said.
As state budgets have squeezed public university funding, more and more campuses have chosen candidates with political or business connections. But they usually have advanced degrees. Last year, West Virginia University hired Mike Garrison, a former lobbyist and chief of staff to the governor who has a law degree. Former investment banker and White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles heads the University of North Carolina system. Bowles has an MBA.
In December, the University of Missouri chose former Sprint Nextel Corp. Chief Executive Officer Gary Forsee, who has an undergraduate engineering degree, as its president. Lee T. Todd Jr., who has a doctorate in engineering, took over at the University of Kentucky in 2001 after leaving IBM’s Lotus Development Corp.
Still, many faculty and students haven’t warmed to Benson, something that was evident in a meeting between Benson and students at Boulder Tuesday. A regents vote to approve his nomination has yet to be scheduled, and he is currently participating in rounds of question-and-answer sessions with staff and students.
“It’s good the search committee is looking for somebody who is going to be able to fix our funding crisis … but how can you fundraise for a business you know nothing about?” said Hadley Brown, a student government member.
Jerry Hauser, former chair of the Boulder Faculty Assembly, said he hasn’t made up his mind about Benson, but predicted he would have a tough time. “He has an awful lot of learning to do,” he said. “He’s going to have to scramble for the first six months or so. … Beginning with such an incredible absence of enthusiasm from faculty, it’s going to be very difficult for him.”
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