- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008

BOULDER, Colo. — Many universities would count themselves lucky to land a president like Bruce Benson, a successful businessman and dedicated philanthropist who recently spearheaded a $1 billion fundraising drive for higher education.

But Mr. Benson has run into some serious opposition here after being named the sole finalist for the presidency at the University of Colorado.

His critics, who have organized a Boycott Benson movement, cite several concerns, including his lack of an advanced degree. Mr. Benson, 69, earned a bachelor’s in geology from the university in 1964. But their chief objection lies with his politics. The Denver oilman is the biggest Republican fundraiser in the state, if not the Rocky Mountain region, and a founder of the Trailhead Group, a 527 independent-expenditure committee that targets Democratic candidates.

Colorado House Majority Leader Alice Madden, a Democrat who represents Boulder, called his nomination “a really bad joke” after the university’s Jan. 31 announcement.

“One of the biggest concerns is that he’s such a controversial, polarizing figure,” said Steve Fenberg, a recent Colorado graduate whose group, New Era Colorado, is among those leading the Benson opposition on campus. “People are sick of CU always being in the news for something.”

Last week, his portrait at the university’s Benson Earth Sciences Building was vandalized with an anti-Benson message. The graffiti, written in white correction fluid, called Mr. Benson a “right-wing nut” and accused him of trying to buy the presidency.

Mr. Benson, who has taken the criticism in stride, is slated to visit students and faculty tomorrow on campus. The university’s Board of Regents, which has come under fire for choosing only one finalist, is expected to vote on his candidacy before the end of the month.

“I’ve been at this stuff a long time, and you always expect controversy,” said Mr. Benson in an interview on Denver’s KHOW-AM. “I just don’t let it concern me too much.”

Naming a Republican to lead a university located in the liberal enclave of Boulder may seem like a recipe for trouble, but it’s hardly unprecedented. The outgoing president, Hank Brown, was a Republican member of both the U.S. House and Senate.

Mr. Brown, who took over in 2005 after the widely publicized football-recruiting scandal, has won praise from Democrats and Republicans alike for restoring the university’s reputation and recharging its once-anemic fundraising. He had planned to retire Feb. 1, but has said he will stay on until a successor is chosen.

Michael Huttner, executive director of ProgressNow, which is also taking part in the Benson boycott, argued that Mr. Brown brought better credentials to the presidency, including two advanced degrees and a stint as the president of the University of Northern Colorado.

“Hank Brown is certainly more conservative than where we stand on most issues. But he’s a statesman, he has academic credentials, and he was respected by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle,” Mr. Huttner said. “Benson was obviously chosen for his ability to fundraise. But he’s not a statesman, and he’s not respected on both sides of the aisle.”

Mr. Benson’s supporters point out that he has been active in higher education for years. He served as board chairman of Metropolitan State College of Denver, headed CU’s $1 billion fundraising campaign, and was recently appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., a Democrat, as co-chairman of a high-profile education-reform panel.

And his fundraising prowess could help stave off deep budget cuts or steep tuition increases, his backers say. That was good enough for the Denver Post, whose liberal editorial page endorsed Mr. Benson last week.

“At a time when higher education is facing a financial crisis, the ability to raise money and work the politicians who fund the state university system is valuable,” said the Post in a Feb. 5 editorial.

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