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At 80, CU’s Bruce Benson is too busy ‘running stuff’ to slow down for critics

Author: Joey Bunch - July 18, 2018 - Updated: August 7, 2018


Bruce Benson turned 80 on the Fourth of July. He decided it was time to graduate into retirement after a glittering, sometimes tense, career in the oil business, Colorado politics and, for the last decade, education as president of the University of Colorado system.

He plans to stay on until July 2019, once his replacement is in place. Leaving the daily grind, won’t be an easy transition.

“How I have a good time is working,” he told Colorado Politics Wednesday.

University of Colorado President Bruce Benson with students at a game. (CU)

He referred to the yellow ledger pad that CU staff knows all too well as his to-do list. Lack of state funding, higher tuition costs, public-private partnerships, concurrent enrollment — they all continue to occupy a place on his evolving list of things to accomplish.

Now the list includes helping vet those who would replace him, though Benson doesn’t plan to handpick his successor. The Board of Regents asked for his input in January — whenever the time came for him to step down.

“The best thing you can do with the regents is not to try tell them what do,” Benson said with a laugh about how hands-on he intends to be in finding the next president.

He wouldn’t bite on the suggestion they should look for another Bruce Benson, but he said, “You really need somebody who knows how to run stuff.”

> RELATED: Bruce Benson to step down as CU president

CU, the state’s flagship university system, includes more than 65,000 enrolled students — a population larger than Grand Junction — at campuses in Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

Benson was the sole finalist for the job in 2008 to replace another politically minded administrator, former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, who also was a Republican tapped to lead the university with a liberal reputation.

Before joining CU, Brown had been president of the University of Northern Colorado. Benson’s resume to succeed Brown included serving as chairman of the state higher education commission and what was then the Metropolitan State College of Denver Board of Trustees.

Benson also had been the Republican nominee for governor in 1994, losing to Democrat Roy Romer. Before that he spent several years as chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

> RELATED: TEXT: Bruce Benson announces his exit as CU president

Benson had led a $1 billion fundraising campaign for the school from 1997 to 2003. Before hiring Benson, the university did a nationwide search, but it did not name any other candidates considered for the job.

Born in Chicago, Benson initially studied agriculture at Cornell University before transferring to CU, where he graduated with a degree in geology in 1964, splitting his time between the classroom and sweaty jobs in the oil fields of the West.

University of Colorado President Bruce Benson during a CU Take Your Child to Work Day in April. (CU)

In 1965, Benson founded the oil and gas exploration and production company Benson Mineral Group. Over his decades-long career in business, his holdings included banking, manufacturing, real estate development, trucking, restaurants, cable television and other enterprises.

In 2009, he was inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame. (Watch a video on him that the Hall of Fame produced at the end of this story.)

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a former Denver Public Schools superintendent whose late father was a Wesleyan University president after a career in politics, called working with Benson an honor.

“CU is one of the nation’s great universities, and Bruce’s contributions — including the record-breaking growth in research funding — have made it a source of statewide pride,” said Bennet, a Democrat. “Bruce has always been a tireless champion for improving educational outcomes for Colorado’s young people. During my time as superintendent of Denver Public School, we could always count on Bruce to contribute wisdom and support to our reforms. Among many things, he made the DPS Foundation into the great civic organization it is today. Coloradans will be forever grateful for his public service.”

The university provided a list of accomplishments  under Benson:

  • CU’s overall budget grew from $2.2 billion to $4.5 billion.
  • Enrollment went from 54,174 to 65,375, plus about 7,000 taking individual courses. About 135,000 students earned degrees during Benson’s tenure.
  • Financial aid rose from $88 million to $184 million.
  • Research funding grew from $660 million to $1.03 billion.
  • Fundraising nearly tripled, from $135 million to more than $400 million.
  • CU’s endowment grew from $640 million to $1.2 billion.

“Just because you grew the budget, doesn’t mean you’re any more cost-effective,” said former CU Regent Jim Martin of Boulder, who saw Benson’s leadership as a mixed bag. But he called Benson a gentleman who always represented the university system well.

Martin was underwhelmed 10 years ago when the board hired the businessman and politico. While he thought Benson might be well-suited to run the CU Foundation, his skill set was not necessarily what was needed for a university president.

Benson did bring stability to the system, which had replaced its president twice in the previous five years, but he also kept the partisan politics in play, Martin said.

But Benson’s “autocratic leadership has made the Board of Regents just as polarized as it was 10 years ago,” Martin, who was a regent from 1993 to 2005, said in an interview Wednesday.

Martin pointed to the current proposal to take out the word “liberal” from the liberal arts education. The governing board currently has five Republicans and four Democrats.

University of Colorado President Bruce Benson, center, watches a CU basketball game from courtside. (Photo by David Zalubowski/AP)

Benson agreed that he has sought diversity at the university, not just in race and gender but also diversity in thought, including political views. He said that since he first enrolled at the university in the early 1960s, he has seen the split between liberal and conservative faculty grow from even, as he saw it, to a ratio of more than 10 liberal instructors to one conservative. That shortchanges the diversity of views students should are exposed to, he said.

“You’re supposed to teach students how to think,” Benson said, “not what to think.”

Kyle Hybl, a sitting regent and Republican from Colorado Springs, said Benson’s quest for a balanced cultural environment on campuses “is something needed now more than ever.”

Hybl, president of the El Pomar Foundation and a self-described student of leadership styles, said he was amazed by how Benson could set goals for himself and those around him, then find a way to seamlessly execute those goals.

“As someone who’s gotten to work with him on the board, I’m grateful for everything he and his wife, Marcy, have meant for the state of Colorado,” Hybl said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican from Aurora, cited Benson’s “unwavering passion and dedication” to the university of Colorado would not be forgotten.

“From his time as an undergraduate to serving as the institution’s longest-serving president, there is no doubt Bruce has a special place for CU in his heart,” said Coffman. “His life’s work not only transformed CU into the world-class facility it is today, but has also reshaped our community and the state of Colorado. As a CU graduate myself, I know that I am not alone in wishing him and Marcy the very best in the coming years.”

U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican from Windsor, said Benson served the university and the state “with passion, distinction, and honor.”

“His impact will be remembered for years in the hearts of the individuals he helped,” Buck stated.

At times, Benson has not been popular with the faculty and student body as he sought to shore up the university system’s finances in the wake of the economic downturn that began under President George W. Bush and followed Barack Obama into the White House.

In 2009, for example, he axed the Silver & Gold Record, a 39-year-old newspaper for faculty and staff, citing budgetary reasons. In a 5-4 vote, the regents backed up his decision, even though the paper’s employees put forward a self-sustaining business plan to keep the paper alive.

The complaints he’s received are part of the job, Benson said. He has been too busy solving problems to dwell on sour feelings against him.

“Things have not always been rosy for me,” he said. “When I started my (first) company with no money, things were tough. I tell people my first six or eights years, I was bankrupt but I wouldn’t admit it, so I kept going and things got better. You learn to manage things.

“When you’ve been around as long as I have, you learn to keep driving ahead, to keep building good stuff.”

This video was part of Bruce Benson’s induction ceremony for the Colorado Business Hall of Fame in 2009.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.