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EDITORIAL: Innovative leadership helps renaissance at CU's flagship

By: The Gazette editorial
June 6, 2014 Updated: June 6, 2014 at 10:14 am
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photo - CU's flagship campus may serve as a model of innovation and entrepreneurialism for the rest of the country.  (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)
CU's flagship campus may serve as a model of innovation and entrepreneurialism for the rest of the country. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado) 

As the University of Colorado grows by leaps and bounds in Colorado Springs, an entrepreneurial renaissance in Boulder may revolutionize education.

It hasn't always been this good.

Longtime Coloradans remember when the Springs branch was tiny and the Boulder campus served as a disgrace.

A sociology professor, arrested on charges of selling cocaine, complained of rampant heroin abuse among colleagues. A radical professor gained national notoriety by sympathizing with 9/11 terrorists and demonizing victims.

Booze riots had students lighting bonfires in the streets on national TV. ESPN fixated on an athletic department facing "allegations of rapes, strip-club visits and alcohol-fueled sex parties for recruits."

Those days are gone, along with the 4-20 pot party — shut down by tireless efforts of Chancellor Phil DiStefano.

Today, CU-Boulder has emerged as the model to emulate. The Gazette's editorial board discussed the school's new image this week with DiStefano.

Credit for the makeover begins with the Board of Regents, which had the sense to appoint former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown as president of the system in 2005. By noon on his first day, the respected conservative fired 11 administrators and initiated reforms that changed the university's trajectory.

Regents appointed conservative oilman Bruce Benson as Brown's successor in 2008, and he wisely named DiStefano as permanent chancellor.

Today, CU is known for leading the unmanned MAVEN Mission to Mars in partnership with NASA. It works with private industry to improve agricultural practices with data gathered by drones.

The university's partnerships with government and industry, too numerous to list here, have contributed to Forbes ranking a degree from Boulder among the top 25 for earning.

The growing entrepreneurial culture helped professor Marvin Caruthers parlay biotechnology research into new pharmaceuticals and research instruments he personally forged into the market. They were so successful the professor donated $20 million to his employer in late 2007.

University administrators see interaction of academe and business as the best way to fund the school and educate students. In his 2012 State of the Campus address, DiStefano challenged the university to make private-sector partnerships a cornerstone of the institution's innovative approach. Administrators recently established the Office of Industry Collaboration to help business leaders find even more ways to partner with the school in research.

DiStefano said the short-term goal involves taking industry research funding from $20 million to $100 million annually — money that will teach young adults how to improve society.

A separate new effort seeks to enhance private donations from alumni and corporations. Administrators plan to double enrollment of engineering students in the next six years.

Though a state university, the campus receives a paltry 5 percent of its funding from the state government. Taxpayer funding is likely to go down as a result of the Colorado Constitution's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which restricts government spending, revenues and debt. Once seen as an albatross to higher education, more than a few academicians concede the law has given CU deeper roots. Because it cannot count on much passive state income, the university must produce wealth by improving the common good.

The renaissance only gets better for champions of free market principles. The university's innovations include a new seat titled Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy. Bradley Birzer, professor of history at Hillsdale College, was appointed this month as the second occupant of the chair. His duties will include lectures in conservative philosophy all over Colorado.

Boulder's culture of innovation is spreading throughout the CU system. In Colorado Springs, Chancellor Pamela Schockley-Zalabak leads what may be the country's fastest-growing campus. A new branch of the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Springs campus will partner with a state-of-the-art sports medicine facility.

Colorado's greatest hope rests in the quality of our higher education. That's good news, given the positive direction of our largest university system and its noble flagship.

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