We have an idea for fixing higher education throughout the country, which has largely devolved into an embarrassing mess of declining enrollments, activism, and left-wing indoctrination disguised as academic instruction.
It is simple. Clone University of Colorado President Bruce Benson and install him as president at each of the country's 4,726 colleges and universities.
The predicted outcome: financial stability, growing enrollments and endowments, increasing cultural and ethnic diversity, a move toward academic freedom and ideological balance, better placement of graduates, lower defaults on student loans, and more.
Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of Benson's presidency, making him the longest-serving CU president in 65 years. He turns 80 on the Fourth of July, and we cannot find anyone — on the right, the left, or anywhere between — who wants him to retire soon.
Rewind 10 years, and Benson's potential appointment was controversial. He was a conservative oilman and former failed Republican nominee for governor of Colorado. He was decidedly not a classic academic elite. He lacked not only a doctorate but anything more than a bachelor's degree at the time.
Students completing their doctorates declared themselves more qualified for the job.
Benson was the perfect choice to disrupt an institution best known for a plagiarizing communist professor, football date-rape scandals, routine beer riots and bonfires in the middle of Boulder streets, and an annual pot smoking festival that generated photos for national media of marijuana smoke wafting over thousands of students giving their collective finger to the culture.
A significant percentage of Colorado parents steered young adults from CU's flagship campus in Boulder, and it became known as "Ski U" for attracting disproportionate numbers of California "ski bums." It frequently topped the Princeton Review's list of "party schools."
Today, the university can be called the undisputed model for public higher education. Administrative teams from other colleges and universities travel to meet with Benson and his staff to learn how this is done.
The success of CU under Benson's reign has led to an explosion in donations. Fundraising is $386.3 million, up from $135 million when Benson took charge. The endowment is $1.2 billion — twice the $640 million of 10 years ago. Internally generated financial aid is $184 million, up from $88 million in 2008.
The overall budget has nearly doubled under Benson's leadership, even with state funding down substantially over that time.
Patents secured by faculty are up, along with startup businesses based on CU-generated technology.
An exhaustive list of 10-year indicators of success would be far too long to publish here, but a few examples include:
- Bond rating up to Aa1 from Aa3
- University policies (regulations) down to 88 from 210 a decade ago
- Support for School of Medicine from CU Hospital nearly quadrupled to $120 million
- Alumni/donor/friend engagement list up from 80,000 to 470,000
- Student and faculty diversity up substantially in all categories
- Embarrassing pothead festival: gone
We cannot find key indicators that have not improved under Benson's leadership, as too many other state universities head the other way.
This is how higher education could and should be throughout the country. Unfortunately, cloning hasn't advanced enough to create enough Bensons. When it does, don't be surprised if the technology develops in a privately funded lab on a CU campus in Boulder, Denver, or Colorado Springs.
Happy anniversary, Bruce Benson. In 10 short years, we will celebrate your 20th.
The Gazette editorial board