Retiring University of Colorado system President Bruce Benson follows the advice he’s giving graduates at this year’s commencement ceremonies.
Sometimes, the best-laid plans aren’t planned.
“I never planned to do politics or this job,” he told graduates Friday at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “We see where the opportunities are and take them. Don’t miss opportunities because they don’t exactly fit.”
He urged graduates to respect others because “everybody has a place in this world.”
Another tip from the oilman and businessman who’s headed the CU-system for the past 11 years: surround yourself with capable people to leverage your success.
“You’ve got to have people around you that know what they’re doing,” he said. “I feel so strongly about that.”
It’s the same advice he’s given to his successor, Mark Kennedy, who takes over as president of the four-campus system on July 1.
“This place is so complicated, you’ve got to utilize the good people around you,” Benson said in an interview.
“We have a fine group of vice presidents and chancellors. They have a lot of experience and knowledge, and I urged Mark to pay attention to them.”
The CU Board of Regents named Kennedy, president of the University of North Dakota and a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, as the sole finalist on April 10. On a party-line vote, the Republican majority voted 5-4 on May 2 to offer him the job.
The decision was highly unpopular, facing stiff opposition from students, faculty, politicians and LGTBQ groups, immigrants and minorities, who opposed Kennedy’s conservative congressional voting record, coupled with past statements on such issues as same-sex marriage.
Benson wasn’t surprised by the reaction but said the backlash he received 12 years ago when he was being considered for the presidency was even worse.
“Mine was a lot rougher than his. They came after me hitting hard,” he said. “I’m a conservative oilman with a bachelor’s degree. That doesn’t fit.”
Regarding the resistance to the regents’ pick, Benson said if he had been running the town halls, he would have said, “Enough,” to protesters.
“I would have said, ‘Shouldn’t we be talking about how he’s going to run a $4.5 billion enterprise with 34,000 employees and over 70,000 students?’ Those are the questions people should have been asking.”
Abortion rights and gay rights and other issues that were raised with Kennedy don’t often come up on the president’s agenda, Benson said. Those primarily are handled at individual campus levels, he said.
Kennedy will be in Colorado for a few days next week to meet with Benson, vice presidents and chancellors. He’ll return on June 15 to soak up as much as he can before Benson leaves.
“I’ll be sharing everything I can share with him and introduce him to various people,” Benson said. “We’re here to help him transition successfully. He’s going to have a learning curve.”
Under Benson’s leadership, the CU system has weathered several scandals, hit record research funding topping $1 billion and doubled its endowment from $650 million to $1.3 billion.
But Benson’s chief source of pride during his tenure is the culture he’s built. Using his motto of “Let’s teach the kids how to think and not what to think,” Benson started a Western Civilization program seven years ago that brings in a conservative visiting professor each year.
It used to be that Republican and Democratic professors held a ratio of 1:1, he said. But that’s crept up over the years to 1:10 and now possibly 1:20.
“That’s not good for students,” Benson said.
The program helps balance the increasing growth of liberal faculty in higher education, he said, and has been replicated at other universities. A tenured professor now is being hired to run the program, he said.
“We’ve raised $12 million to $14 million of an endowment because I want this to last forever,” Benson said. “When I leave, I want to make sure the next guy keeps this program going. It’s changing the culture to get people to collaborate and cooperate. You get so much more done that way.”
The 80-year-old Benson says he’s not retiring. He’s just changing jobs. He’s returning to the oil company he’s owned since 1965. And he’s not happy with stricter regulations the Democratically controlled Colorado Legislature are imposing on oil and gas development.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said of this past session’s legislation. “There’s going to be a lot of battles.”
Fresh off a hip replacement a few weeks ago, Benson and UCCS Chancellor Venkat Reddy conferred 1,496 degrees Friday. Of those, 1,111 graduates walked in the ceremony, held at The Broadmoor World Arena.
Reddy also presented Benson and his wife, Marcy, with an award of appreciation.
Benson normally stands and shakes hands with graduates, but this year he sat on stage to rest his hip.
He has two more to go in his career, CU Denver on Saturday and CU Anschutz Medical Campus on May 24. That adds up to more than 90 commencement ceremonies where he’s been on stage.
“People say, ‘Thanks for being here,’ and I say, ‘Isn’t it our job to graduate kids?’ Yes, it is our job, and I want to be here for the culmination of that.”
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