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Bruce Benson Goes to Work

The University of Colorado's longest-serving president in 65 years, just celebrated his 80th birthday – and he's just hitting his stride


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Bruce Benson runs a university system with a $1.2 billion endowment, $3.5 billion in annual operating revenues and 2018 operating budget that’s approaching $4.6 billion. But on a Tuesday morning in May at Benson’s downtown office building, the University of Colorado president is focusing on a more obscure metric: How many sheets of paper can CU save by digitizing its utility bills?

“A ream of paper costs, what?” the silver-haired, athletically trim Benson asks a university employee. He’s wearing a navy suit with pinstripes, blue-meets-red striped necktie and, in a concession to the ceremonial aspect of the morning, polished black shoes in place of the familiar cowboy boots he’d just as soon have on his feet. You can see the wheels turning as Benson, flanked by his chief of staff, Leonard Dinegar, leans in toward a draped table and does the math: reams of paper multiplied by cost per ream multiplied by the number of bills the university’s Denver campus collects. The economic benefit here will be measured in hundreds of dollars at best. But Benson likes what he’s hearing.  “Sounds like we’re going to save some money,” he concludes with a wry smile. 

At this annual event showcasing finalists from the university’s Innovation & Efficiency program – a grab-bag of ideas dreamed up by employees – Benson is doing what Benson does: figuring stuff out, solving problems, applying a common-sense, businesslike mentality to a job that seems nearly unmanageable on the surface as it ricochets from refereeing academic squabbles to green-lighting capital investments to raising truckloads of money to broadening diversity within the CU student population.

Now marking his 10th year as the University of Colorado’s president, Benson, a long-ago oilfield wildcatter who made it big, manages the job the same way he has always has: with steady determination and a yellow legal pad. On it, Benson scratches out “to-do” reminders and audacious ambitions alike in compact, efficient lettering across what effectively is a bottomless arrangement of lined paper. When he fills one sheet, he transfers whatever hasn’t been crossed off to the next. Page after page and year after year, this is how Benson gets things accomplished. “It’s everything I have to get done,” he says. “I take great pride in crossing things off.”

IT'S WORKING

The approach seems to be working, because the list of achievements and accolades tied to Benson’s 10-year run goes deep. The Benson era has produced big improvements in fundraising, groundbreaking research  — including nationally recognized initiatives tied to Alzheimer’s disease — a sharp spike in student enrollment and diversity, and a rising international stature, as exemplified by the world’s first massive online degreed program for electrical engineers. In his spare time, Benson and colleagues at the CU Boulder campus also managed to tame the embarrassment that was April 20, when CU’s Boulder campus became a nationally notorious playground for pot smokers.

Benson turned 80 July 4. At some point, the university’s board of regents will have to start drawing up plans to identify a successor. But nothing’s imminent. Nobody seems to want Bruce Benson to go.

In the meantime, Benson goes about his job with the same workmanlike resolve that sustained him a lifetime ago when he was a dirt-caked wildcatter probing the crust of the Kansas plain for pools of oil. Benson would work 12-hour shifts alone on the outskirts of towns like Coffeyville and Independence before handing his rig over to a partner. In 1965, on the advice of a college mentor, he dropped plans to attend graduate school and instead formed the Denver-based oil and gas exploration and leasing company Benson Mineral Group. Benson Mineral rode a wave of rising energy prices and was quick to capitalize on allied opportunities involving trucking and oilfield services. Over time, Benson parlayed his success in energy into a far-flung portfolio of businesses ranging from pizza franchises to cable television systems to a big bet on a then-struggling Colorado bank holding company, Western Capital, whose turnaround netted Benson, an early investor and board member, a big payoff. 

All along, early lessons Benson internalized as a kid growing up in Illinois remained big influences on his life. “I grew up on a farm,” Benson says. “My dad taught us too well how to work.”

The pairing of farm-kid-turned-businessman with the demands of a pressure-filled higher education job is steeped in incongruities. Long committee meetings, a politicized board of regents, sometimes-strained relations with faculty and keen attention to national image are not the sorts of issues that loom large when you’re plunging an oversized drill into the Kansas earth. CU’s search committee took a big risk in 2007 when it violated academic norms by recommending, from an original pool of 113 candidates, an individual who lacked an advanced academic degree. The nominal bachelor of arts in geology Benson earned from CU in 1964 was derided by some Ph.D.-possessing professors as a signal of certain disaster: How could a relative academic neophyte possibly navigate the world of higher education?

 This, more than anything, was the common complaint about Benson.

But it was an uninformed view. Benson had already moved beyond Higher Education 101 by the time he took the job. His up-close-and-personal lens on education started with a volunteer PTA post in Jefferson County in the 1960s, where he hounded Jeffco administrators until they erected temporary buildings to ease overcrowded classrooms. By the mid-1980s, he had graduated to higher education, chairing a commission arranged by Gov. Dick Lamm to assess the state’s system of public colleges and universities. In 1990, Benson began a four-year term on the University of Colorado’s President’s Council, cajoling contacts and working the phones to help raise $14 million for CU’s geology department. He was good enough at it that CU tapped him in 1997 to lead a six-year, national fundraising effort for a $1 billion campaign. By then, Benson’s stature in academia was growing. He served from 2001-2003 on Gov. Bill Owens’ panel for higher education that helped pave the way for state-supported college savings accounts. In 2002, he was appointed chairman of Metropolitan State College of Denver. Three years later, Benson, a well-connected conservative who ran the Colorado Republican Party operation for six years, helped to rally public support for a state referendum that provided funding assistance for low-income applicants, winning over skeptics by demonstrating his genuine concern about college affordability and access. Along the way, Benson took some lumps: During his stint as chairman at Metro, Benson agreed to a $25,000 settlement of a lawsuit charging that critical comments he’d made about the school’s former president violated a non-disclosure agreement.

But Benson also cultivated a reputation as a thoughtful problem-solver who was adept at building relationships across the political spectrum. Steve Bosley, a former CU regent who led the 2007 search for a new University of Colorado president, was impressed enough that he sought out Benson in the summer of 2007 to ask if he’d be interested in applying. Benson said “no” on the spot. But sometime around the end of the year, Bosley’s phone rang. It was Benson. “He asked me, ‘Is that job of yours still open?’” Bosley recalls. Bosley, a well-known Boulderite who co-founded the iconic Bolder Boulder 10K run, was elated. He sensed Benson knew enough not to impose a CEO-styled, authoritarian approach to decision-making within an academic environment that is bounded by layers of committees and a nine-member board of regents. “He understood the concept of shared governance,” Bosley says. “By the time he came to CU, he’d already learned a lot.”

PROBLEM SOLVER

Benson’s secret weapon isn’t just that he’s good at solving problems. It’s that he loves to solve problems. “I get great satisfaction out of fixing things,” Benson says. “And this place had a lot of opportunity for fixing. Lots.”

In taking over a CU system that was reeling from a multitude of woes – this, remember, was the era of Ward Churchill, football recruiting scandals and a rising national impression of CU’s Boulder campus as a haven for ski bums and bong enthusiasts – Benson had plenty to solve. He drew from his experiences as a CEO, putting high priority on organizational structure: Who did what? Were they any good at it? Where were the fault lines?

Benson was greeted almost immediately with a punch-in-the-mouth reality of a crippling economic depression that would magnify the financial shortcomings he’d already identified. With Colorado’s legislature notoriously thrifty when it came to financial support for higher education, Benson confronted pressure to figure out ways around CU’s difficult economic picture. He started by working his connections – there were plenty – to help reinvigorate a moribund booster program. With his wife, Marcy, an energetic former aide to Ronald Reagan, Benson led an ambitious fundraising effort that brought in a record $1.5 billion by 2013 to support scholarships, instructors, research projects and capital improvements. He started a crusade for efficiency, inviting almost anybody to contribute ideas for saving money or improving productivity. He led an effort to slash the number of written policies that govern day-to-day activities, paring hundreds from the list. He immersed himself in the inner financial minutiae of the university system, questioning how money was raised, distributed and spent.

In many ways, he was playing to strength. Benson does numbers the way most people do breathing. In a 90-minute interview, he tosses them out like Skittles, detailing from memory everything from proposed 2018 operating budget for CU ($4.6 billion) to the share of total funding contributed by the state legislature (5 percent) to the number of miles from Denver to the dwarf planet Pluto, where CU students are tracking readouts of space particles (about 4.7 billion) to the cost of a Culligan residential water tank circa 1955 (42.5 cents). That was Benson’s first paying job: driving a truck filled with Culligan tanks and delivering them to customers of his father’s business.

Benson has been working pretty much ever since. Even now, nearing 80, Benson devotes almost all his waking time to work, including on weekends when he and Marcy make the trek to their Silverthorne ranch. “He gets up around 6:30, pours a coffee, sits down at a table and works until the early evening,” says Ken McConnellogue, a longtime Benson aide who heads the university’s public affairs activities. “Then he does it again on Sunday.”

Benson doesn’t apologize. “That’s what I do,” he says. “I work.”

It’s a trait that can be persuasive. In 2015, when Dorothy Horrell, the chancellor of CU Denver, met with Benson for lunch at his customary table at Ellington’s in the Brown Palace Hotel, it was for courtesy only. Horrell, the former president of the Colorado Community College System, had just completed a stint as the governor-appointed chair of the Colorado State University System Board of Governors and was ready to settle into retirement. A few weeks later, she was moving boxes into her new office. “If Bruce decides this is something he wants, you don’t have a whole lot of strength to say no,” Horrell says.

There’s an easy temptation to conflate Benson’s business pedigree with CU’s progress over the past 10 years and conclude the cure for higher education’s ills is to import more of the sort of hard-nosed business acumen Benson brings to the job. It’s a theory recently articulated by a Denver Post editorial that suggested Benson’s accomplishments should “convince more university boards to look to outsiders as viable leaders, and not always to academics rising through the ranks.” That ideal may be worthy, but the theory ignores the unique qualities that have made Benson’s 10-year run at CU extraordinary. It’s true he’s a proven businessperson, but he’s also an indefatigable civic booster and a connected political insider. Four of the six pages that make up Benson’s resume are bulleted with board chairmanships and a multitude of volunteer assignments tied to initiatives like Denver’s mid-2000s Infrastructure Priorities Task Force. In particular, his experience with high-level politics – Benson made an unsuccessful run for governor in 1994 and was national co-chair for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid – has helped with the delicate job of convincing a budget-strained state legislature to provide more funding, or at least to chop away at the underbrush.

One example: Benson and his team lobbied successfully last year to overturn a restriction on CU’s ability to use tuition income as a revenue stream to back the sale of bonds, resulting in an improved debt rating that’s expected to shave $3 million or more in annual interest expense. The victory was the product of a careful read on the legislative temperament. “He made it clear to everyone that we weren’t going to criticize the legislature,” Bosley says. “He recognized they were doing the best they could. But he did say, ‘Look, here’s how you can help us. You could change this law. You could change that law.’”

Benson remains true to a Midwest-bred brand of conservatism. He’s convinced the higher education deck is stacked 10-to-1 in favor of liberal viewpoints and liberal faculty and has launched an ambitious initiative at CU’s Boulder campus, The Center for Western Civilization, Thought and Policy, to try to counter the bias. At the same time, Benson preaches the virtue of inclusive viewpoints, rallying around the mantra that CU’s job academically is “not to teach students what to think, but to teach them how to think.” Among the big-ticket items listed on Benson’s yellow legal pad is a bid to encourage more student diversity. Benson likes to tell just about anybody who will listen that the share of CU students from minority populations has climbed to 29 percent from 18 percent during his tenure as president. CU Denver’s Horrell says that’s especially important for her campus: “We have a very diverse student body at CU Denver in every single way. We’re very reflective of our community, and Bruce is an absolute champion for that,” she says.

Now 80, Benson’s not ready to hang it up yet.

He’s already set the record for the longest tenure of any CU president in the modern era. But he’s determined to leave a lasting imprint. In particular, Benson wants to shift CU’s culture to foster greater collaboration among campuses and across the system. “We’re not there yet,” he says. “But we’re better.

In part, that’s because staffers seem to be buying into Benson’s vision. Visiting tabletop booths at the recent Innovation event, Benson explains how his from-the-inside philosophy works. “This is what I like,” he says, stopping by to hear about a new approach for doing away with paper stickers that designate parking assignments, and replacing them with a digital image recognition technology. “You get people to think at this level. And then it just works its way through the system.”

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Stewart Schley

Stewart Schley writes about sports, media and technology from Denver. Read this and Schley’s past columns on the Web at cobizmag.com and email him at stewart@stewartschley.com

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