Bensons blues as new CU president
(Editors note: Our regular Thursday columnist Thomas Friedman is on book leave.)Chalk up a win for ideological tolerance and good governance. Last week the University of Colorado Board of Regents voted 6-3 to confirm Bruce Benson as the new president of the CU system. The regents resisted a groundswell of opposition from students, faculty and some state legislators in handing the top job to an oilman with no advanced degree and a long history in state Republican politics. Yet what might be a victory for principle (albeit principle enforced by a party-line vote), likely will turn out to be a loss for CU.Im not concerned about Bensons ability to handle the job. Those who know him laud his business savvy and people skills; he also has shown a yen for raising money at the state Capitol that will stand CU in good stead. Moreover, the advanced degree critique that rallied his critics against him is a canard. The task of running a large research university with a $900 million budget and 30,000 students has more in common with being CEO of a major corporation than teaching. Those who think Benson cant succeed without a doctorate probably also think that Bill Belichick would be a better coach if he had played in the NFL.Now that his choice is official, the three dissenting regents and a bevy of commentators are parroting the same basic message: Like him or hate him, we need to rally around him as he takes the baton from much-admired outgoing president Hank Brown. For the good of the CU system, they say, we need to give him the support he needs to do his job. An admirable sentiment, but Im afraid its unlikely to carry the day. CU faculty and some senior administrators are likely to harbor a grudge against Benson that will hamper him until the day he retires from the job.Like Tolstoys famous unhappy families, theres a depressing sameness to university politics everywhere. Educators who are committed to academic freedoms in the classroom display stubborn prejudices when evaluating those who run the administration. I might not bleed the CU black and gold, but I know something about the recent experience of an alma mater in Cambridge, Mass., and that experience says much about Bensons chances.Flash back to 2001, when Larry Summers was installed, amid much fanfare, as Harvard University President. Summers came in with an impeccable resume former Treasury Secretary and academic wunderkind and a gnawing hunger to leave his mark on Harvard. He met big problems, like Harvards jerry-rigged undergraduate core curriculum and paucity of younger faculty, with big ideas.Yet a short five years later, Summers found himself unceremoniously packed off, with none of his major reforms accomplished. Media attention focused on his snippy meeting with Cornell West, after which the scholar-cum-rapper decamped to Princeton, and on comments he made to an academic conference suggesting genetic factors might explain the gender gap in the sciences. But those critiques were a smokescreen for the real problem Summers was completely hamstrung by his confrontational personal style and the deep distrust he engendered among the faculty. Without faculty support, his reforms were dead on arrival.More recently, a completely different story has been unfolding a few hundred yards from Summers old office, in the corridors of Harvard Law School. Two years into his presidency, Summers chose another former Clinton hand, Elena Kagan, to be Dean of the Law School, an institution then in even greater trouble than the larger university. Among other problems, the law school suffered from low student morale, over-stuffed first-year sections and the loss of high profile tenure candidates to other schools. Where Summers failed, Kagan has succeeded magnificently, so much so that she now is on the short list for a Supreme Court vacancy should a Democrat win in November.Kagan has changed the curriculum dramatically, has brought in a slate of young conservative academics and now is pulling more applicants away from Stanford and Yale than at any time in recent memory. She even succeeded in getting the faculty to swallow the recommendations of McKinsey & Co., a consulting firm she brought in to diagnose the law schools ills.Why the dramatic difference in their track records? I admit that personal style played a non-trivial role. Kagan is a gifted conciliator, whereas Summers most certainly is not. But the bigger difference is perceptual. Put simply, the law school faculty accepted Kagan as one of them. Her status as a woman and as a mainstream liberal in her academic work comforted the faculty and gave her room to maneuver. Right off the bat, Summers was perceived as a bomb thrower and as a liberal of insufficient orthodoxy. His efforts to pull the Democratic party toward the center on economic policy during the Clinton years raised red flags among many at Harvard. Kagan, even more than Summers, has shown a refreshing ideological independence in running the law school, a style she can adopt because of the initial buy-in she received from the faculty.Benson has the unfortunate luck to start where Summers started, with none of Kagans early goodwill. At the risk of sounding like a senior Hillary Clinton campaign staffer, some realities are more real than others. Try as Im sure he will to reach out to disgruntled CU faculty and staff, he likely will fail to erase past grudges. No matter what he does, he will be considered suspect, an outsider, and CU will likely suffer for it.Paul Nitze is a deputy district attorney in Adams County and has been a part-time Aspenite his entire life. Before attending law school, he worked as a legislative assistant to another part-time local, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
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