DENVER – It’s not often that ProgressNow Colorado and Jon Caldara agree on anything, but on one issue they’re in perfect political harmony: Bruce Benson must go.
ProgressNow Colorado launched an online petition campaign Thursday urging Benson to resign as president of the University of Colorado, faulting the Republican bigwig of “fulfilling our worst fears when we opposed his appointment in 2008.”
Specifically, the group accused Benson of presiding over steep tuition hikes, pushing pay raises for top university executives, and raising $1 million to fund a conservative visiting scholars program, which ProgressNow referred to as “conservative affirmative action.”
“It’s time for Bruce Benson to stop mismanaging the University of Colorado, to stop rewarding cronies, and to stop using the university to elevate his personal politics. It’s time for Bruce Benson to go,” said Joanne Kron, executive director of the left-wing advocacy group, in an email to supporters.
Jon Caldara, president of the free-market Independence Institute in Golden, said he enthusiastically supports ProgressNow’s effort, although not for the same reasons.
A former chair of the Colorado Republican Party, Benson was the state’s most vigorous and effective conservative fundraiser before taking over as CU president four years ago. Since then, he has all but ceased his advocacy for Colorado Republicans and conservative organizations.
“He didn’t cut way back on his fundraising activities, he completely eliminated his fundraising activities,” said Caldara. “As a guy who has repeatedly hit him up for money, I can tell you he has stopped all his politically related fundraising. And he’s been very upfront about that.”
Losing Benson to academia has left a gaping funding void that conservatives have struggled to fill. While Benson’s wealth pales in comparison to that of Colorado Democratic rainmakers Tim Gill and Patricia Stryker, Benson was the guy “who could make 10 phone calls and get 10 checks for $10,000 each,” Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli has said.
“Let me completely and wholeheartedly support ProgressNow’s efforts to get Bruce Benson out of the CU president’s office and back to the private sector so that he can fundraise like a banshee for conservatives,” said Caldara.
Eager as they are to see Benson back in political-fundraising mode, conservatives nonetheless disagree with ProgressNow’s characterization of his ivory-tower tenure. The visiting conservative scholars campaign was launched in 2007, a year before Benson arrived, and the $1 million came from private donors other than Benson.
CU spokesman Ken McConnellogue flatly denied ProgressNow’s claim that Benson was somehow responsible for the conservative scholars effort.
“He was not actively involved in the fundraising, so their assertion is not correct,” said McConnellogue.
While tuition at CU has increased far in excess of the rate of inflation, Benson’s defenders point out that same is true of virtually every university and college, and has been for decades. Tuition and fees at CU are actually lower than those at other nationally ranked state universities, and its administrative costs are 44 percent below those of comparable schools, said McConnellogue.
Tuition and fees have risen as the state’s share of funding has declined. The state is slated to contribute $139 million to the CU system next school year, or 5.7% of its annual $2.8 billion operating budget, ranking Colorado 49th out of 50 states in state funding for resident students.
Benson has helped offset the drop in state support by working his fundraising magic. During his four years as president, CU had its best four years of fundraising in school history, raising $213 million last year. The university recently reached $1.1 billion toward its multi-year goal of raising $1.5 billion as part of its “Creating Futures” campaign.
Benson came under fire last week for approving raises for CU executives, notably a $49,000 increase for Chancellor Phil DiStefano, at a time when students are facing tuition hikes. Benson said that he made a mistake in hiring DiStefano at a salary well below what most university chancellors earn, and that he was attempting to bring him in line with the national average.
ProgressNow called the pay hikes a “major scandal,” and while Benson himself acknowledges the timing was bad, his supporters argue that his contributions to the university have far outweighed the dollar amount of the raises.
“All that’s happened on his watch is that we’re had our four best years of fundraising, record years in research funding, record enrollment, and strong graduation rates,” said McConnellogue. “So their fears to me are unfounded.”
If ProgressNow does succeed in ousting Benson, Caldara has a suggestion about a suitable replacement.
“Let’s bring in Tim Gill as president of CU. It’s not like CU could get any more liberal,” said Caldara. “And please get Bruce Benson out of CU and get him fundraising again for conservatives.”