Nomination of Wealthy Oilman for University of Colorado President Draws Controversy

The man nominated to lead the state's flagship university is an oilman, not an academic. In a sea of Ph.Ds, he has only a bachelor's degree. But he does offer this: A reputation as a formidable fundraiser.

Bruce Benson's nomination may be bitterly dividing this 52,000-student, three-campus institution, but it is a sign that dollars, not degrees, are playing a bigger role in choosing college presidents. Though Benson would be one of only a fraction of college presidents without an advanced degree, he says he's not worried about doing the job.

"People say, 'What are the most important issues?' I say, funding, funding, funding," Benson said. "I don't think you need to have a Ph.D. in anything to talk to legislators and raise money. We have highly educated chancellors. I will work closely with them."

Campus observers have fiercely protested the selection, which has yet to be approved by regents. A "Boycott Benson" Web site questions the selection process and criticizes his background as a conservative Republican activist. The student government has voiced complaints, and a campus portrait of Benson was defaced with graffiti that said, "I've given CU enough $ for an individual right-wing nut like me to be CU's president."

State House Majority Leader Alice Madden, a Democrat and CU law school graduate, declared that Benson would be "the least educated president ever considered in modern history."

Benson is the sole finalist for the job overseeing three campuses in Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs. In recent years, CU's president has been more of a chief executive officer, with chancellors leading individual campuses.

He would join a small club of college leaders without advanced credentials. A 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education survey of 764 presidents and chancellors found fewer than 1 percent held only a bachelor's degree. More than 83 percent held a doctorate, while most others held master's or professional degrees.

"Generally speaking, for major research universities and colleges and liberal arts colleges, it would be indeed rare to appoint somebody to such a high position with no more than a bachelor's degree," said Jonathan Knight, associate secretary of the Washington-based American Association of University Professors.

Benson, 69, insists his professional experience gives him an edge. He has chaired a $1 billion fundraising campaign for the school, successfully lobbied for a state law to give universities more money, and served on several education boards.

After earning his B.A. from CU in geology, he abandoned a master's degree to pursue a lucrative career in oil and gas. He went on to become owner and president of Benson Mineral Group, Inc., a Denver-based oil and gas exploration firm, and was CEO and President of United States Exploration Inc., a Montana-based oil and gas producer. He has served on numerous corporate boards.

He recently was national co-chair of Mitt Romney's recently suspended presidential campaign. That qualification, combined with his background in oil, has rankled many students and faculty at Boulder, whose climate researchers shared a Nobel Prize with Al Gore last year. Benson, however, says he quit politics after being named a finalist for president.

That Benson is familiar with the university an University of Kentucky in 2001 after leaving IBM's Lotus Development Corp.

Still, many faculty and students haven't warmed to Benson, something that was evident in a meeting between Benson and students at Boulder Tuesday. A regents vote to approve his nomination has yet to be scheduled, and he is currently participating in rounds of question-and-answer sessions with staff and students.

"It's good the search committee is looking for somebody who is going to be able to fix our funding crisis ... but how can you fundraise for a business you know nothing about?" said Hadley Brown, a student government member.

Jerry Hauser, former chair of the Boulder Faculty Assembly, said he hasn't made up his mind about Benson, but predicted he would have a tough time. "He has an awful lot of learning to do," he said. "He's going to have to scramble for the first six months or so. ... Beginning with such an incredible absence of enthusiasm from faculty, it's going to be very difficult for him."