Considering how many smart people they employ, it is surprisingly difficult for universities to come up with strong institutional leaders. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the University of Colorado.
The generic problem is that academic administrators are generally academics and prone to forms of academic expression that, surveys show, put about 85 percent of the population to sleep. They are not accustomed to the public spotlight and seldom blossom there. When it comes to sports, they often have the additional handicap of knowing and caring little or nothing about them.
Confronted by skeptics who have inexplicably devoted their careers to these extracurricular activities — sports reporters, columnists, talk show hosts and so forth — this combination of pedantic generalities, topical ignorance and lack of passion often makes university administrators appear clueless when it comes to their athletic departments.
At Colorado State, they got lucky. A doctor of veterinary medicine hired to chair the pathology department and subsequently promoted up the administrative ladder happened to be a devoted sports fan. Early in his presidency, he named an athletic director from outside the university who, among other virtues, speaks plain English. Jack Graham wasted little time in firing the incumbent football coach and replacing him with Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Graham and Dr. Tony Frank are now embarked on the ambitious pursuit of a new football stadium on campus.
At CU, there hasn’t been that sort of leadership from the top since Gordon Gee was president, and that’s more than twenty years ago now. When CU hired Bruce Benson as president nearly five years ago, it appeared from the outside that it was seeking strong, non-academic leadership. Benson is an alumnus who made his money in oil and gas and once ran for governor, a man much more practiced in the art of public relations than most academics.
It turns out the reason CU hired Benson was to raise money, which he has done prodigiously. But his interminable fundraising makes him virtually invisible to the public at large. When former coach Bill McCartney essentially accused CU of institutional racism in an emotional reaction to the firing of his protege, football coach Jon Embree, all you heard from CU was the sound of crickets.
When athletic director Mike Bohn’s pursuit of Butch Jones, head coach at the University of Cincinnati, imploded following a false newspaper report that Jones had accepted, the only sound from CU was a prepared statement of pedantic generalities from chancellor Phil DiStefano. It’s not his fault. DiStefano is a career educational administrator, a professional pedant, if you will. It’s what he does.
Leaks to the media made Bohn’s pursuit of Jones much more public than it should have been and its implosion a much more public defeat than it need have been. Whether those leaks came from Jones’ side, to increase his bargaining power with Cincinnati, or from CU, to counter the bad press McCartney was generating, doesn’t really matter. They put the courtship — and the specifics of CU’s contract offer — on the public stage.
When it was reported in Denver on Wednesday that Jones had accepted the job, the president of the University of Cincinnati, Santa Ono, put in a call to his football coach. Jones denied the report, and Ono tweeted that he trusted his coach. That made it virtually impossible for Jones to turn around and accept the CU job a day later without looking disingenuous.
This is not the CU athletic department’s first public relations embarrassment in recent weeks. Its decision to hold a press conference around Embree’s firing blew up in its face when Embree came off as the emotional, genuine guy he is and Bohn came across as a bureaucratic caricature weighed down by jargon and talking points.
When Benson was hired, some academics at CU feared an oil and gas man would run their school more like a business than a respected teaching and research institution. By serving as a tireless ambassador and fundraiser, Benson has quieted those concerns.
Well, he needs to think of his job in business terms now. No business in its right mind holds a press conference with an executive it just fired, in a room full of his former charges. No business in its right mind leaks details of an executive search in order to curry favor with the media or public. No competently-run business responds to a public relations crisis by putting front and center spokesmen who are quite clearly not up to the task.
Benson is currently the only person with the power and ability to give the impression that a capable hand is on the tiller. It is time to take a break from fundraising and provide some plain speaking and truth telling. It is time for a little leadership at CU.