Steamboat Springs "The Idea of a University" is the title of a classic work by the scholar and churchman John Henry Newman. Recently it also has been the subject of a contentious public seminar polarizing Coloradans.
Some acted as if the University of Colorado belongs exclusively to underage students, self-important faculty and the Democratic Party. Others saw the idea of a university as involving a civic trusteeship and the transmission of truth, along with the search for more truth. With this came a different idea of who owns CU.
When the regents confirmed entrepreneur and philanthropist Bruce Benson as CU's new president on Feb. 20, the seminar recessed with the grownups in control - for now. But the battle for the soul of higher education in our state is far from over.
Benson's liberal detractors didn't like it that he made his fortune getting energy out of the ground, headed the Republican Party and backed its candidates, and sat for no extra degrees after graduating from Boulder in geology. So what?
In his favor were proven executive ability, experience as Metro State board chairman, and notable successes as a bipartisan coalition-builder and financial rainmaker. He'll be a worthy successor to outgoing president Hank Brown.
Profiles in courage during the campaign to stop Benson included two regents who turned on him after voting yes in the finalist round Jan. 30 - the spineless Democrat Cindy Carlisle and the GOP maverick Paul Schauer; the vandal who scrawled "right-wing nut" across his portrait in a classroom building he had donated - and hypocritical Alice Madden, state House Majority Leader.
Madden first called the nomination "a really bad joke." She then organized a letter from Democrats that labeled Benson's association with Trailhead Group campaign ads as "most disconcerting." It didn't mention her own role in bare-knuckle tactics against the GOP in 2004 and 2006. Nor did it condemn former CSU president Al Yates for his "foot on throat" attack plan against Republican Bob Schaffer in this year's Senate race, which surfaced Jan. 29. Double standard, anyone?
As Bruce Benson ran the gauntlet of CU stakeholders, some pristine-green undergrads hammered him about being in the oil and gas industry, from which they suggested he should now divest. Try doing without oil and gas, the nominee retorted. It was his finest hour. I'll bend but not bow to get this job, Benson signaled. It was like McCain saying he'd rather lose an election than a war.
Understanding the real world, he implied, doesn't require a terminal degree; indeed common sense terminates as over-education mounts. To insist, as many of us do, that the idea of a university involves the transmission of truth, is ultimately to insist on truth itself - and hence to reject intellectual, cultural, and moral relativism, the disease of academia today.
Precisely because Benson is no egghead, he is the right man for CU. He knows that fossil fuels have made the world better, and that markets are more likely than bureaucrats to develop the new energy sources to make it better still. He knows you don't do science, on climate or anything else, by consensus. He knows that America is good, and that partisan politics protect free government.
He knows that all cultures don't work equally well, and that Western civilization works best of all. He knows the Constitution is a written document, not a living organism. He knows war is an ever-present danger, and armies are necessary. He knows Marx was mostly wrong, Christ and Moses were mostly right.
We the people - most of us, anyway - also know these truths. As owners of the University of Colorado, we want them transmitted there - not by dogmatic indoctrination but with open discussion in an atmosphere of maturity and common sense. That's our charge to the new president.
John Andrews of Centennial was president of the Colorado Senate from 2003 to 2005. He is a Claremont Institute fellow, a member of the Conservative Leadership Counsel of Northwest Colorado, and host of Backbone Radio at 5 p.m. Sundays online at 710knus.com. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.