Trying to list all of the University of Colorado President Bruce Benson’s achievements in one article is a bit like trying to condense a LeBron James highlights video to 30 seconds. It can’t be done. Nor should it even be attempted.
Suffice to say that the eight years of his tenure as president have been CU’s most successful. In short order, Benson has guided his alma mater to record enrollment, record fund-raising, unprecedented efficiency and unparalleled expansion.
For a man who celebrated his 78th birthday on the Fourth of July, he says he’s just doing his job; and he adds that he’s just getting started.
In a candid interview, Benson outlined the economic development mission of CU and talked about his desire to do even more in the future.
Question: How does the University of Colorado support economic development in your state?
President Benson: The biggest thing we do is that turn out one hell of a quality workforce. I went to school here 60 years ago. We have close to 70,000 students total on all four campuses — Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs and Aurora. We moved our health sciences center to the old Fitzsimmons military base. It has experienced development that is now in the billions of dollars. It is a big deal.
Our University of Colorado-Denver shares a campus with Metro State. I helped start a foundation there. We spent a lot of resources to make it better. We just brought in a new chancellor this year [Dorothy Horrell] — she is a rock star. Our Colorado Springs campus is growing rapidly now too. We have 11,000 students there. Capital construction continues to grow as well, now amounting to $1.5 billion during my eight years here.
Overall, though I would say that the workforce we produce is our greatest economic driver. If you look at the quality of the people we are putting out, it is a skilled workforce that ranks among the very best in the nation. Lockheed Martin is here because of that. Ten new startups each year are launched from CU because of that. Global Energy Managment in Denver trains engineers and managers here because of that. Pinnacle put in an insurance program here because of that. The JP Morgan Chase Commodity Trader here is the best one in the US because of that.
Beyond our contributions to the workforce, we have huge research operation of $878 million a year. This contributes to advances in several industries. In aerospace, we have kids running satellites on our Boulder campus, and they are finding scores of new planets each and every year.
Question: How does CU support innovation and entrepreneurship?
President Benson: We have the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship in Denver. This is an old furniture warehouse, a huge facility south of Denver that is seven football fields under cover. You can teach certain things about entrepreneurship. We have a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship at our Colorado Springs campus.
Question: How does CU meet the needs of businesses in your state and region?
President Benson: We supply the workforce they need. That is the most important thing. But we have to do more, and we are recruiting hard. We are encouraging kids to work toward a teacher education pathway. We have to do more innovation schools for K-12. Innovation schools are a big deal. We have to continue to work to bring in more people.
Our Boulder campus does industry studies. We have a bioscience park at Fitzsimmons. We have 140 acres for bioscience development. We are really moving in the right direction there now.
We also spend a lot of time on transportation — light rail; transport to Boulder; etc. Highway 225 needed money for more interchanges and we found it.
Question: CU has reached record levels of research funding under your leadership. What are some major research breakthroughs or scientific discoveries that have come out of CU?
President Benson: The Kepler Space Museum is in space right now — finding 284 new planets. MAVEN is a $671-million investment on Mars right now. A mission to Pluto was conducted here as well. We are also a proven leader in life sciences. Alzheimer’s disease claimed my wife’s mother and uncle, and now we are looking for ways to cure people with the illness. We were the first place to do a liver transplant in 1963.
We are a leader in studying concussions. Cybersecurity work is very critical here. Our Colorado Springs campus was named one of the eight university locations in the US for this work. We are revamping an old facility there to be a cybersecurity headquarters.
Question: CU has seen its six best fundraising years under your leadership. What makes you such an effective fundraiser for CU?
President Benson: You have to match up the people with the project. You have to get them to like you and ask for it. We took our whole foundation apart. It was raising $205 million a year. We took it up to $250 million. We have serious accountability now. We moved 180 people. Huge turmoil came from that, but it had to be done.
We raised over 20 percent more each year and it rose to $375 million last year. Everybody in the organization knows that there is room to move up the ladder. I hired a guy who raised $83 million on his own in one year for Mayo Clinic. We make sure we see all the right people.
You have to do all of this with a team with high expectations and accountability. We are over a billion dollars in research now. But we need to do more.