When Bruce Benson transferred to the University of Colorado in 1961, he worked as a roughneck on the oil rigs by night to pay his tuition.
He remembered being in Northwest Colorado more than 40 years ago, but Tuesday he returned as president of his alma mater.
Benson made a stop at the Craig Rotary Club's weekly meeting at the Holiday Inn as part of his outreach tour to connect with Colorado residents.
"It's not like we just have 54,000 students to take care of," he said in his address to the audience of about 20. "We have five million people in Colorado we have to look out for."
Benson's history is in the oil business. He worked his way up from roughneck to driller and eventually started his own exploration and production company, Benson Mineral Group.
Throughout his career, he devoted many resources to promoting education at all levels.
He was chairman of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, co-chairman of Gov. Bill Owens' Blue Ribbon Panel for Higher Education and Gov. Bill Ritter's P-20 Education Coordinating Council, chairman of the Metro State College board, and captain of the campaign for Referendum C, which increased state spending on public education.
In 1994, he ran for governor on the Republican Party ticket.
"His political background gives him good instincts with things like the reputation of the school," said Ken McConnellogue, associate vice president for university relations. "He's doing this for the right reasons."
Benson said his political leanings have nothing to do with the importance of higher education.
"If you're the president of a university, you'd better be a politician," he said. "You have to know how to talk to people. But, education is not partisan."
A difficult task
When chosen as the successor to Hank Brown, Benson, however, did not have an easy job cut out for him.
First of all, the school's faculty voted 40-4 against his appointment, thinking he was not the most qualified person for the job, having only a bachelor's degree in geology.
But, he said he has begun to "win them over," with changes to the school's operation.
When he took office, Benson immediately began to take steps to cut down bureaucracy and excess throughout the university's four campuses.
He cut 50 positions from the administrative team alone.
"You have to show people you're serious about how you operate and how you're spending your money," he said. "It's turned into so much more than, 'How do you teach math?'"
He said the school's reputation had taken many hits in the years preceding his presidency. The university's football team and a particular faculty member, Ward Churchill, had made waves in the national media and generated mixed perceptions of the school's credibility.
"Because I'm a businessman, I like to identify the problems before they happen," he said. "I've met with coaches, the athletic director, and we've talked about bringing in great athletes, but also great people. And if we have great people, great sports teams will follow."
Another challenge was the state of the economy, and, subsequently, the school's diminishing budget.
The university will work with $159 million in state funding instead of the $209 million it received last year.
The school responded with tuition hikes of about 7 percent, however Benson said it could have been worse.
Looking to the future, Benson said he sees value in cohesion among institutions of higher learning.
"Community college is a stepping stone," he said. "We really believe in working with them, and we really believe in them."
He said he hopes students will be able to attend a two-year program, such as Colorado Northwestern Community College, and be able to transfer as many as 60 credits to a four-year school such as CU or Colorado State University.
"We want to get people educated, and do it in an efficient way," he said. "We want to have a great university, but we need to work with our partners, whether they're community colleges, (Colorado School of) Mines, or CSU."
Living at home can save money, he said, and students in rural communities can learn the importance of long-term planning in their education.
"I could still be working on the rigs," he said. "And, there were guys I worked with, roughnecks, who were just as smart as I am, or smarter, and if they had gotten an education, where would they be now?
"I think we need to be a lot tougher on kids K through 12. We need them to go to school, to be ready for college. We have got to do a better job."
Nicole Inglis can be reached at 875-1793, or firstname.lastname@example.org.