The modern academy is notoriously immune from accountability, as Larry Summers so painfully learned at Harvard. So it is worth noting, and applauding, the achievements of Hank Brown, the best college president you’ve never heard of, who retired this month from the University of Colorado.
Mr. Brown took over as interim president in April 2005 when the school of 50,000 was in turmoil. This was a couple of months after CU professor Ward Churchill had become infamous, and a year after the school’s athletic department was accused of offering alcohol and sex to recruit football players. A former U.S. Senator, Mr. Brown was reappointed in 2006 in a permanent capacity.
The public was outraged over Mr. Churchill’s statements–including that the 9/11 victims were not “innocent” but a “technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire” driving the “mighty engine of profit to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved.” The public anger reminded politicians, and even a few academics, that public universities should be answerable to taxpayers.
Mr. Brown proceeded to oversee a complete examination of Mr. Churchill’s work, and the ethnic studies professor was eventually fired because of fraudulent scholarship, not his politics. Mr. Brown then initiated a complete review of CU’s tenure policies, making it easier for his successors to get rid of deadwood. He also took on the equally sensitive subject of grade inflation, insisting that the university disclose student class rank on transcripts. If a B average puts a student at the bottom of his class, future employers will know it.
Frederick Hess, who researches higher education at the American Enterprise Institute, says there may be plenty of other people who know how to fix a university. But the reason there are so few Hank Browns goes back to Machiavelli. “When a leader tries to wrestle with these things,” Mr. Hess notes, “there are influential constituencies that he upsets. It’s much easier to manage the status quo than to enforce change.”
Hank Brown may have upset some students and faculty, but he built support elsewhere, such as among the university’s board of regents. He long ago saw the importance of active trustees to improving higher education. In 1995, he and Senator Joe Lieberman wrote in Roll Call newspaper that “campus political pressures often make it difficult for those on campus to defend academic freedom.” During his CU presidency, Mr. Brown got the regents to support his policies and even to adopt a statement encouraging greater intellectual diversity on campus.
As for that athletic scandal, Mr. Brown’s commitment to transparency proved the right antidote again. He settled the lawsuits, personally apologized to the victims and made all of the information about the case, both good and bad, available to the public. While predicting the behavior of college football players is risky business, it is a safe to say Mr. Brown has changed the culture of CU on and off the field.
Anne Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, recently summarized Mr. Brown’s accomplishments. “In a little more than two years, he has helped restore CU’s reputation for educational excellence and accountability. Alumni and public confidence quickly followed.” As Mr. Brown departed, Ms. Neal noted, “CU was enjoying a record level of public support,” including record increases in alumni giving the last two years.
Send that man to Harvard.