Notes from Ground Zero: Budgetary Crises and Academic Freedom at the University of Colorado

Margaret D. LeCompte

Ken Bonetti

Free speech flourishes in a generous atmosphere.  Academic freedom and dissent are most easily protected when resources are plentiful and decisions about what constitutes a “luxury” in higher education are obviated. Colorado’s fiscal free fall this year is exacerbated both by declining state revenues and by constitutionally imposed tax structures that ratchet down overall revenue while mandating continuous increases in funding for K-12 education. This pits higher education funding against funding for K-12 education and all other state fiscal responsibilities, with dire consequences for academic freedom. Universities are being lured by the siren song of corporate largesse and saviors from the business world to ease their fiscal woes, and as they succumb, old line corporate governance models antithetical to academic freedom and faculty participation are being imposed. Increasingly, principles protecting academic freedom are falling victim to leaders who neither understand them nor value the degree to which they are essential to preserving the open dialogue and courageous scholarship that fosters intellectual creativity. At the University of Colorado, a culture similar to that of failed corporations like AIG and General Motors, with their rigid command and control models, top-down authority structures and inability to adapt to changing circumstances, has been imposed, rather than one like Google’s, whose ability to capitalize on employee initiatives and open, dialogic structures have made them the envy of other businesses. [1]

Colorado’s institutions of higher education also are ground zero for attempts by neoconservative organizations such as David Horowitz’s Freedom Center[2] to root out so-called liberals and leftist thought from the Academy, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) which similarly calls for a focus on “mainstream” teaching (AKA Western European canonical subjects and content), and a double standard that views the real danger to freedom to come not from racists and terrorists, but from “political extremists on the left.” [3]  For ACTA, rooting leftists out of the Academy has become a priority. ACTA also supports corporate-like restructuring of higher education governance and limits on faculty participation; this, plus strategies for discrediting dissenting faculty, stacking boards of trustees with neoconservative sympathizers, running workshops to indoctrinate conservative legislators and budget officials in how to influence university policies, and replacing top administrators with business and corporate leaders rather than academics and scholars,  are making the Academy vulnerable indeed.  The University of Colorado-Boulder is ACTA’s test case.[4]

The Consequences for Colorado

In Colorado, the impact of fiscal exigency on academic freedom has been four-fold.  First, tenured faculty increasingly have been replaced with lower paid contingent faculty whose academic freedom is not protected by tenure.  Second, state and local public funding is being supplanted by funding from corporate and private donors with specific agendas for University research, teaching and governance. Third, top administrators are now selected for their ability to raise money, rather than their prior experience with higher education or understanding of the university environment. Finally, a corporate culture and command structure now supplants institutional procedures protecting the exercise of faculty voice, academic freedom and representation in administrative decision-making, open dialogue and the free flow of information—all of which now are considered budgetary luxuries. These “luxuries”, however, are essential to meaningful participation by faculty. Without them, faculty are increasingly at risk.

Downsizing Tenured Faculty

The most obvious fiscal impact is the decline in tenured faculty positions. When budget shortfalls cause layoffs, early retirements and failure to fill vacancies, the number of ‘expensive’ tenure-track and tenured faculty members shrinks; they are replaced with far less expensive contingent faculty. Critics of higher education and some budget conscious-administrators consider tenure to be an expensive luxury. In Colorado, the state constitution establishes only two categories of state employees: Tenured and at-will.  Only professors are eligible for tenure. Even with multi-year contracts, at-will employees, including teaching faculty, can be fired at any time for any reason.  Absent tenure, academic freedom ceases to exist; without it, faculty lose the freedom to speak freely, investigate controversial subjects, engage students in challenging dialogue, and even to grade rigorously without fear of retaliation.  Tenure protects faculty against public and private zealots inside and outside of the university who object to what they teach and write, do not share their disciplinary perspectives, or simply do not like them personally. Tenure protects academic freedom; tenured faculty cannot be fired without a very good reason such as financial exigency or an egregious violation like gross academic misconduct, sexual harassment or a felony conviction.

  • Item: At the University of Colorado at Boulder few faculty have tenure protection and academic freedom. 71% of the faculty are not on tenure track.  60% of all credit hours generated are by contingent faculty, not counting graduate student instructors.  54% of the professional teaching faculty (not counting graduate students)  have contingent—at will—status.
  • Item:  Financial exigency is a convenient way to eliminate entire programs and departments whose faculty are too outspoken or who champion ideas disliked by the Administration. At ColoradoUniversity, exactly who will be axed is not yet clear, but the Ethnic Studies Department and the instructor-staffed Program for Writing and Rhetoric, several of whose faculty are active campaigners for instructor rights and tenure, are among those mentioned as vulnerable.
  • Item:  Hard times put the academic freedom and employment of controversial professors at risk.  The tenure of Ward Churchill, a University of Colorado professor whose writings enraged conservatives from donors to talk show hosts, was revoked and he was fired by the University on dubious charges of research misconduct, after vicious attacks on his character, his work, and anyone who supported him. Even though the investigating committee was clearly chosen for bias against Churchill, none of the faculty committees who considered the case voted for removal of tenure and loss of position. [5]  The University Administrators ignored their recommendations in the face of donors who said that until Churchill was fired, the money would stop. Churchill sued.  In April, 2009, a district court jury convicted the University of Colorado of firing him without just cause. However, in July, 2009, the presiding judge vacated the jury’s verdict, arguing that because the CU Board of Regents enjoyed “quasi-judicial immunity” from lawsuits, they could not be sued. [6]This decision greatly endangers both academic freedom and the protection of tenure in Colorado; it means that faculty may be fired for any reason whatsoever without recourse, since the right to sue is gone. Churchill was not reinstated (the only proper remedy for a violation of academic freedom), and was awarded no damages. The decision is being appealed.
  • Item: The situation of untenured instructors at CU is even more fragile. Adrienne Anderson effectively was fired when her environmental studies courses were eliminated under unyielding pressure from right-wing legislators, members of the Governor’s staff, and corporations whose malfeasance she uncovered and sued on behalf of their workers. Anderson’s investigations uncovered substantial fraud, worker and public safety violations, collusion, flouting of the law, criminal activity and cover-ups among major corporate donors to the University of Colorado.  Again, University administrators ignored the unanimous recommendation of faculty privilege and tenure committees that Anderson be reinstated and promoted because of the importance of her research and the quality of her teaching.

Clearly, money talks.  In flush times, threats from donors to withhold funds might have been ignored. In tough times, the University buckled. The university’s administration continues to subvert due process procedures, ignore recommendations of duly constituted faculty bodies and bylaws mandating shared governance with faculty, and violate their obligation to protect the academic freedom of faculty. The non-binding and non-contractual status of faculty handbooks in Colorado makes this easy; now the decision in the Churchill case gives university administrators carte blanche to trample faculty rights to academic freedom, meaningful consultation, and a voice in decision-making.

Corporate Constraints

The increasing dependence of higher education on corporate, foundation, individual and other non-public funding sources is a less obvious threat to academic freedom. External funds frequently come with strings dictating what can be investigated, the kinds of results that will be sought, who can use the data, and how and to whom the result will be disseminated.  While often based on informal “understandings,” these conditions can be spelled out in contractual relationships.  Regardless, research results that contradict the corporate or political ideologies of funders may never see the light of day; if results are leaked out, retaliation inflicted on researchers can be brutal and career ending. Jennifer Washburn [7] vividly demonstrates how the growing intrusion of corporate financing into public research universities poses a threat to academic freedom. The increasing tendency among public institutions to “partner” with private corporations on research that can yield direct financial benefits to the universities and faculty investigators introduces both conflicts of interest and a natural tendency to self censor.  If the results of research do not help a corporate sponsor’s bottom line, faculty are pressured to suppress them or alter experiments to produce “desired” outcomes.

  • Item: The University of Colorado at Boulder receives less than 8% of its funding from the state; it is almost entirely dependent on tuition revenue, faculty research grants, and corporate and individual largesse.

To survive, the university increasingly accepts money with preconditions similar to those cited by Washburn. At the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, for example, climate change researchers have been followed to conferences by “minders” or monitors to ensure that what they presented conformed closely enough to the George W. Bush Administration’s party line regarding the connection between human activity and climate change.[8]

Corporate Culture

Budget pressure creates an excuse to reduce dependence on tenured faculty, increase reliance on privately funded research, and run public universities as if they were private corporations, all in the name of  fiscal responsibility.  Further, in the last two years, both the land grant university and the state university system in Colorado have chosen as top management individuals known not for their experience in higher education administration or scholarly research, but for their success in the corporate world. With conservative political connections, personal wealth and fund-raising abilities, these individuals combined ignorance of the culture of higher educational institutions with a general disrespect for the dialogue and skeptical dissent characteristic of scientific endeavor. They are committed to corporate forms of restructuring and autocratic control practices characteristic of private corporations, not public higher education.  Money was the key to these appointments; university Boards of Trustees dominated by conservatives and businessmen (many of them ACTA members) chose individuals they thought could save them from the specter of fiscal crisis.  The new top managers have little knowledge of the complexities of university life or the history of their own institutions, but they deem direct higher education experience to be unnecessary.  What works in businesses should work for all big institutions. All that matters is re-structuring, cutting costs, and creating “efficiencies”—a codeword that academics have learned  means curtailing important supports for teaching, learning, research, and the pursuit of intellectual and scientific excellence.

Item:  Bruce Benson, the new President of the University of Colorado, holds a BA degree in Geology; he came to CU as the wealthy founder and CEO of an oil exploration company.  He had no experience in higher education administration other than serving on the Board of Trustees of Metropolitan State University in Denver, where he flouted contract provisions for tenured faculty by leading an effort to fire them.  His cost saving efforts failed;  the fired faculty sued, and won in court. He also called for rewriting the faculty handbook to further limit faculty access to due process.  His most extensive educational experience was as a consultant and generous benefactor to the DenverPublic Schools—and the University of Colorado. Appointed in a search that yielded a single finalist and despite widespread opposition from faculty, Benson argued that his primary qualification for the job was his ability to raise money.

Benson’s lack of experience in higher education, particularly Tier One research institutions has been problematic.  He lacked familiarity with even the most important of the research initiatives at the University, including the complex funding processes needed to sustain such research, and his leadership style is antithetical to the colleagueship and collaboration higher education requires.  He attends meetings with all levels of the university community, but fails to act even on strong feedback, makes decisions without mandated consultation with faculty and staff, and prides himself on never changing his mind once he has decided a course of action.

Item: The new president of Colorado State University, Joe Blake, likewise hails from the corporate elite. A friend of Benson’s Blake, who earned a law degree from CU, has held an impressive variety of positions including FBI agent, CEO of two private hospitals, senior vice president of the Denver area’s largest real estate development company and president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.  He has had no significant public higher education experience. Further, in actions violating both university rules regarding faculty input and procedures for hiring, he was a member of the search committee who named him, the deliberations of which were held in secret. Faculty, needless to say, had little involvement in the hiring process.

Shutting Down the Conversation: Benson Imposes Secrecy and Ends Consultation

The University of Colorado consists of four separate campuses (the flagship research campus in Boulder, a commuter campus in Denver with graduate and undergraduate programs, a primarily undergraduate institution in Colorado Springs, and the Anschutz Medical Campus in a Denver suburb) and a central systems office in Denver housing the President’s office.

The President is required by university by-laws to consult with faculty governance bodies on budget issues. However, Benson has used the excuse of fiscal austerity to destroy institutions critical to shared governance structures and academic freedom.  Colorado, like most states, is in deep financial trouble.  However, the University of Colorado receives such a small percentage of its budget from state revenues that budget cuts even of 25% or more do not hurt as much as in other states. Nonetheless, only the President’s office really knows what is being cut by how much because of secrecy regarding specific plans.  In meetings between faculty governance committees and top-level budget officers, no specific information has been forthcoming despite repeated faculty requests. Benson shows little inclination to observe even the appearance of consultation with faculty.

In mid-spring 20099, Benson announced that the system office would take a 20% share of anticipated state budget cuts to spare the individual campuses.  These budget cuts being are not necessary until 2010-11, since Colorado is using federal stimulus money to hold higher education harmless from state budget cuts for the next two years.  Still, in what is billed as fiscal prudence, the Administration says it already is making deep cuts so as to spread the pain out somewhat.  In April, Benson announced that the remaining $9 million in cuts for 2008-2009 would be allocated to the campus units for their top administrators to cut as they saw fit.  Decentralization of budget cutting sent the whole process underground, hidden in the offices of Deans and Chairs who varied greatly in the degree to which they included faculty and staff in decisions.  Nobody really knows what the financial situation is.  The only source of reliable information for faculty and staff was the Silver&Gold Record, the independent system wide newspaper. However, On May 30th, 2009, the president, with the aid of his Chief of Staff, took two actions that cut the heart out of faculty voice and eliminated the one source of reliable information faculty and staff had about decision-making.

Silencing the Faculty Voice

First, in what was billed as a cost-saving measure to reach the promised 15.6% cut from the system budget, Benson eliminated the office of Vice President for Academic Affairs and Research (VPAAR) from the CU system. This officer, effectively the system-wide provost or chief academic officer, was the sole system level representative for faculty and their research and teaching.  Benson argued that the individual campuses could handle such affairs through their own provost offices, but since major decision-making, particularly that related to the university’s budget, takes place centrally, not on the campuses, Benson’s action effectively marginalizes anything academic or intellectual.

Then, in a move that raised unprecedented system-wide opposition among faculty and staff, Benson announced through his chief of staff, Leonard Dinegar, that the university couldn’t “afford to be in the newspaper business”[9] and summarily eliminated the budget for the faculty and staff newspaper, the Silver &Gold Record, effective July 1, 2009 [10].

For nearly 40 years, the Silver & Gold Record was the only reliable source of information for faculty and staff about administrative decisions.  Because it was editorially independent, none of its stories were subject to prior review by the administration. Unlike a university public relations organ or a student-run publication, it served as a balanced, objective voice for the university’s faculty and staff. The S&GR covered the rapidly changing financial activities and prognostications in the legislature, the state budget committees, and the budget and planning committees on the four campuses and the system office. It was the only medium in Colorado consistently providing balanced information about university decisions and controversies and substantive data about how much money would be available for University operations, how deep budget cuts might be, and who would bear their brunt.  The paper regularly covered academic freedom issues and the increasing number of attacks on faculty rights regarding the free and open exchange of ideas.

These two critical decisions were made without even the pretense of consultation from faculty and staff, including the newspaper’s employee -run editorial board.  Information about them appeared on the website of the Denver Post, the regional newspaper, an hour before it appeared in an email to faculty from the Administration’s system office. Both were bombshells. Both also clearly violated university administrative policies and Regent bylaws requiring the administration to engage in timely consultation with faculty governance bodies on any budgetary issues, especially those  involving academics.

Elimination of the Silver & Gold Record was announced at the end of the school year after nearly all faculty and staff governance bodies had had their final meetings. It was accomplished on a timeline so precipitous as to obviate protest and any attempt to find alternative funding for the newspaper. It also was clear that Benson’s rationale for eliminating the VPAAR office and the Silver & Gold Record’s budget was specious.  In truth, the problem was the S&G Record’s editorial independence. The newspaper always presented both sides of events, even those that the Administration tried to suppress. It consistently printed letters to the editor from faculty and staff critical of administration actions.  President Benson was not alone in objecting to the Silver & Gold;  attempts had been made by several past administrations to curtail the newspaper’s hard-hitting investigative reporting.  When the CU Administration announced the establishment of a new electronic faculty and staff newsletter run from the public relations office, Leonard Dinegar said that the paper wasn’t needed.  CU Regent Steve Ludwig also characterized the Silver & Gold Record’s reporting as “just advocacy for the faculty.” [11] Even in 2007, the newspaper’s editorial board and its chair had been independent. The editor-in-chief of the paper reported directly to the editorial board, not the administration.  Then, Hank Brown, the previous CU president, took over the appointment of the editorial board chair and editor and made them report to the president’s office.    However, with the stroke of a pen, Benson simply eliminated the newspaper altogether.

Benson’s action against the Silver & Gold Record is both emblematic and critical to the preservation of academic freedom.  Examining what the S&G Record published in the past to earn the Administration’s animosity is instructive.  The Churchill and Anderson cases were only the most recent and notorious instances where the Silver & Gold gave balanced coverage to the work of controversial faculty in the face of total silencing by the highly conservative local and regional news media monopoly [12]—which also is a significant donor to CU.  The Silver & Gold also reported conflicts between administrators over decisions involving faculty, staff, and the individual campuses, including the decision to merge the downtown Denver campus with the suburban Anschutz Medical campus—a move clearly not supported by faculty on both campuses, and in which faculty input, when proffered, was ignored by the Administration.

Open defiance was the most annoying of the Silver & Gold’s misdeeds.  Shortly before its budget was eliminated, the editor of the newspaper received word that it should expect a 25% budget cut. The paper ran a story about its budget cut against the administration’s wishes, and a week later, the cut was increased to 100%. The rest is history.

What Is To Be Done?

When university authorities get pushed over the edge by acts of press, speech and academic freedom, they are out of step with the kind of leadership the Academy needs. However, that kind of leadership does match ACTA’s vision of an Academy designed to support the political status quo and produce pliant workers for a corporate/military/industrial complex. In the face of this ominous trend, faculty must mobilize, despite the fear of retaliation which speaking out engenders even among tenured faculty and the general naiveté of faculty about how intimately events such as those described above really affect them.

Since existing faculty and staff governance bodies at the University had failed to act, several ad hoc committees were formed and the local chapter of the AAUP was reconstituted.  Their members ran for office, obtained committee positions in the CU Faculty Assemblies, and have worked hard to energize them. They have worked to restore shared governance and increase faculty voice in the hiring of administrators and budget consultations, to force Administrative acceptance of recommendations made by faculty governance bodies, to protect academic freedom in issues of promotion, tenure and retention, especially for non-tenured instructors, to expose subversion of due process procedures, and fight the elimination of the Silver&Gold Record. Of critical importance, we have been strongly supported by the Colorado Conference of the AAUP.

Steps taken include:

  • Protests against the lack of faculty input in the appointment of President Benson and other top administrators through systemwide emails, lobbying of members of the faculty governance bodies, and protesting at public meetings.
  • Fights against attenuation of due process procedures in issues of privilege and tenure by filing grievances and helping those who were aggrieved file protests.
  •  Exposure of the sabotage and corruption of due process by the Administration in emails, paid ads (given the media blackout), press conferences, letters to the editor and op-ed campaigns.
  • A fight to create a tenure track for instructors—our teaching faculty–modeled on the AAUP’s statement on instructor tenure.
  • Organization of a referendum on the instructor tenure proposal to all 900+ instructors on campus, using this as leverage against those who said instructors don’t want tenure.
  • A year-long parliamentary battle in the Faculty Assembly to get it to consider the proposal.
  • Discussions with local unions organizing employees in higher education.
  • Development of a subscriber-based plan for restoring The Silver & Gold Record and lobbying the Board of Regents and the President to accept it.
  • A campaign to overcome apathy by educating faculty with emails and personal contacts and Zoomerang surveys to elicit faculty and staff opinions.
  • Slow community building and recruitment of supporters with wine and cheese, pot lucks and interesting meetings.

The fight goes on. The very foundations of University life are at stake.  If this fight fails, we may lose not only the teaching and research missions of public universities, but the existential values embodied in a democratic and free society.



[1] Leslie Jameson, Chair of the Faculty Assembly of the Anschutz Medical Campus and the University of Colorado-Denver campus.  Public commentary given at the monthly meeting of the University of Colorado Board of Regents, May 19, 2009.

[2] Formerly known as the Center for the Study of Popular Culture

[3] John K. Wilson, The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 1995).

[4] See ACTA documents  Any State Can: A Guide for Improving Higher Education: The Colorado Example (2004),” “Accountability in Higher Education: Governors Provide Leadership (2004) How Many More Ward Churchills? (ND),  Protecting the Free Exchange of Ideas: How Trustees Can Advance Intellectual Diversity on Campus (2009), The Vanishing Shakespeare (2007)  Retrieved from

[5] No fewer than seven groups from inside and outside the university, including key members of the local AAUP chapter, filed charges of research misconduct against the Special Committee on Research Misconduct (SCRM) for the egregiously flawed report it submitted in the Churchill case.

[6] John Aguilar, Judge: No money, job for Churchill.  The Daily Camera, Wednesday July 8, 2009.

[7] Jennifer Washburn, University Inc: The Corporate Corruption of American Higher Education (New York: Basic Books, 2005).

[8] See also Seth Shulman,, Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration (Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press, 2006)  and Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science, (New York: Basic Books, 2006), for many similar examples.

[9] Leonard Dinegar, Budget Recommendation Concerning the Silver and Gold Record, Memorandum to President Benson from the Vice President for Administration and Chief of Staff, April 28, 2009.

[10]   Erica Grossman, “Stop the Presses,”  The Boulder Weekly, May 28-June 3, 2009.

[11] Comment made at the May 19, 2009 meeting of the University of Colorado Board of Regents.  Reported in the farewell issue of the Silver&Gold Record, June 18, 2009,

[12] Adrienne Anderson,  Our Rocky Mountain News Monopoly, The Colorado Daily, April 15, 2007.