Bruce Benson’s announcement in the summer of 2018 that he planned to retire as president of the University of Colorado preempted a previously undisclosed attempt by a majority of the Board of Regents to fire him, according to records obtained by The Denver Post.
Seven pages of notes kept by Regent Sue Sharkey, released by CU under the Colorado Open Records Act, detail the elected leaders’ private discussions that summer about firing Benson over concerns about his lack of leadership and efficacy at the helm of the four-campus, multibillion-dollar university system.
Sharkey’s notes also reveal efforts by then-Regent Kyle Hybl to be named interim president, and suggest Benson retaliated by using CU donors to somehow threaten Hybl’s job outside the university.
Benson, now 82, retired last year after 11 years in office, and with successor Mark Kennedy already in place.
Benson and Hybl each declined requests by The Post to discuss the circumstances leading up to the former president’s decision to retire, though Sharkey, in an interview, denied Benson was involved in any kind of threat to Hybl.
Aims McGuinness, a consultant with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems who has worked with CU’s Board of Regents since the 1990s, said it’s typical for university governing boards to work out deals to facilitate presidential departures, usually allowing leaders to resign or leave on their own terms.
“A highly visible firing of a president of a major university is rare,” McGuinness said. “I also can’t think of any cases where a board member had argued to be interim president. I think you could probably find cases where the board — faced with having to have an interim on a short basis — looked around and said there was a qualified member of the board. That would be the board deciding it rather than an individual advancing him or herself as a candidate.”
Ken McConnellogue, spokesman for the university system, praised Benson as “one of the most successful presidents in CU’s modern history.”
“Events of more than two years ago have no bearing on the significant challenges facing the university today, which include ensuring that we continue to deliver on our mission amid a global pandemic, substantial budget shortfalls and social upheaval,” he said in a statement. “Those are the issues CU is focused on.”
Evaluating a president
Sharkey’s notes — which she said she kept as chair of the Board of Regents so she could accurately relay conversations to Benson — span June 21 to July 18, 2018, which was around the time the board was conducting Benson’s evaluation in his 10th year as CU president.
According to the notes, a majority of the board — including both Republican and Democratic regents — had misgivings about Benson’s ability to lead, and expressed frustration that the aging president refused to provide a timetable for his departure.
Regent Heidi Ganahl, a Republican elected at-large, “said it was ridiculous that Bruce wasn’t cooperating with the regents in giving us a timeline, said he was acting like a petulant child,” Sharkey recounted in her notes.
While some of the documented conversations are notes from closed-door board meetings, many stem from informal get-togethers, lunches, side conversations at public meetings and phone calls and text messages, raising the question of whether the regents violated Colorado’s open meeting laws.
“If two or more members of the regents are discussing public business, which would include the future of the presidency of the University of Colorado, the open meetings law says that’s supposed to be an open meeting,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
McConnellogue cited a provision in state law saying such meetings must be publicly noticed only when there is a quorum present.
“We believe we are meeting the spirit and the letter of the law,” he said.
Sharkey’s notes detail informal meetings of four and five regents at time.
“The point of the open meetings law… is to ensure that the business of public bodies in Colorado is not conducted in secret and that the public is able to observe and participate and have an understanding of how decisions are made,” Roberts said.
For years, the regents publicly discussed a presidential succession plan and what the future of the university would look like once Benson, the longest-serving CU president in decades, decided to step down. Sharkey’s notes provide the first public glimpse into what went on behind the scenes ahead of Benson’s retirement.
“I still stand by the accuracy of the notes,” Sharkey, R-Castle Rock, told The Post in an interview. “There was no agenda here on my part other than to make sure that everything was accurate.”
The Post requested interviews with each of the regents who were serving in the summer of 2018, and among those who responded, none denied that discussions took place about the possibility of firing Benson.
Hybl, R-Colorado Springs, and Ganahl each offered statements praising Benson and his service leading the university. “The idea that anyone did or could push him out is laughable,” Ganahl wrote. “I consider Bruce a mentor and friend. He’s the reason I ran for regent.”
Regent Irene Griego, D-Lakewood, said in a statement that Sharkey’s notes “adequately reflect to the best of my recollection what I said at the time.” She declined to address what her colleagues said during executive session. “I will let the notes speak for themselves.”
Concerns about leadership
Sharkey’s notes begin on June 21, 2018, and relay the regents’ discussion during a closed-door executive session in which Griego, Ganahl, Hybl, Linda Shoemaker, D-Boulder; Jack Kroll, D-Denver; and Glen Gallegos, R-Grand Junction; shared their frustrations about Benson.
The regents, according to Sharkey’s account, raised concerns that included Benson’s failure to hold campus chancellors and vice presidents accountable, a lack of leadership on diversity matters, and an absence of direction to the board itself.
Griego noted that she felt Benson didn’t represent the board positively in the community, and that the “university is at risk for Bruce to make inappropriate comments that may be made public,” Sharkey wrote.
Throughout her notes, Sharkey wrote that she supported Benson and recorded that Regent John Carson, R-Highlands Ranch, also was pleased with Benson’s performance and, like Sharkey, would not vote to fire him.
In the days following the closed-door meeting, Sharkey checked in with various regents, documenting her concern about their desire to discuss Benson’s timetable for vacating his position at an upcoming annual retreat at Devil’s Thumb Ranch — and that they might “give him an ultimatum.”
Recounting a hotel room conversation with the Republican regents during the July 12 retreat, Sharkey wrote of her frustration with Ganahl for leading Benson to believe she supported his presidency while advocating for his departure behind the scenes.
“John (Carson) advised Heidi to be careful of the repercussions of firing Bruce from donors such as [redacted],” Sharkey wrote. “She repeated what she told me the week before that [redacted] felt it was time for Bruce to retire. She also said other donors expressed the same opinion.”
University donors — whose names were blacked out in the document, according to CU — played a central role in the discussions of Benson’s departure as detailed in the notes. Ganahl and Hybl claimed donors were losing faith in Benson, Sharkey wrote.
During the hotel room conversation, Ganahl suggested Hybl become interim president if the regents fired Benson or if he walked out and quit, Sharkey wrote, dismissing the suggestion as “a ludicrous idea.”
Gallegos said if Benson didn’t provide the regents a timeline for his departure, he would vote to fire him, according to the notes.
The following day when the retreat was over, Sharkey wrote that the Republican regents decided Sharkey, Carson, Gallegos and Ganahl would meet with Benson in coming days to tell him in person that his job was in jeopardy.
On July 14, Sharkey wrote that she called Hybl to discuss the possibility of serving on the presidential search committee if Benson quit or was fired.
“I felt Heidi was the driving force to have a search committee formed soon in order for her to be appointed, her ambition concerned me,” Sharkey wrote. “I knew Kyle wasn’t a fan of Bruce, but didn’t realize at this time how he was driving this train… I was becoming increasingly concerned that this was escalating and the outcome wasn’t favorable for Bruce.”
On July 16, Sharkey noted a call from Ganahl informing her that a “major donor” had called Ganahl to voice concerns about her lack of support of Benson.
“She was angry that Bruce had called donors,” Sharkey wrote.
Calling a meeting
The following day, Sharkey noted a call from Hybl announcing that he, Ganahl, Griego and Steve Ludwig, a then-regent elected as a Democrat at-large, agreed to call a special meeting of the full board in a few days and that Sharkey, as board chair, would need to accommodate their request.
“He said there were six votes to fire Bruce, and possibly seven with Glen,” Sharkey wrote. “He hopes there could be a 9-0 vote to demonstrate a united board, or I could abstain instead of voting against. I said absolutely not… my vote will be no.”
Sharkey wrote that Hybl told her he had the votes — at least six — to be named interim president, and asked for her support.
“I asked him if he realized how self-serving this looked,” Sharkey wrote. “He said that was discussed amongst the four of them (Irene, Steve, Kyle, and Heidi)… They felt with the right message they could overcome that.”
Sharkey called for the special board meeting. She talked to university counsel Patrick O’Rourke, who, she wrote, “said he had spoken with Heidi, she told him the votes were there 5-4 to fire Bruce, she did not mention her vote. Kyle had told me she was the sixth vote, which I believed based on her previous comments.”
Shortly after scheduling the special board meeting, Sharkey wrote that she received another call from O’Rourke — now CU Boulder’s chief operating officer — who said the meeting was canceled.
“He had received a call from Kyle saying he received a call and because of the call he would have to cancel his request for a meeting,” Sharkey wrote. “Steve called me extremely angry. Said Bruce had made a call to [redacted]” — another deleted reference to a donor.
Later at a CU event, Sharkey met with Ganahl who was “upset and agitated.”
“She said how horrible it was that Bruce would [redacted] have Kyle’s job threatened,” Sharkey wrote.
Hybl serves as president and CEO of the Colorado Springs-based El Pomar Foundation, which provides grants to needy sectors including arts and culture, civic and community initiatives, education, health and human services.
Ludwig, who Sharkey wrote had knowledge of the situation, declined to comment when asked whether Benson threatened Hybl’s job through donor connections.
Sharkey denied Benson threatened Hybl’s job with donor connections.
“A regent believed that Bruce did that and that was not the case,” Sharkey told The Post. “Bruce didn’t even know about Kyle because I didn’t tell Bruce about Kyle wanting to be interim president.”
The morning of July 18, the day after the special meeting was canceled, Sharkey wrote that Benson called to inform her he was going to announce his retirement plans and would leave his job as CU president within 12 months.
At 8:40 a.m., Benson emailed the rest of the CU regents to let them know he planned to step down and would be publicly announcing the news that morning. “I know that you’ll want to begin preparing for a search soon,” he wrote in the email, obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act. “It’s important that you find a great person to be CU’s next president.”
Sharkey wrote that Ganahl immediately texted her, Carson and Gallegos, saying her head was spinning.
“She asked what the heck happened to prompt this,” Sharkey wrote. “I didn’t and couldn’t respond, since she had played a significant role in the whole process, I couldn’t believe she was putting on such an innocent act.”
Forty minutes after Benson alerted the regents, CU issued a news release announcing the president’s plan to retire effective July 2019.
Hybl forwarded Benson’s retirement email to family members, including his wife, parents and brother, according to documents obtained through the open records request.
At 10:25 a.m., Hybl’s brother responded: “President Hybl.”
Yet by announcing his retirement a year in advance, Benson gave the regents time to conduct a full search process for his successor — resulting in the controversial selection of Kennedy, who, like Benson, was a Republican hired on a party-line vote by the GOP-controlled board.
An interim president was never needed.
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