The Indy 500: What’s overlooked in the CU presidential flap

"It would be naive to downplay concerns that politics of one kind or another seem to be guiding the university’s presidential selection process."

UC presidential finalist Mark Kennedy and Board of Regents Chairwoman Sue Sharkey

I’ve spent the last several days poking around the University of Colorado’s power structure examining the Board of Regents’ decision to pick former Congressman Mark Kennedy as the system’s next president. Political controversy has its own centrifugal force, and I was struck by the extent to which many of the insiders spun up in this mess are out of touch with something bigger and far more important than whoever gets the job.

It’s that the university – and almost any university – is sacred.

Not because of the fabulousness of its architecture, the silence of its libraries, or the glory of its ball games.

It’s sacred because it is a wilderness of the mind, a place that’s not just about learning, but also thinking, stretching yourself, knocking down paradigms and totems, if necessary, to explore old truths and discover new ones. What happens – or at least what should be happening – in its classrooms and laboratories, in huddles of scholars, young and old, and in late-night dorm room conversations is big and beautiful stuff.

We presumably value what happens there because we protect professors with tenure, invest public tax dollars in research, and work second jobs and take out loans so our children whose minds have been trained to take bubble tests can learn to read, I mean really read, and think for themselves.

There is something holy about a place where knowledge is still cool. If you’re cynical about that, sit in on a constitutional law class at CU-Boulder discussing freedom of religion, eavesdrop on students sprawled on a lawn at CU-Denver imagining ways to diminish the Pacific Garbage Patch, or listen to a tech at CU Hospital urge a 7-year-old cancer patient morning after morning to remember that the radiation machine, as scary as it looks, shoots waves into her body that can heal her.

There are 67,000 students on the CU’s four campuses. The university employs 35,000 instructors, researchers, faculty members and other workers. Some 475,000 living people on this planet – 250,000 of them in Colorado – have CU degrees. And countless more, like the girl with cancer and her mom who sits on her gurney teaching her addition in the mornings, have put their faith in the institution.

It would be a mistake to underestimate how much CU, its mission and the preservation of academic freedom there mean to folks directly and indirectly in its orbit. It would be naive to downplay concerns that politics of one kind or another seem to be guiding the university’s presidential selection process. It would be blind not to see how much people love the place, the community and experience of CU, and tone deaf not to hear the powerlessness they feel – whether justified or not – in the decision over who next inherits the monumental task of leading it.

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  1. This was really powerful Susan. Thank you for using the word “sacred” to describe universities. I feel like it’s the right word, but only for what universities used to be. What upsets me the most about our country’s education system is not as much what’s happening, but what could be happening, yet isn’t. Universities are one of the most amazing things humans have created. They could be – ought to be – ecstatic, intergenerational orgies of knowledge, truth, seeking, debate, problem solving, and ideas where democracy is strengthened because the citizenry learns to think and ask questions. That’s what’s sacred about them, I think. But instead, universities have been turned – quite often by businessman after politician after businessman selected as their presidents, and Congress after Congress that divests from education – into organizations that believe they ought to be profit-seeking, market-driven corporations, and they are now crippling a generation of young people with unconscionable debt and showing to them through spectacles like this search that they really shouldn’t invest too much in that democracy stuff because the people at the top simply know better. I wish universities really were sacred, but nothing is these days. Not when there’s money to be made.

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