Bruce Benson runs a university system with a $1.2 billion endowment, $3.5 billion in annual operating revenues and 2018 operating budget that's approaching $4.6 billion. But on a Tuesday morning in May at Benson's downtown office building, the University of Colorado president is focusing on a more obscure metric: How many sheets of paper can CU save by digitizing its utility bills?
"A ream of paper costs, what?" the silver-haired, athletically trim Benson asks a university employee. He's wearing a navy suit with pinstripes, blue-meets-red striped necktie and, in a concession to the ceremonial aspect of the morning, polished black shoes in place of the familiar cowboy boots he'd just as soon have on his feet. You can see the wheels turning as Benson, flanked by his chief of staff, Leonard Dinegar, leans in toward a draped table and does the math: reams of paper multiplied by cost per ream multiplied by the number of bills the university's Denver campus collects. The economic benefit here will be measured in hundreds of dollars at best. But Benson likes what he's hearing. "Sounds like we're going to save some money," he concludes with a wry smile.
At this annual event showcasing finalists from the university's Innovation & Efficiency program--a grab-bag of ideas dreamed up by employees--Benson is doing what Benson does: figuring stuff out, solving problems, applying a common-sense, businesslike mentality to a job that seems nearly unmanageable on the surface as it ricochets from refereeing academic squabbles to green-lighting capital investments to raising truckloads of money to broadening diversity within the CU student population.
Now marking his 10th year as the University of Colorado's president, Benson, a long-ago oilfield wildcatter who made it big, manages the job the same way he has always has: with steady determination and a yellow legal pad. On it, Benson scratches out "to-do" reminders and audacious ambitions alike in compact, efficient lettering across what effectively is a bottomless arrangement of lined paper. When he fills one sheet, he transfers whatever hasn't been crossed off to the next. Page after page and year after year, this is how Benson gets things accomplished. "It's everything I have to get done," he says. "I take great pride in crossing things off."
The approach seems to be working, because the list of achievements and accolades tied to Benson's 10-year run goes deep. The Benson era has produced big improvements in fundraising, groundbreaking research--including nationally recognized initiatives tied to Alzheimer's disease --a sharp spike in student enrollment and diversity, and a rising international stature, as exemplified by the world's first massive online degreed program for electrical engineers. In his spare time, Benson and colleagues at the CU Boulder campus also managed to tame the embarrassment that was April 20, when CU's Boulder campus became a nationally notorious playground for pot smokers.
Benson turns 80 in July. At some point, the university's board of regents will have to start drawing up plans to identify a successor. But nothing's imminent. Nobody seems to...