Patty Limerick's Valentine to Bruce Benson

cowboy-heart.jpgWhat is up with Patricia Limerick these days?  Aside from being the Director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado (CU), she writes occasional op-ed pieces as an advocate for Western issues like water and dirt.  This morning, I cracked open my hard copy of the Denver Post to find her endorsement for right-wing hack Bruce Benson to become the next president of her university.  With apologies to my out-of-state and international readership, I’ve already addressed this foolishness, if only for the realpolitik concept that the ENTIRE STATE IS NOW RUN BY DEMOCRATS.  But, Historiann just can’t let this one go.

So, back to Limerick:  she starts her op-ed with an unconvincing apologia for the fact that Benson is one of one finalists for the job.  She explains, “when news gets out that a top university administrator is a finalist for a job at another institution, that person is in jeopardy. At the very least, the people she works with will look at her with distrust. At the worst, she may end up, in short order, no longer holding that job.  Hence, the idea of announcing a list of several finalists is a dream that cannot find a home in the cutthroat world of our times.”  Really?  Let’s look at comparable searches elsewhere.  I wonder how Colorado State University ever got 2 people with distinguished academic careers to interview publicly just five years ago?  Who knew that the delicate flowers who compete for these jobs were taking such incredible risks?  Back in the reality-based community, they’re not:  it seems more typical than unusual that two to four finalists are named.

Next, she addresses his lack of academic qualifications:  “Others believe that Benson’s lack of a Ph.D. disqualifies him for the presidency.”  Call me an old stick-in-the-mud, but I think it’s only fair that people in the top jobs at universities have to match at least the minimum requirements that our beginning assistant professors must meet.  You know, the people that he’ll be asked either to tenure or fire in 6 years?  Finally, she suggests that his history of partisan hackery and lack of academic qualifications is a net bonus for CU:  “In fact, the very habits of expression that make some faculty and students wince when they listen to Benson are exactly the habits that could persuade a majority of Coloradans to appreciate CU and recognize its need for greater financial support.”  Whaaaaa?  I guess the literal translation of that is, “The majority of Coloradoans are dumb hicks like Benson, and he’ll be better able to pick their pockets on behalf of CU.”  Limerick evidently holds both her fellow Coloradoans and her academic colleagues in such low esteem that she thinks the latter can’t really talk to the former effectively about their pointy-headed schemes, let alone convince anyone that they’re worth supporting.  Pretty patronizing, Professor.

I can’t put it any better than a long-time worker in higher education I know, who says “the fact is that for the past 14 years, at least, Republicans have engaged in a slash-and-burn attack on public institutions of all kinds, including–and perhaps especially–higher education, and in particular colleges of liberal arts.  Now, suddenly, students, professors, staff, and other citizens are to believe that all is forgiven, forgotten, and recanted. . . . .Any clear-headed, clear-eyed historical analysis would suggest that right now, Benson and his ilk are as much captives of a hostile political environment that they created as much as they are victims of mindless, knee-jerk liberal reaction.”  [Historiann would argue moreso.]  “Conservatives–former conservatives?–are running for cover right now, and it appears that Benson has found a pretty good refuge in which to make himself over as a broad-minded, public-spirited citizen.”  What a scam!  You know what they say, though:  IOKIYAR (It’s O.K. if you’re a Republican)!

UPDATE:  Hot off the presses–the CU Boulder Faculty Assembly voted 40-4 tonight against a resolution in support of Benson’s candidacy.  (Warning:  the link is to a Rocky Mountain News story, so skip the comments unless you’ve got a strong stomach.  Those commenters seem to ratify Limerick’s dim view of Coloradoans, sad to say. . . but take a look:  do you think those people are going to open up their checkbooks and vote for tax increases to support CU?  I mean, once they wipe the Chee-to crumbs off of their sweatshirts?)  The vote tonight is only advisory, as the CU Board of Regents has the final say next Wednesday.  The faculty also passed a resolution to ask the Regents to re-open the search for a new president.

9 thoughts on “Patty Limerick's Valentine to Bruce Benson

  1. I’m disappointed, but not surprised.

    Aside from the highly regarded, but severely flawed The Legacy of Conquest has Patty Limerick accomplished anything to explain why we all seem to know her name? Even though I recommend her book frequently to students, I’ve never been impressed with her work. The Legacy of Conquest is an icon that highlights post-Turnerian Western history, but folks like Donald Worster, Richard White, Sue Armitage, and even Larry McMurtry all did far more to bring about this shift than Limerick. The subtitle (the unbroken past of the American west) is the best part of her synthesis.


  2. Well, that book *did* make a splash, and her background in journalism meant that she paid more attention to the craft of writing than did most professional historians in the 1980s, which may explain why she more than others could take credit for the “New Western history.” I remember reading her book in graduate school and being blown away by it, and I’m sure it was influential in my thinking about the Eastern frontier.

    I just don’t get why she or anyone else at CU thinks Benson is the horse to bet on. Part of the ethic of morphing CU fully into Corporate University, I guess. Perhaps her work outside of academe has led her to develop a different set of values than most of us have. (Which is not to say that academic values are the best values in all cases–although I believe that academic values should be the default when leading academic institutions.)


  3. If you go to the Center for the American West website, you’ll see that Bruce Benson is not only a board member, but a supporter of Limerick’s endowed chair! And she was on the search committee that chose him. Seems like a conflict of interest to me.


  4. Excellent pickup, Linda–thanks! I should have done better research. On the one hand, having worked with him Limerick can testify that he doesn’t have horns and a tail. On the other hand, we all have friendly relationships for people that we wouldn’t recommend for jobs for which they’re unqualified. Right?


  5. I don’t mean to imply that Limerick’s support for Benson lacks integrity, because I don’t know that for a fact. Many of my colleagues here in Boulder know her well and really admire her; they’re utterly perplexed by her support for Benson. You make a good point that her experience outside academe may have given her a different perspective. But the fact that he supported her endowed chair just looks bad; she probably should have recused herself from the search committee.

    The media are consistently reporting faculty opposition to Benson as either purely political (because we are all left-wing crazies) or elitist (because he lacks an advanced degree). But for me it came down to what I saw in his meetings with faculty. Again and again, he fumbled over questions about his vision for the university. When asked which other public university systems he admired and could be a model for CU, he didn’t have any idea and clearly had never even thought about the question. It was sad. Be glad that CSU is less politicized than CU is (at least for now) and that both your recent presidential candidates were better candidates than Benson is. And congrats on your recent book (just discovered this blog and read your bio)!


  6. Linda–thanks for the compliments, and most of all for your insider perspective. It sounds to me like he totally blew a very good and very obvious question–something that most departments would resent in job candidates for their obvious lack of preparation! And since when is it “elitist” for universities to have high expectations for the credentials of people who work in administration? It’s only elitist if you would demand that he have a Ph.D. from Stanford or Harvard, not THAT he have a terminal degree in *something* from *somewhere* The “elitist” rap is leftover from the old John Andrews days, not something that should be useful in intimidating CU out of enforcing minimal standards on its candidates for president.

    CSU only fended off the Holtzman challenge because the faculty ORGANIZED and circulated a petition that earned the signatures of 2/3 of the regular faculty. The vote last night was very encouraging, but whatever you can do to put pressure on your Board of Regents will help. We didn’t know if our petition would make a difference or not, but what do you know, the Board of Governors actually listened to us, or behaved as though they did! CU faculty are unfairly more often targets for the free-floating ressentiment of right-wingers, but I’d have to think that appointing Benson against the articulated wishes of faculty and students would be a very bad move.

    Thanks for stopping by, and come back any time for a visit and a chat.


  7. Pingback: Brisk winds from the archives, or, a publicly engaged historian at work on Roe, Brown, and the Christian right : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  8. Pingback: Brisk winds from the archives, or, a publicly engaged historian at work on Roe, Brown, and the Christian right | Historiann

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.