It is more than likely that the foreseeable future of CU will be dominated by legal proceedings and the increasingly sharp clamor for public accountability.

Character and Chaos at the University of Colorado

“It’s what you do after you find out things have gone wrong that tests your character.”

We agree with that comment by former University of Colorado Regent Jim Martin, highly critical of the university’s handling of multiple, now increasingly public, problems.

The character of CU is being tested; the character of CU is being revealed.  It is not a character to be praised in a public university.

CU is reeling from two scandals.  The first, reignited last week, revolves around numerous unsavory allegations against CU’s football program, extending as far back as the late 1990s.  The second concentrates on Ward Churchill, the controversial ethnic studies professor whose volatile statements regarding 9-11 have resulted in intense scrutiny of his entire academic career and history at CU.

Caught up in a maelstrom of legal, political, academic, financial and public relations problems, the school’s administration has gone to the mattresses, seemingly intent on destroying the reputation of the university along with their own.

Last week, a sealed grand jury report containing explosive charges against the university was leaked to Paula Woodward, an investigative television reporter.  Among the charges, reported by multiple news organizations, is that the CU Foundation, the university’s fundraising organization, did not fully comply with grand jury subpoenas.

The CU Foundation promptly sued Woodward and her television station for defamation and noticed a claim that it intended to sue Colorado’s Office of Attorney General, presumably for failure to protect court-ordered secrecy of the grand jury report, which the university had sought mightily to suppress.

CU President Elizabeth Hoffman next took to the state Capitol for a news conference defending the university, leaving abruptly after being besieged with specific, harsh questions from a roomful of reporters.

The following day, speaking to a CU faculty group, Hoffman warned of “dangerous times ahead” and a “new McCarthyism,” language applauded by her audience but not at all indicative of a university that comprehends, or is prepared to straightforwardly deal with the array of charges against it.

That was last week.

This week, Elizabeth Hoffman resigned her $400,000-a-year post, effective June 30.  No one of any relevance publicly urged her to reconsider.

Hoffman, who publicly advocated “a university without walls,” seems not to have understood that concept vis a vis the rest of the known world.  Despite charges and implications that have piled up like anthills, university officials have practiced a studied insularity, perhaps an arrogance, that is almost incomprehensible.

Arguably, if there had been more walls within the university — walls of morality, responsibility, accountability — the villagers would not now be storming the walls surrounding the university.

If the culture of CU is, as former Regent Jim Martin says, one that “embraces aloofness, distance and non-accountability,” the culture of CU’s athletics department is a much different animal.

CU’s current problems began in earnest following a December 7, 2001, party for football players and recruits, after which three women filed a federal lawsuit alleging sexual assault.  Multiple investigations followed, including one by an independent commission that concluded that sex and booze were part of CU’s athletic recruiting regimen but produced no evidence that university officials knew about or sanctioned the activities.

Be that as it may, additional allegations of sexual abuse have tumbled forth, including by female athletic trainers and former CU kicker Katie Hnida, who said she was raped by a teammate.  A former recruiting aide was indicted for hiring a prostitute and using a university cell phone to call an escort service.

Then came last week’s grand jury report leak.  That raised the stakes exponentially for university officials, with discussions of “slush funds,” details of sex charges, charges that the Regents are “unqualified” to supervise the football program and the blockbuster accusation of noncompliance with subpoenas, which the university strenuously and angrily denies.

It is more than likely that the foreseeable future of CU will be dominated by legal proceedings and the increasingly sharp clamor for public accountability.   At this point, perhaps it is not too churlish to observe that a university which advocates the right to free expression and academic freedom would be prudent to recognize the wisdom of full disclosure.  “It’s what you do after you find out things have gone wrong that tests your character.”

March 10, 2005
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