Hank Brown is late. Very late. Which has made the TV crew for the city of Boulder’s Municipal Channel 8 anxious; they’re looking out of the studio windows, into the snowy December afternoon, hoping he’ll appear. After all, it’s not every day that The Boulder Show, a local talk program taped inside the Boulder Public Library, hosts a luminary such as Brown, the interim president of the beleaguered University of Colorado.
A call comes in to the studio: Brown will be late, maybe by half an hour. Maybe more. His tardiness is understandable on a day like this. On top of the weather, the public is abuzz with media reports that CU football coach Gary Barnett will be canned. Headlines blare: “Gary Gone?” and “CU Will Sack Barnett.” Yet another black-and-blue mark on the Black and Gold, another chapter in the saga of CU’s much-publicized sex, booze, and controversy-fueled convulsions that have shaken loose the jobs of Athletic Director Dick Tharp, Chancellor Richard Byyny, and Brown’s predecessor, Elizabeth Hoffman.
More from our April 2006 Issue
As if the day’s Barnett news weren’t enough, this morning the CU Board of Regents made a controversial decision, voting to relocate the university president’s office from the flagship Boulder campus to Denver. One theory goes the move has been made to put the president as close as possible to lawmakers, to best fight for every penny going to a public institution facing skyrocketing tuitions and some of the lowest state funding levels nationwide. Other critics speculate it’s to put as much distance as possible between the president and the turmoil: The now infamous football recruiting scandal sparked sensational lawsuits and a damning grand jury report; then came racial flare-ups, dwindling U.S. News & World Report rankings, name-calling radical professors, and misogynistic expletives.
Brown arrives at the television studio, walking tall in a long, snow-speckled coat. Up since 4 a.m., his typical waking hour, he’s all smiles. Pointing to a fake dollar bill tacked to a cubicle wall, he cracks, “I see you make your own money here.” Pardon Brown, for just a second, as he ducks into a side room for a quick cell-phone chat with Gov. Bill Owens and another call with a multimillion-dollar university donor.
On The Boulder Show’s set, cameras train on 66-year-old Brown’s movie-star handsomeness, his silver hair, and dark suit and red tie. He leans back in his chair tranquilly, sipping from a coffee mug. The program’s host will ask Brown about CU’s contretemps. Brown’s past, however, which is at least as interesting, won’t come up. His missions over Vietnam jungles, his national-hero-level status in Poland, and the $1 million bounty on his head courtesy of Osama bin Laden are ostensibly off-topic, but may have prepared him well for his current mission at CU.
As the snow continues falling outside the studio, Brown and the host make small talk while the crew prepares in the control room, turning microphones on and off. A portion of Brown’s remarks is amplified through the studio speakers. “We’re going through a hell of a storm,” he says. Hard to say whether Brown’s talking about the weather.
As The Boulder Show wraps and Brown heads for the door, a CU press conference begins down the street at the Coors Events Center. The cavernous home of the CU Buffaloes basketball team is one of the buildings on campus large enough to accommodate the local and national media that once again have descended on the press-weary college town.
After several women alleged they were sexually assaulted by CU football players and recruits at a party in December 2001, administration officials found themselves publicly addressing charges filed in a gender-discrimination lawsuit. Later, CU leaders faced the press to downplay a leaked grand jury report that slammed the university for tolerating a culture that fostered such parties. Throw in the alcohol-soaked death of a fraternity pledge; Ward Churchill, the CU professor who authored an essay comparing 9/11 victims to “little Eichmanns,” and the accusations that Churchill had lied about his Native American heritage and also was a plagiarizer; the contentious ouster of another activist professor; and in-state tuition levels increasing as much as 28 percent.
Brown’s predecessor, President Hoffman, and her administration only made things worse, with bureaucratic denials, condescension, and transparent gamesmanship. In February 2004, Barnett was in the spotlight for reportedly intimidating one alleged rape victim and spouting that another, former CU place-kicker Katie Hnida, “was a girl, and not only was she a girl, she was terrible.” At a Hoffman news briefing on the matter, critics expected to hear Barnett’s head roll across the floor. Instead the media event ended with a whimper. Hoffman announced she was suspending “Coach,” a move widely perceived as too little too late. What’s worse, the suspension was soon overshadowed by Hoffman’s own rhetorical blunder. Four months later, during a deposition for a sexual-assault suit filed against CU, Hoffman was asked about football players calling Hnida a “cunt;” the university president responded that the word could be used as a term of endearment-apparently referring to The Canterbury Tales, in which Geoffrey Chaucer penned, “He made a grab and caught her by the queint.”
Today, as news cameras begin rolling in the Coors Events Center, it is matter-of-factly announced that Barnett is fired. Officially, Barnett’s booted because of a “combination of factors,” in other words, because of the scandals that already cost Hoffman, Byyny, and Tharp their jobs. CU’s new athletic director, Mike Bohn, is the one who delivers the Barnett announcement. Although Brown’s fingerprints are all over the firing, after The Boulder Show he doesn’t even attend the briefing. Instead, he heads off to a holiday party, where he mingles cheerfully with professors while Bohn does the deed. Brown’s choreography and timing are politically masterful.
Four days later, it becomes evident why Brown chose to can Barnett when he did, as Coach’s dirty laundry is dumped in front of a packed hearing room across the street from the state Capitol. While Brown, his colleagues, and the media look on, the Legislative Audit Committee unveils the excruciating details of their audit of CU-Boulder’s athletics department: tens of thousands of dollars of questionable expenses ranging from private-plane charters to women’s shoes, more than $300,000 in unexplained revenue from Barnett’s privately operated CU summer-football camps, and possible NCAA rule and federal tax law violations. The state has released a similarly scathing audit of the CU Foundation, the university’s fund-raising arm. This morning lawmakers come out swinging at CU.
Sitting in the bright winter light filtering through the room’s window, Brown quietly absorbs all of the legislators’ blows. Really, the committee isn’t faulting anything he has done. The Regents approached Brown about taking over as interim head last March, only days after President Hoffman resigned. The way the Regents saw it, Brown had done a fine job as president of the cash-strapped University of Northern Colorado, and was then doing a fine job of streamlining the multimillion-dollar charity the Daniels Fund. When word that the Regents reached out to Brown spread, there was minor clamor: Democratic state Senator Peter Groff threatened to derail the appointment by questioning Brown’s commitment to racial diversity. But then Democratic Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald called the Republican Brown to encourage him to accept the job, which he did last April.
As the inheritor of CU’s problems, it’s easy for Brown to play the part of immaculate savior when he had nothing to do with the problems from which people need saving. Besides, Brown’s faced tougher political crowds. After years in the Colorado legislature and U.S. Congress, Brown served as a Republican U.S. Senator from 1991 to 1997. He took on liberals, cutting costs left and right to balance the budget. He angered conservatives by paving the way for Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to become part of NATO-earning in return an honorary citizenship and nationwide gratitude in Poland. He negotiated with water-rights activists and environmentalists, and ushered through the 1993 Colorado Wilderness Act, preserving vast tracts of undeveloped land.
He even tangled with Osama bin Laden. In the 1990s, as a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Brown took an interest in the mounting troubles in Afghanistan. While visiting that country in 1996, he met with a Russian aircrew captured by bin Laden’s Afghan rebels. Brown persuaded the rebels to allow the aircrew to check on their plane, which the captives promptly used to get away. An infuriated bin Laden put a $1 million bounty on Brown’s head.
Eleven years ago Brown sat in a different hearing room, surrounded by cameras, being grilled about another lengthy, controversial document. Activist lawyer Ralph Nader had challenged every U.S. congressional member to take a test on the extensive regulations up for vote that would create the World Trade Organization. Brown was the only one to accept the dare. He read the sizable agreement, met with Nader and the media, and aced the quiz, much to his challenger’s surprise. As Nader got up to leave, Brown remarked that he had something to say: Although he was a Republican, a free trader, and a supporter of NAFTA, Brown said, after actually reading these regulations he’d decided the WTO was fundamentally undemocratic and would not get his vote. “He didn’t have a go-along-to-get-along attitude,” says Brown’s former chief of staff, Bill Brack. “He based decisions on not what was popular, but what he thought was the right thing to do. And that’s what the president of CU will have to do.”
Brown again has a firm grasp of the dense reports, and is not afraid to speak his mind regardless of party lines. When audit committee members demand to know if anyone’s been held responsible for CU blunders, Brown says, “The committee may want to take note we have a new president. We have a new vice president of finance. We have a new chancellor. We have a new athletic director. So, I think if you’re looking for whether someone was held accountable or not, I think you would find that’s the case.” Barnett’s firing goes unmentioned, but not unnoticed. Everyone in the room is well-aware that the lead bad guy, according to the audit, has just been canned. Brown agrees to every audit recommendation, pointing out that the university has already overhauled how the institution, the athletic department, and the CU Foundation do business.
After the hearing, Brown and his entourage set up a press briefing in the Capitol basement. The occasion brings to mind another CU media event at the Capitol, one held by Hoffman in March 2005. The plan was to put a shine on the university’s reputation, but in the face of blistering questions Hoffman bid a hasty and awkward adieu, one more debacle played out on the nightly news. Whatever Hoffman and her staff did to ease university turbulence-implementing stringent new football recruiting rules, a new fiscal code of ethics, and multiple audits of university procedures-her PR calamities took center stage. Hoffman, who declined an interview request for this story, resigned a few days after her Capitol press conference.
Today, Brown tells the media, “Our intention is to stay here until every one of your questions has been responded to.” The message is clear: There’d be no more duck and cover. Brown had first signaled this on his first day as CU’s president, August 1, 2005, when he eliminated the university’s high-paid public relations directors. As reporters fire off questions, Brown defers to his administrators until one reporter asks whether, really, the university’s environment can change overnight. Brown shoots back, with a touch of bravado, “We’ve come damn close.”
“I’m not one that buys off on the fact that somehow we’ve been unfortunate,” Brown tells me. It’s an unseasonably warm January afternoon in Boulder, a few weeks after the audit hearing, and the two of us are sitting at a table in Brown’s office in the CU administrative building. “One of the biggest things we’ve yet to do is recognize that we’re always going to be under the gun. Any time you gather 50,000 teenagers in several locations, you are going to have an exciting time. Any time you have a $2 billion operation, you are going to have lots of questions come up. People don’t expect that we’re not going to have problems. But people do expect us to be forthright and get them resolved.”
Brown is a talented public speaker. When he was a U.S. Senator, he delivered a speech on the floor that convinced 47-year senator Strom Thurmond to vote for term limits. But Brown’s real charm, say those who know him, surfaces at times like this, one on one. He listens intently as we talk, nodding thoughtfully but never interrupting, never losing eye contact. He pauses while composing extended responses.
“Did we go through painful questions about football recruiting?” he says. “Absolutely. We now have, I think, some of the most effective and strongest guidelines in the country in terms of football recruiting. Have we gone through painful experiences with regard to use of alcohol on the campus? No question about it. But I think we now have one of the best programs in the nation in terms of helping the students understand some of the dangers of alcohol, and we have some of the strongest penalties in place for students who abuse alcohol…. Did we have challenges with the way we kept our books or utilization of Foundation monies? Sure. What’s come out of it is a total rewrite of our relationship with the Foundation and one of the cleanest operations in the nation in terms of the Foundation and the use of its funds and the guarantee of the integrity of the system.”
Brown spent $3 million of CU’s money on Barnett’s severance-a fact that has been the subject of headlines and political debate. “If he stayed until the end of his contract, in June 2007,” Brown says of the deal, “he would have earned $4.2 million. Do you like to see [that type of expense] happen? No. But to be fair, he’d already earned most of it.”
As far as the president’s office move to Denver, Brown never considered it to be “very significant. I think it was the right choice,” he says. “In terms of where I’d love to be physically located, I’d much prefer to be here [in Boulder]. Sadly, a large majority of the work that the president’s office has to do takes place in Denver. I wish it weren’t that way. But it is.”
A big reason for the president’s need to be in Denver, as Brown sees it, is to wrangle more money from the legislature. “We have had a significant drop in state funds that has affected everybody. But we were cut much more than other institutions. So we are special. But there’s no question we’ve seen a drop in overall state funding nationwide, percentage-wise, not total dollar-wise. When I was in the legislature, 26 and a half percent of the budget went to higher education. And today only nine and half percent goes. Our challenge is to help people realize why it’s worth their while, why it’s in their interest to want to fund us.”
Brown swivels back and forth in his leather chair, seeming to shake free invisible attack dogs, running his fingertips over the red lacquered tabletop, as if pushing away imagined newspapers brimming with bad news. He has nothing but kind words for his predecessor, calling Hoffman “one of the hardest working human beings I know…a phenomenon.” He tells of grand institutional accomplishments and a gleaming future, successes long overshadowed by simmering controversies. Four Nobel Prizes, seven MacArthur “genius” awards, the U.S. professor of the year. The rise of the Health Sciences Center’s Fitzsimons campus, a growing life sciences and medical research hub. Millions in federal funds pouring into the Colorado Springs campus, poised to become a center for space technology in the nation.
Sitting in the president’s august and spacious office, we’re surrounded by grand paintings of bison, ranchers, and big Colorado skies. On a nearby wall hangs an oil rendition of the Flatirons, one of those perfectly serene vistas of Boulder’s famous backdrop. This is what Brown saw on his first day of school when he arrived here as a 6-foot-2, 175-pound, corn-silk-haired freshman in 1957: the early-morning sunlight reflecting off the giant, red sandstone slabs. “It’s about as beautiful a sight that there is in the world,” he says without a hint of self-consciousness. It’s the picture of the university still in his mind’s eye.
Brown’s rosy-colored mem-ories of his alma matter make sense, considering the roads he’d traveled to get there. Born in Denver in 1940, George Hanks Brown learned at an early age that if he was going to make something of himself, he’d have to prepare and hustle, and go it alone. He learned this from his grandfather, a cattleman who worked 80 to 100 hours a week and taught himself by reading an encyclopedia. He learned this from his CU-educated mother, Anna, who divorced her husband, worked full-time, acquired a law degree, and made her children earn their own money for clothes. And he learned this from the death of his older brother: Brown’s father accidentally shot Harry during a hunting trip. Brown was about 13 years old. “It probably just reinforced the fact that you are on your own to take care of yourself in this world,” says Brown’s wife, Nan.
Brown arrived at CU on a football scholarship, but didn’t measure up on the field and was soon cut. He turned to the wrestling team, earning a partial scholarship and paying for the rest as a janitor and busboy. While working toward his business accounting degree, he joined the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, threw back a few at Tulagi’s with social groups like the Hammers, and even got his first taste of politics. In 1960, he was overwhelmingly elected student president.
Brown is a double CU alum. He returned to Boulder in 1966 to earn his law degree. That’s when he met his future wife, Nan, on a blind date: As Nan puts it, “coffee at the Sink.” It was a difficult time on campus, an era of war protests and civil-rights marches, but it was paradise compared to where he’d been. In Vietnam, Brown had volunteered as a Navy forward air controller, motivated by youthful ideas of democracy. However, after seeing his compatriots cut down by AK-47 fire, and watching the politicians in Washington run a campaign they had no plan for winning, Brown came home with a changed perspective. Years later, in Washington, Brown would be one of the few politicians to oppose sending troops to Lebanon and Somalia. Invited to dine with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Brown declined. Nan remembers her husband saying, “I generally try to avoid dinner with traitors.”
“The truth was that we had political leadership that was willing to sacrifice people’s lives without thinking the cause was worth winning,” Brown says. “I think it taught us a fundamental lesson as a country. I’m not sure we’ve learned it. We’ve gone back to what I think is an abuse of the men and women who serve the country.” Thinking of his time in Vietnam, the lines in Brown’s visage darken, his normally gleeful eyes narrow. Maybe he’s thinking about flying his small, thin-walled prop plane, buzzing low over jungles near the DMZ, waiting for the Viet Cong to shoot at him so he could radio their location back to base. After drawing out fire like that, taking shots as the president of CU is child’s play.
One week after Barnett’s firing, the senior principal gifts officer for the CU Foundation, Connie Graham, receives a 7 a.m. call at her home. It’s Tom Marsico, Denver superstar fund manager, CU alum, and deep-pocketed university donor. He wants President Brown, Athletic Director Mike Bohn, and newly appointed football coach Dan Hawkins standing in his living room in 12 hours. He has something he wants to say.
These are lean times at CU; when someone with purse strings as long as Marsico’s wants something done at the university, it gets done. Hawkins, who is arriving in Colorado to accept the coaching job, changes his flight so he’ll land at an airport closer to Marsico’s Cherry Hills home. Brown, who’s in New Jersey, flies back on Marsico’s chartered plane. By 7:30 p.m., the group has assembled in a sizable sitting room in Cherry Hills, and Marsico and his wife tell the group they see strong leadership at Marisco’s alma mater, a reinvigorated athletic department, and a bold new direction. They want to demonstrate their support with a gift of $1.5 million.
“This was the night that it felt like things were changing,” says Graham. “It felt like we were on the other side of the storm.” Marsico’s announcement isn’t the only sign of clearing skies. University donations, down for months, rebounded in April 2005, the same month Brown accepted the presidency. The university recently received a $3 million gift for its medical school, plus new funding for diversity scholarships. In fiscal year 2005, CU donations totaled $83 million, up 4.5 percent from 2004. Out-of-state CU-Boulder applications are up 13 percent.
The governor likes what he sees in Brown. “The change in tenor has been dramatic, the reduction of tension. The university is able to focus on its core values again,” says Gov. Owens. “And it all happened within about two weeks of Brown taking over.” The CU Regents also are pleased with the interim president. “I don’t think the public really appreciates how enormous the task is Hank Brown has been faced with,” says Regent Cindy Carlisle. “CU is a huge institution that’s been set in its ways for decades. Hank Brown is a reform president, but reforming this institution is akin to turning an oil tanker at sea. To my surprise and delight, it’s working.”
It’s difficult to find anyone who has anything negative to say about Brown’s job performance. Even his former critics have been impressed. Professor Rodney Muth, chair of the CU faculty council, publicly criticized the fact that the regents selected Brown without faculty input. Muth now considers the new president an “absolute godsend,” and has gone so far as to say that the regents should suspend their costly presidential search and wipe the “interim” off Brown’s title.
Even the hypercritical radical professor Ward Churchill likes what he sees in Brown. Churchill has achieved national infamy as a man of questionable origins and controversial statements, like the “little Eichmanns.” Depending on the perspective, he’s either CU’s laughing-stock lightning rod, attracting censure from across the nation, or a victim of free-speech-stifling conservatives and a piranhalike press. Churchill’s future at CU is uncertain, with his professorship the subject of a university investigation. Whatever his fate, it’s one he won’t accept quietly. Churchill has a knack for launching into verbose blitzkriegs on the left and right, railing against Nazi-type right-wingers dispatching panzer attacks on academic freedom, but when it comes to his Republican boss, Churchill is about as complimentary as he can be. “Do I respect him? Yeah,” says Churchill. “He’s been able to get the intensity of the attacks abated. That’s partly situational, that’s partly craftability. That’s what they put him there to do, and that’s what he’s done. Good choice.”
A few days before he announced his decision to accept the Regents’ offer of the interim presidency, Brown lay on the living room floor in his sizable red-brick home in Cherry Creek. Around him, the walls were filled with mementos of his accomplishments: an engraved silver sword from Poland, a framed personal note from former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a painting of Brown Hall at UNC. He was playing with his grandkids, Lilly and Hank, rolling around, throwing them up in the air. Speaking off the cuff, he mentioned to their mother, Christy, sitting nearby, that he’d be taking the university position. “Dad, this is a really big job,” she replied, adding with dry wit, “I hope you still have time to play with Lilly and little Hank.”
What exactly was Brown thinking, accepting the most difficult job of his career? Why wasn’t he content resting on his ample laurels? Why wasn’t he spending his twilight years with his family, his children and grandchildren, and his 120-pound St. Bernard Precious? Why wasn’t he satisfied passing his days working on his mean bridge game, feeding his history book addiction, maybe learning to stop holiday shopping at Kmart on Christmas Eve? Even his wife says, “I thought he was crazy to take the job.”
“He is basically a workaholic,” says close friend and University of Northern Colorado colleague Bob Heiny. “If he ever had a 40-hour-a-week job, he would feel like he was on vacation.” To maximize his workday, Brown long ago learned to get by on two hours of sleep; as years passed he was begrudgingly forced to double that to four. If his drive had an injurious effect on his family, his wife and children won’t say. But that’s exactly what the media suggested during his U.S. Senate campaign, when his son Harry was arrested for drunkenly assaulting a UNC student. “If there’s a weakness, it’s been [Brown’s] eagerness to do a super job at the expense of his own personal family life,” said former GOP Congressman Jim Johnson at the time.
While Brown surely considered the personal and political ramifications before becoming CU’s interim president, there was little question what his final decision would be. It was a position he’d wanted for years. And maybe it wasn’t just for one more political notch on his belt. “He loves CU. He went there, his mom went there, his wife went there, one of his daughters went there. He feels it is a part of who he is,” says his daughter Christy. “He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he couldn’t go there and make it everything it could be.”
Maybe taking on the job was quixotic, maybe it was cocky. “My hope,” Brown says, “was to restore a little normalcy to the institution in light of the almost blizzard of press they had received. And hopefully iron out some of the problems with regards to those issues. Obviously, at that point of my career it’s not probably a normal career goal, for sure. You know, I’m in a stage of my life where I’ve had other careers. So this is towards the end of the careers, not the start. But to me it’s simply one of the most interesting things I can do. I was very optimistic that this was a job that would be something that would be fun and would be solvable.”
The university’s search for a permanent leader is still under way. According to Brown’s former critic CU professor Rodney Muth, Brown is a shoe-in. Still, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. Even if Brown gets the job, it’s a mystery just how long he’ll keep it. Someday he’d like to teach, but there are many who’d prefer to see his platinum-plated reputation ensconced in loftier offices statewide. “He gets bored if there’s nothing to fix,” says his friend Heiny. “Say he’s there for two or three years and things are running smoothly and something else comes along, chances are he’ll be gone.”
Brown’s daughter Christy thinks her dad might be on campus for quite some time. She remembers her father sprawling on his living room floor last April, listening to her concerns that he wouldn’t have as much time for his grandchildren. A mischievous grin forming, he told her not to worry. Who knows, he cracked. Maybe he’d still be president when they enrolled at CU. Reflecting on that conversation, Brown’s daughter admits she won’t be surprised if his prediction turns out to be true. “I think he’s in uncharted territory,” she says. “I think there’s enough challenges at CU to last 100 years.” m
Joel Warner is a Boulder-based freelance writer. He contributes frequently to 5280.