Inappropriate Fearmongering About Marijuana by Bruce Benson – CU President

I’m a huge supporter of CU and CU Boulder in particular. While it’s not my alma mater, I’ve probably contributed as much or more time and money as I have to MIT, where I spent seven years. Amy and I strongly support three institutions of higher education – MIT, Wellesley (where she went to school), and CU Boulder.

I was shocked and stunned to get an email from the CU President Bruce Benson yesterday. Here are the first few paragraphs, on the CU President letterhead.

“When Colorado voters in November passed Amendment 64, which legalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use, it led to a number of questions. Most uncertainty surrounds the conflict between the new state law and federal law, under which marijuana remains illegal. Amendment 64 will be signed into law in January and take effect in January 2014.

But for the University of Colorado, the issue is clear. Marijuana threatens to cost the university nearly a billion dollars annually in federal revenue, money we can ill afford to lose.

I was personally opposed to Amendment 64 and worked on my own time to defeat it. But it passed and CU, like many entities, is working to determine the implications.

The glaring practical problem is that we stand to lose significant federal funding. CU must comply with the federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which compels us to ban illicit drugs from campus. Our campuses bring in more than $800 million in federal research funds, not to mention nearly an additional $100 million in funding for student financial aid. The loss of that funding would have substantial ripple effects on our students and our state. CU contributes $5.3 billion to Colorado’s economy annually, a good portion of it derived from our research.”

Now, independent of your view on the legalization of marijuana, my immediate reaction was that this doesn’t make any sense to me. Last night at dinner, I asked Amy, who is on the Wellesley College board, what she thought. We talked about it for a while and agreed that it seemed extremely inappropriate for Benson to be using his role as CU President to advocate his personal position on this, especially in the context of a threat of losing a billion dollars of federal funding. Neither of us knew the exact rules here, but it just didn’t sound right to me.

This morning, I saw a response from Congressman Jared Polis – our local congressman, a longtime friend of mine and very successful entrepreneur.  Jared’s post was clear and unambiguous – CU Federal Funding Unaffected by Amendment 64: Benson’s Statement Alarmist and Irresponsible.

“The University of Colorado is not in jeopardy of losing a single dime of federal funding due to Amendment 64. President Benson has allowed his personal opposition to Amendment 64 to compromise his responsibility to the university by spreading an alarmist claim that has no basis in fact.

“The legality of marijuana in Colorado tomorrow will not impact CU any more than the legality of alcohol does today. The federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act requires universities to adopt and implement drug prevention programs to prevent the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs or alcohol by students and employees on school premises or as part of any of its activities. The University’s alcohol and drug policy bans the use of alcohol and marijuana on campus and satisfies the federal requirement.

“I will not stand by and allow the reputation of the University of Colorado to be sullied by the non-existent threat of losing one billion dollars. As the federal representative the University of Colorado at Boulder, I want to reassure parents, students, and faculty that CU is not in danger of losing any federal funding due to Amendment 64. I call upon President Benson to immediately retract his message and clarify that the University is not in danger of losing any federal funds due to the passage of Amendment 64.”

I respect Benson’s personal position, but I’m offended that he’d use his position the way he just did. Jared is right – Benson owes the members of the CU community a retraction.

  • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

    I’m puzzled as to what Benson has to gain from this.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Me too. I just don’t get it.

  • Joe Wallin

    Maybe the Obama administration has told him they are going to crack down.

  • http://engag.io/ William Mougayar

    Rob Ford, Toronto’s mayor is being ousted from office with a 14-day notice for violating the Provincial conflict of interest ethic after he received $3,150 donations to his private football foundation, based on requests he made on city letterhead. (he’s appealing, but it looks like he’s on his way out).

    Does CU have a Conflict of Interest law or policy? I would check that. Then, you would ask yourselves if you’re just going to be offended and appalled, or take action if there is ground for it. There are precedents.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_of_interest

  • CliffElam

    I’m sure he takes plenty of personal positions in his role – against bullying, for multiculturalism, for increased capital spending (*cough* increased tuition *cough*), for graduate student unions (or maybe not :-), etc.

    He’s merely taking a position that some people find offensive.

    FWIW, I have no dog in the fight and no position on the matter, just my observation.

    -XC

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I have no problem with him taking this position personally, but I think it’s inappropriate for him to use his role as President of CU to make the kind of statement that he’s made.

      • CliffElam

        Exactly. I suspect if you go back through is previous positions you’ll find places where he’s taken positions that didn’t offend you (or even come to your notice) but might have bothered someone with different political leanings.

        It’s why I’m so dang careful at work.

        -XC

  • http://www.facebook.com/twalker920 Tom Walker

    I got the same email from CU. It struck me as very strongly worded, and obviously personally biased. Also, being an alumnus, I was surprised because I don’t get emails like that often, in fact hardly ever. So this seemed to me like a knee-jerk reaction, mostly to defend Benson’s own position. Now that I’ve read Mr. Polis’ piece, it makes no sense at all. Benson’s wires are crossed, and that makes me concerned for what other bad decisions might be made for CU in the future. If no retraction is forthcoming, I’d push for a change.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Yup. I too get very few messages from Benson and it surprises me how he approached this.

      • Kendall

        He is getting bad counsel or has an agenda. Embarrassing.

  • http://twitter.com/andyidsinga andyidsinga

    just to play devils advocate for a second – if Benson wasn’t clear on the facts, or has legitimate disagreement about what are and are not facts (presumably because he consults the people around him) – wouldn’t this be exactly the kind of thing to use his position for?

    I guess my point is this – beat the guy up for getting the facts wrong, conflicts, or any number of things including being on the wrong side of the marijuana issue …but don’t beat him up for using his position to take a stand on an issue he considers important (like a billion $).

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I guess I strongly believe the opposite of what you are suggesting, which is presumably why you view this as a devils advocate position!

      • http://twitter.com/andyidsinga andyidsinga

        Devils advocate because while I don’t agree with his position on the issue about marijuana its costs …I want to defend his use of his office as a soapbox for an issue he believes is important.

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          “Defend the use of his office as a soapbox.” CU is a public university. He’s got clear responsibilities associated with that. And I think using his position as a soapbox for a personal opinion is not one of them.

  • http://chipgriffin.com Chip Griffin

    After reading both statements and a news story with quotes from a CU spokesperson, my conclusion is that Benson needs to get a better ghostwriter. It seems that he was trying to say that CU couldn’t change its own marijuana policy without putting the federal funding at risk. The Polis statement appears to support that point of view. Unfortunately, Benson’s statement is a bit rambling and makes it seem like the funds are at risk merely because the referendum passed. A good reminder to everyone that words matter.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Yup.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=702606570 Cole Morrison

    Wow. Unbelievable. Such a “fundamentalist” statement. It amazes me how much “morality” that people latch onto the usage of marijuana.

  • http://www.engag.io/Abdallah Abdallah Al-Hakim

    The entire letter read very strange to me. It is ridiculous for anyone to believe that a school is going to lose its entire funding because of a new state law. Also, i am fairly sure that Colorado is not the first state to pass such a law, so what happened in the other state universities?

  • Jackson

    Soo isn’t Benson’s message simply that marijuana remains banned on campus? Polis reinforces this but with a different tone.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I think he could have simply said that if that’s what he wanted to communicate. Instead, he went on some weird rant about federal funding.

      • http://chipgriffin.com Chip Griffin

        I disagree slightly. I think the federal funding piece was relevant to his explanation of why CU would continue to ban marijuana. I imagine there are many who would like to see CU change that policy, so explaining why it would remain status quo is an intelligent communications decision. I just think he should have said so directly rather than in a meandering way that left ambiguity over his message.

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          Maybe, but I didn’t read it that way given the other stuff I’ve seen from him.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/TomLabus Tom Labus

    There are a lot more important issues for any university that he should be addressing.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Indeed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10214823 Tom Long

    Maybe it was an attempt to assure parents that their children are not applying to the college of “pot”. CU is in the middle of application season after all. But the college of “no funding” is even worse.

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  • http://filtrbox.com/blog arinewman

    Agree this makes no sense. Even if he’s opposed, he’s only hurting the institution he runs with this kind of positioning. A reinforcement that CU will remain within the federal rules around the Drug-Free act would have been appropriate, or even some messaging that the impact is being studied. This is over the top and feels like some political posturing we’d see in a campaign.

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  • Robert Dewey

    Every now and then I hear a story about the feds coming in and busting up some elderly people for growing medical marijuana (legal here in Michigan). Not sure why they have been trying to clamp down so hard, but the citizens of the state have CLEARLY made their stance on the issue. As far as I’m concerned, the feds need to see their way out and pick on real criminals. Leave Grandma Ganjapuff alone.

    http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2011/06/judge_state_must_turn_over_med.html

  • Shane Schieffer

    I didn’t take it as fearmongering so much as a rant by someone who came across as powerless in the situation. The very statement that it is within the university’s power to ban marijuana, yet without any declaration that he is doing so (nor taking any other action) caused me to comment to my wife that his letter came across without a clear purpose and therein reflected poorly on CU’s leadership and thus CU itself. It reminded me of middle management in a big corporation: lots of noise, a victim mentality, and no action.

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