The typical career path for AAPG members leads directly to the petroleum industry – but occasionally, members veer in other directions. Bruce Benson did both.
Benson started Benson Mineral Group in 1965 and guided the successful oil and gas company for more than 40 years. The veer came in early 2008, when he was named the 22nd president of the University of Colorado system.
That system includes three campuses at four locations, 54,000 students, 25,000 employees, a $2.4 billion annual budget and a national reputation in both the sciences and the humanities.
While the switch from oil and gas company president to university president may seem dramatic, it really wasn’t that much of a stretch for Benson. He has long had a passion for education, particularly higher education, and has been involved at varying levels of the enterprise for more than 30 years.
“I haven’t entirely left the oil and gas industry, although it’s been taking less and less of my time in recent years,” Benson said. “However, I do stay current with what’s happening.
“I have been involved in higher education in various ways for the past 24 years,” he continued, “from chairing the statewide oversight commission to serving on task forces to chairing the Metro State College Board of Trustees, so the move was not as much of a change as people would expect.”
In 1986, then-Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm appointed Benson to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, where for three years he chaired the oversight board for the state’s 28 public colleges and universities. Two subsequent Colorado governors appointed him to education panels. He also chaired the Board of Trustees of Metro State College of Denver from 2002-07.
“The transition to the university was relatively easy, given my long-time involvement with higher education,” Benson said. “While I stay current with the oil and gas industry and remain involved in small ways, the demands of the university presidency occupy me seven days a week.”
The physical and emotional transitions went smoothly. CU’s downtown Denver offices are three blocks away from Benson Mineral Group’s headquarters. And his roll-up-your-sleeves and tackle issues head-on approach works as well in higher education as it did in the oil and gas industry.
His passion for education runs parallel to his passion for geology. After starting his education at Cornell University in the late 1950s, he headed west to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he earned his geology degree in 1964.
While pursuing his master’s at CU, he also was pursuing oil in Kansas. He borrowed money, took out mineral leases and began drilling wells by himself.
When he returned to CU to meet with his adviser, Bruce Curtis, the professor asked about his progress. Benson told him he had drilled 11 wells and 10 were producers – but he was still working on his thesis.
Curtis offered the best advice an adviser could give – keep drilling wells and finish the master’s later.
Today, Benson retains a fondness for CU’s geology program and an interest in its progress. He sometimes attends departmental events and also finds time to visit with students. But the scope of his vision is considerably wider.
“Our geology department does a great job and is in capable hands,” he said. “My focus is on our 54,000 students and our $2.4 billion annual budget. My goal is to raise the profile of the entire university.”
After listening to Bruce Curtis’ advice, he grew Benson Mineral Group into one of the West’s most successful oil and gas companies while expanding into real estate, banking and restaurants, among other ventures.
But Benson is more than a businessman. He got involved in myriad civic and philanthropic endeavors, making his mark on the Denver Zoo, the Boy Scouts of America, the Denver Public Schools Foundation and the National Parks Foundation, among a host of others.
Politics is another passion; he was the Republican gubernatorial nominee for Colorado in 1994 and chaired the state Republican Party twice, from 1987-93 and 2002-03.
Benson’s most indelible mark may be the one he has made, and continues to make, on his alma mater. He and his wife, Marcy, (“My partner in all I do,” he says) co-chaired CU’s successful $1 billion Comprehensive Fundraising Campaign from 1997-2003. He led the fundraising effort for a new geology building, the Benson Earth Sciences Building, and has donated more than $9 million to CU.
CU granted him an honorary doctorate of humane letters degree in 2004. His philanthropic efforts toward renovating CU’s old geology building led to another naming opportunity. And in a nice recognition of sound advice, CU-Boulder is now home to the Bruce Curtis Building.