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University of Colorado Chief Resigns

The Nation

Elizabeth Hoffman had been under pressure over athletic department scandals and a professor who compared Sept. 11 victims to a Nazi.

March 08, 2005|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — University of Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffman announced her resignation Monday amid pressure generated by sex and recruiting scandals in the Boulder campus' athletic department and an uproar over comments by a professor who compared the Sept. 11 victims to a Nazi war criminal.

"A lot of these issues predate me, but at some point it doesn't matter," Hoffman said in an interview. "President Truman said the buck stops here, and it does. The events swirling around the university and questions about me have distracted us from dealing with other important issues."

Hoffman's leadership had come under increased scrutiny as problems at the university system's Boulder campus grew.

First were reports alleging that the football program used alcohol, sex and strippers to lure recruits. Then a paper surfaced by Ward L. Churchill, an ethnic studies professor, likening those killed in the World Trade Center to Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann.

Last week, a leaked grand jury report said two female trainers had accused an assistant football coach of sexually assaulting them. The report also said thousands of dollars from head coach Gary Barnett's football camp were in a slush fund stashed in 16 spots on campus.

Jerry Rutledge, chairman of the University of Colorado Board of Regents, said Monday that Hoffman was not pushed out and had offered her resignation. Her steady hand, he said, would be missed.

"However, it has become clear to many in the CU family that our university ... has suffered greatly from a series of controversies that seem to be growing, not abating," Rutledge said at a news conference. "In my discussions with President Hoffman in recent days, it was apparent to both of us that her support had been waning for some time."

Regent Patricia Hayes said Hoffman's job had become nearly impossible.

"I think all the regents realized she was in a lose-lose situation," Hayes said. "Everything was focusing on her in a negative way. She was generous enough to resign."

The resignation, effective June 30 or when a replacement is found, comes at a crucial time.

The university is expected this week to wrap up a monthlong investigation into Churchill's writings and background. The professor's claim to be a Native American, the veracity of his scholarship and how he got tenure so quickly without a doctorate are being questioned.

Gov. Bill Owens has demanded that Churchill be fired. The university may announce its decision as early as today.

"I think there is a mentality that someone's head has to roll for all of these troubles," said David Lane, Churchill's lawyer. "Maybe this will satisfy that bloodlust. Hoffman has been a strong promoter of academic freedom, and has borne the brunt of all these things that happened at CU, which she has no control over."

Churchill has vowed to sue the university if he is fired.

Throughout the fall, problems swirled around the university's football program. Barnett -- who said he would like to comment on the grand jury report but was not allowed to discuss the investigation -- was suspended briefly for derogatory comments he made about female kicker Katie Hnida, who said she was sexually assaulted while at the university. The school's athletic director, Dick Tharp, resigned in November.

The university, with a reputation as one of the nation's top party schools, also gained notoriety following the deaths of several students from alcohol poisoning. All of the negative attention, regents said, has taken a toll. Out-of-state applications are down 19%.

Critics said that Hoffman, 58, had failed to act boldly -- for example, ignoring calls to fire Barnett and others in the athletic department.

"It appears she acted on some really bad advice from her attorneys and the regents," said Peggy Lamm, who co-chaired a panel that examined the recruiting scandal. "When we offered our report, I thought it would prompt them to take a hard look and do some serious housecleaning -- and they didn't."

Hoffman has balked at demands that Churchill be fired. In a speech Thursday, she warned of "dangerous times" and a new McCarthyism, where people with unpopular viewpoints were being targeted.

Some backers said Monday that Hoffman, president since September 2000, was paying for the mistakes of others.

"From what I know of her performance, she did quite a fine job," said Paul Campos, a University of Colorado law professor. "The football scandal and Ward Churchill are things she inherited because of the poor decision-making of her predecessors. I think Churchill may have been the tipping point."

As the criticism increased, Hoffman said Monday, it became harder for her to advocate on behalf of the university.

"The most important issue facing us is the fiscal health of the university," she said. "Ward Churchill has been a very large distraction in the last month, at a time when I need to put together a budget for higher education that will at least stop us from falling backward."

She rejected claims that she lacked decisiveness.

"I wouldn't go back and change any major decision I made. Making real, systemic, cultural change is a whole lot harder than making personnel decisions," she said. "What is bold is in the eye of the beholder."

Hoffman said she did not know what she would do next.

"One possibility is a national leadership role, to speak out for public higher education," she said.

But the last few months have been hard.

"It's very difficult to be attacked personally," she said. "I have always stood on principle. I have strong core values. I am the same person I have always been."

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