ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — University of New Mexico presidential finalist Elizabeth “Betsy” Hoffman says her leadership ability should be judged by her recent success as provost at Iowa State University, and not the scandal-plagued year that ended her presidency at the University of Colorado in 2005.
Hoffman, 65, will hold public meetings on campus today. She also will meet privately with regents, who are scheduled to decide Jan. 4 which of five finalists will replace David Schmidly when his contract expires in May.
UNM leaders say Hoffman has a depth of knowledge in higher education and a track record of making improvements with the support of faculty. Her colleagues at other universities agree.
Hoffman, in a phone interview, said her experience could help steer a new course at UNM.
“One of the things that I have been able to do at other universities is to help them think about what they’re best at, and how to leverage the strength they have to move to the next level,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said she would like to work on improving graduation rates, but a plan to do so will require in-depth conversations with students, faculty and university leaders to understand what strategy might work best. UNM graduates 45.1 percent of students within six years, well below the national average of 55 percent.
Hoffman, who was president of the University of Colorado from 2000 to 2005, was heavily criticized for her handling of scandals in 2004 and 2005. She resigned under pressure from university regents.
Hoffman drew scorn for supporting former professor Ward Churchill, who compared Sept. 11 victims to Nazis.
She also was criticized for failing to act quickly enough after several women alleged they had been raped by University of Colorado football players and recruits.
In particular, Hoffman was blasted in 2004 when she addressed rape allegations made by then-UNM place kicker Katie Hnida during Hnida’s time at Colorado. Hoffman told attorneys during a heated deposition that the vulgar female anatomical slur leveled at Hnida by a Colorado teammate was sometimes “used as a term of endearment.” Hoffman, who has studied history, pointed to Old English uses of the expletive.
Days later, she told reporters at The Durango Herald that she was “immediately sorry.”
“We’re talking about things that happened almost eight years ago,” Hoffman said in an interview with the Journal. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons, and my experience at Iowa State has been immensely valuable. So I would certainly hope that people would look at my record at Iowa State, look at my record the first three years I was at the University of Colorado and look at my entire record and see that I have an outstanding record of service.”
Hoffman has worked since 2007 as provost at Iowa State University, where faculty praise her as a strong leader with committed support for academics.
Many at Iowa State were “cautiously pessimistic in her ability to come to Iowa State and be successful after what happened in Colorado, but I think she’s proved those people wrong,” said Steven Freeman, who leads the faculty board. “… She has a level of experience, that particularly as a provost, not many people have.”
Freeman said faculty at Iowa State would be disappointed to see her leave.
At Colorado, faculty admired Hoffman’s attempt to stand up to regents in defense of the academic freedom that Churchill pushed to an extreme. His comments about Sept. 11 victims drew national protest.
“We thought she got manhandled and mistreated,” Colorado professor Jerry Peterson said. “I myself wish she had stuck to her guns longer, but it wasn’t working,” Peterson now chairs the Boulder campus’ faculty assembly.
Jerry Rutledge, who led the Colorado board of regents when Hoffman resigned, did not return calls for comment.
Some at UNM have raised questions about the University of Colorado’s requirement that faculty sign an oath of loyalty to the United States, but faculty there say the decades-old practice is a requirement of the regents and not the president.
Hoffman’s leadership, including an effort to better connect the school’s main campus with its medical school, was strong enough that she quickly earned back much of the support she had lost after the football scandal, Peterson said. “And that one slip did not endure in the big picture,” he said.
Hnida, the female football player, said she did not hold the “term of endearment” comment against Hoffman. However, she said she had concerns because Hoffman did not say anything in response to Hnida’s allegations of being raped by a teammate in 2001 until after a Sports Illustrated article was published in 2004.
“I think there was such a general lack of leadership when I was at Colorado, it was extremely disappointing,” said Hnida, who transferred to UNM after two years at Colorado. “… I would hope that New Mexico would assess all parts of her background and all parts of her professional experience, and I trust they will make the best decision.”
Hoffman is the second finalist to visit UNM. Other finalists include Douglas Baker, provost at Idaho State University; Robert Frank, provost at Kent State University; Meredith Hay, former provost at the University of Arizona; and Elsa Murano, former president of Texas A&M. Murano was on campus Thursday.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal