How a charismatic but controversial man brought the world to campus
What would Howard Higman (Art’31, MSoc’42) have done with a cell phone?
The late CU sociology professor, best known as founding maestro of the annual Conference on World Affairs, never had anything but a land line at his home on 11th Street in Boulder, but he surely would have loved an iPhone or Blackberry. By some accounts, he had as many as 17 telephones stashed throughout the house, so he could call anyone — R. Buckminster Fuller, Roger Ebert, Henry Kissinger, columnist Molly Ivins — at a moment’s notice.
“He would call anybody, cold call the president, and just get them talking,” says professional musician Don Grusin (Soc’63, MEcon’67), a regular conference participant who took classes from Higman and volunteered for the conference in the mid-1960s.
A communications genius, almost preternaturally persuasive, brilliantly manipulative and absolutely fearless, Higman died in 1995 at age 80. He was, say friends, the kindest, most giving man they’ve known yet also frightening, tyrannical and exasperating.
“I always say he was Byronic [referring to an idealized but flawed character who appeared in the writings of Lord Byron],” says Maura Clare, the conference public affairs director who worked closely with Higman from 1989 until his death. “He was brilliant and outrageous in every direction. He was outrageously loving as well as combative.”
Coming up on its 62nd year, the Conference on World Affairs would not exist without Higman. Through the decades it has become the most curiously successful event of its kind in America, drawing intellectuals, writers, filmmakers, pop-culture icons, politicians and journalists to Boulder for a week in April — for no pay.
“At a time when famous speakers can pull down $10,000 to $25,000 for an hour’s work, this would seem like an offer they could refuse,” wrote film critic Ebert, one of the conference’s long-standing superstars, in his introduction to the co-authored 1998 book Higman: A Collection (Thomas Berryhill Press).
But when Higman got them on the phone he made it sound like a hell of a deal and come they did — everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Huey Newton.
Cell phone? Let’s just say Higman would have needed a plan with lots of minutes.
Connection was the essence of Higman’s life — and the essence of the conference that remains his greatest legacy.
“Howard brought the world to Boulder,” says retired CU English professor John Murphy, 86, who worked with Higman on the conference beginning in 1961.
For a man who would make Boulder the happening place to be every April for worldly figures of all kinds, Higman, who was born on campus before the medical school moved to Denver, was surprisingly content to stay put in his hometown. He spent a year teaching in England and attended a couple of conferences in Europe but that was the extent of his travels.
Building a following
The conference began in 1948, after Higman and some friends heard Louis Dolivet, who worked for the United Nations (a “French communist, more or less,” Higman wrote), speak in Estes Park. They asked Dolivet to come to Boulder for a talk. He agreed, provided they would pick him up. That two-hour session in Old Main “mesmerized” the audience, and Higman and friends persuaded CU President Bob Stearns to pony up $500 for a United Nations Conference on World Affairs.
“He knew world affairs very well,” says Edie Morris (Mktg’44), 87, who served on
Higman’s tightly controlled coordinating committee for more than 30 years. “And he knew his students, what would appeal to them. He knew the people to bring in.”
He focused on military, diplomatic and government types, although he tolerated a few “touchy-feely” guests and sessions, Murphy says. From the start, the conference has been remarkably relevant — and prescient. Consider panels on The Arab World and Palestine and Afghan Nationalism listed in programs for 1948 and 1959, respectively.
Higman ran the show through 1994, ruling his hand-picked committee, some say, like a dictator. Yet the “principles” he established for the conference have contributed to its success: No Colorado residents as panelists, guests must agree to stay the whole week and bunk with local host families, none is paid and all panels are free and open to the public. That eliminated squabbling on campus over invitations, ensured students could attend and forced guests to stay focused.
“We would hold them captive for the week . . . They didn’t have to go home and walk the dog or go to their daughter’s ballet recital,” Clare says. “We sort of wanted them to feel like they’ve landed on Mars.”
But participants usually found Mars quite to their liking. Beyond the intellectually energizing panels, dinner parties thrown by Howard and his wife Marion were legendary for their sumptuousness, freewheeling conversation and hard drinking.
“I remember one speaker saying, ‘If you are invited to the conference, good God, go,’ ” says Betty Brandenburg (A&S’55) who served as secretary for Higman and the conference for some 40 years.
J. Edgar Hoover as God
Higman was an open book, which, some say, paved the way for his utter fearlessness. He frequently, yet politely, told off CU regent Joseph Coors and more famously went head-to-head with conservative student and 1958 Miss
America Marilyn Van Derbur (Engl’60) during a heated classroom debate, which led him into a confrontation with J. Edgar Hoover.
After Van Derbur reported to her father, a friend of Hoover’s, that Higman had called the FBI “secret police” in class, the agency began secretly investigating him. But nothing Hoover threw at Higman — he “liked boys” or that he was a member of the Communist Party — stuck.
“Howard finally held a press conference,” Clare says. “He rarely apologized, but this time he did get up and say he was sorry for having referred to the FBI as ‘secret police.’ Then he said, ‘I now realize that it is a church, and
J. Edgar Hoover is God.’ ”
But along with his fearlessness were his incredible people skills. CU physics professor emeritus Al Bartlett recalls how Higman ingeniously managed student rumblings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When students clamored for the regents to close the university for two weeks to allow them to campaign for elections in the fall (“It was never going to happen,” Bartlett says), Higman sent a questionnaire to incoming freshmen asking if they wanted to have classes canceled.
“If the kids had overwhelmingly said yes, he thought we would be well advised to know in advance,” Bartlett recalls. “But we expected them to say no, and they did.”
It was a gamble, but it gave the faculty and regents a tool to fight a bad idea that could have resulted in violent unrest.
But for all his brilliance and magnetism, even close friends don’t have to be prompted into describing Higman’s dark side. He could be difficult when sober, brutal and impossible when drinking.
“When he was drunk, he was mean,” Brandenburg says. “He never had a drink before 5 o’clock, so he wasn’t what you’d call the average alcoholic. He said, ‘I am a drunk, that’s what I am.’ ”
He was jailed in 1993 after a drunken episode at his home and pleaded guilty to harassment charges.
Dismantling the old boys’ club
By the late ’80s, there were complaints that the conference was an “old boys’ club” with too few women and minority participants. Higman ferociously resisted any and all pressures and refused to surrender any control.
“He nearly killed the conference,” says Jane Weinberg Butcher (IntAf’66), conference co-chair, recalling remarks she made in the 1990s. She sees Higman as a genius who tragically wasn’t able “to keep as many balls in the air” as he grew older.
CU-Boulder chancellor James Corbridge pulled the plug on university support after the 1994 conference, and Higman was out.
Higman was distraught. “I remember seeing Howard on campus with tears in his eyes saying, ‘They changed the locks on my door,’ ” Bartlett recalls.
But after “going dark” for just a year, a revamped conference, with a much larger steering committee, more varied participants and a commitment to keeping Higman’s principles, was planned for 1996.
“[Howard] did come to the first (planning) meeting when we brought it back,” Butcher says. “We weren’t quite sure what to expect. But he just sat very quietly at the back of the room.”
Higman died in November 1995 of pneumonia and never saw the conference phoenix rise.
Just as they seem unable to talk about him without acknowledging how difficult he could be — drunk or sober — friends, colleagues and conference participants speak of Higman in awestruck superlatives.
“He was a genius,” Morris says, tearing up. “I just love the man. I thought he was wonderful. I miss him.”
With state support for higher education in decline, the conference relies on donors to keep Boulder’s largest, oldest and most beloved event free and open to the public. Please make an investment by giving online at www.colorado.edu/cwa/donate.html or by contacting Maura Clare at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-492-8611.