The New U

MSU Denver has unveiled a five-year plan to transform the University into one of the nation’s best.

By Leslie Petrovski

Publish Date: April 22, 2013

 U
 Illustration: Matt Dunn

Except for the late-night efforts of employees like Miguel Garza-Wicker (B.F.A. art '10) to transition the school’s website, the July 1, 2012, transformation of Metropolitan State College of Denver to Metropolitan State University of Denver was largely a quiet affair.

That day a simple promo posted on MSU Denver's website announced: “Colorado’s newest university!”

The near-seamless change marked the end of more than two years of research, institutional soul searching and legislative action authorizing the school to change its name on July 1.

As President Stephen Jordan said before a throng of about 650 students, faculty, staff, dignitaries and other well-wishers at the April 18, 2012, bill signing ceremony, “This might be the best day yet to be a Roadrunner! This isn’t the end, though. Rather it’s the beginning of a new era for Metro State.”

 

DEFINING A NEW ERA

What exactly will that era look like? A 26-page strategic plan offers some clues.

In a year that saw the University change its name and transform its public face with capital projects that included the Student Success Building and the Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center, a group of MSU Denver faculty, staff and administrators shaped a document that will drive the institution philosophically for the next five years. Adopted by the Board of Trustees in April 2012, the aptly named 2012–17 strategic plan, “A Time of Transformation,” articulates an ambitious vision for the University.

“The strategic plan provides a broad template for the future that allows for innovation, creativity and growth,” Jordan explains. “I am confident that it will move us further down the path to preeminence.”

The plan’s first page paints a portrait of what the University hopes to look like in 2017. The institution it describes offers an exemplary education characterized by real-world experiences, high standards and personal attention. It’s a school where diverse students, faculty and staff are respected and valued, and a school that is nearing its goal of becoming a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution. The plan finds that the University has deeply embedded itself in the community as a partner in business and community improvement efforts. And it has attained a regional and national reputation for being Colorado’s urban land-grant university and leading public urban institution.

More concretely, the MSU Denver of 2017 will be closing in on its goal of 25 percent Latino student enrollment while also serving as a model for recruiting and retaining students, faculty and staff from other under-represented groups. Undergraduate student graduation and retention rates will be stronger; prospective students will begin making MSU Denver their university of choice rather than their university of default. And businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations will seek out the University’s brain trust and resources to help solve business and community problems.

“This plan is going to help realize the potential of this outstanding urban university,” says Rob Cohen, chair of the MSU Denver Board of Trustees. “In 2017 we are going to have a place at the table in local and state policy discussions. Businesses and community organizations will be looking to us for interns, research and development assistance and new hires. And we are finally going to be recognized for offering not just an affordable education, but for offering an excellent, real-world, urban experience that appeals to the most diverse population of students imaginable.”

 

SETTING HIGH EXPECTATIONS

The strategic plan underpins some lofty goals. At the meeting in which the board accepted the strategic plan, Patrick Sanaghan, president of The Sanaghan Group and a consultant on the plan’s development, called it a “very aspirational document” but listed several institutional qualities he thought would drive its success. These included having the right president at the right time; the University’s commitment to transparency, assessment and a high-quality faculty; and the deep community affection employees have for the place.

“Pay attention to your culture,” he told the board. “It will be your competitive edge.”

Physics Professor and Faculty Senate President Kamran Sahami sees the strategic plan as providing a bold outline for the future of MSU Denver that faculty and staff will fill in in coming years. Sahami co-chaired the Strategic Planning Committee with Cathy Lucas, associate to the president for marketing and communications and chief of staff.

“One of the things that sets it apart,” Sahami says, “is that it doesn’t prescribe specific actions to take. It creates a framework for a vision of the campus and what it should be, and it allows a tremendous amount of flexibility for faculty, administration and staff to look at specific ideas and projects of their own to get the institution there.”

Looking at the plan on her desk, Provost Vicki Golich points to immediate changes she would like to see, such as contacting students at academic risk earlier in the semester and helping current and former students with large numbers of credits to finish their degrees more efficiently through t he Center for Individualized Learning.

“To me, it really focuses us on the effort to recruit, retain and graduate students — with the highest quality education possible — who are ready and prepared to go into the workforce and be good members of the community,” she says. “It will be a living document that will help us achieve those goals.”

 

PUTTING THE PLAN INTO ACTION

Giving the plan “ legs” is the next hurdle. As fall semester loomed, Tara Tull, assistant professor and chair of the Department of Human Services, was making notes on the plan in anticipation of the strategic planning her department will begin soon.

She expects the department will start by having discussions about members’ collective strengths and weaknesses, new initiatives and how their plans converge with the goals and planning points articulated in the University plan. Last spring, the department got a jump-start on addressing “student success and degree completion” by conducting a survey about barriers to graduation. An open-ended question revealed that while most students think the department is doing a great job at advising, some students feel they have received inconsistent information.

To address this issue, Tull says, department faculty will get additional training, and she plans to create resource guides for the complicated institutional procedures and rules students need to know to graduate.

“Strategic planning creates a space for dialogue among departments and in departments about where they’re going,” Tull says. “Strategic planning, when it’s done well, gives you an opportunity to look at the big picture.”

Alumna Joan Foster (B.A. biology ’78) — dean of MSU Denver’s School of Letters, Arts and Sciences — agrees that strategic planning in general offers people a way to step back from quotidian concerns and cast an eye on where the University is headed. She envisions continuing to enhance the academic climate in her school with more opportunities for undergraduate research and additional ways to get students to enrich their educations through community engagement.

 

EMBRACING THE LAND-GRANT MISSION

The community engagement piece is central to the strategic plan and the institution’s idea of itself as an urban land-grant university, a concept Jordan voiced in his first speech to the MSU Denver community in 2005, where he outlined a vision for an institution that breaks down the notion of the Ivory Tower academy to one that behaves instead like the land-grant schools established under the 1862 Morrill Act.

“The Morrill Act essentially provided for a working relationship between those who faced problems and those who were involved in finding solutions to problems,” Jordan said. “County agents in agricultural extension centers were available to work directly with farmers and ranchers in problem solving, and in so doing they relied heavily on upon the knowledge and expertise of those in the faculties of the land-grant colleges and universities. Students at land-grant institutions were afforded the opportunities to learn theories and practices which would be of value as they entered the work force.”

Signs of progress are everywhere

Last summer President Jordan made the bold move to increase the University’s diversity even further by offering the Colorado High School/GED Non-resident Tuition Rate, making MSU Denver more affordable for hundreds of undocumented students. A new aviation and advanced manufacturing building will involve industry partners in the planning and financing.

“In 2017 it’s not just MSU Denver that will have grown and changed,” Jordan says, “but also the city of Denver.”

The January/February 2013 issue of Trusteeship Magazine, published by the Association of Governing Boards, featured articles collected under the headline, “A Tale of Two Cities: Using Public/Private Partnerships to Create Higher Education Opportunities.” A piece about Denver by MSU Denver President Jordan discussed the Hospitality Learning Center and the Center for Innovation’s Franchise Ownership Program. A second article about New York focused on the City University of New York (CUNY).

“When I came to MSU Denver eight years ago, I used CUNY as an example of the kind of preeminent urban institution we should aspire to be,” Jordan says. “So to be recognized side by side with CUNY shows the progress we’ve made.”

Dean Foster remembers hanging out with fellow science students at the Chicken Unlimited on Colfax before the institution even had a campus. She says she never expected her “Metro State” to become the shining university it is today.

“To see this growth and see us still holding tight to this mission of serving the urban population and providing accessibility to students who might not otherwise go to college — it’s the best mix,” she says. “Where else could you go where you’d have this mix of students? You can’t beat Metro State.”

Review the MSU Denver strategic plan.

Read more about the University’s name change transition