Regina Kilkenny sitting inside Student Commons Building

‘Beloved and Versatile’: Regina Kilkenny Talks About Her Next Act at CU Denver and Impact on Campus Culture

Kilkenny approaches a path to retirement and looks toward a two-year assignment focusing on jumpstarting CU Denver’s goals to be an equity-serving, best place to work

December 14, 2021

Whether you’re meeting with her or passing her in a hallway on campus, Regina Kilkenny, PhD, chief of staff in the Chancellor’s Office, has a remarkable way of making all CU Denver community members feel valued and appreciated. With an approaching retirement that is two years away and a desire to slow down (just a bit), Kilkenny has opted to take her unwavering passion for people and channel it into a special strategic role dedicated to building the campus culture described in the 2030 Strategic Plan—a decision that Chancellor Michelle Marks fully supports. In the spring semester, Kilkenny will transition to a two-year, part-time appointment as special assistant of campus culture, reporting to Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration and Strategy Jennifer Sobanet. CU Denver will conduct a national search for the next chief of staff before she officially changes roles.

In her new role, Kilkenny will build upon and support the work of others to help create an organization-wide culture change effort to honor the humanity, talent, and hard work of CU Denver’s people. Her work will center around aligning two goals in the strategic plan—Goal 1, to be the first equity-serving institution in the nation, and Goal 5, to be recognized as a people-centered best place to work. The timing of the transition is ideal as Strategic Plan implementation gets underway.

“I have had the pleasure of getting to know Regina over the last two years, and she has shown me that she is an invaluable, beloved, and highly versatile member of our community,” said Marks. “She has held many different posts at CU Denver and CU and has demonstrated great humanity, care, and wisdom, earning a special place in all of our hearts. When she came to me to discuss her retirement plans, she expressed interest in putting her time and talents toward helping CU Denver at this important strategic moment become a people-centered best place to work where everyone feels welcome and valued. The path to retirement looks different for everyone, and I’m glad that we identified a way to honor Regina’s unique skillset to the greatest benefit of us all. Knowing that she epitomizes the Lynx spirit and the very best of our workplace values, I’m confident she will guide us toward a campus culture that works for all.”

Kilkenny has a wide-ranging and deep history with the University of Colorado, her alma mater. She started her career at CU in 1988 as a member of the government relations team, lobbying the state Legislature on behalf of what would become the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Prior to her role as chief of staff at CU Denver, she served as chief of staff for the Dean of the School of Medicine and the associate vice chancellor for academic resources and services within the Office of the Provost for CU Denver | Anschutz. Throughout her time at CU, she has been extensively involved in DEI initiatives, including the work of CU Denver’s Equity Task Force, and has served in a leadership role for numerous employee searches at CU. She is most passionate about providing a safe and welcoming environment for all who come to CU Denver, which aligns well with her new role.

CU Denver News sat down with Kilkenny to discuss her personal and professional life.

We all know Regina Kilkenny the chief of staff, but who is Regina the person?

One of my biggest pride points is I adopted my daughter and raised her as a single mom. Mia, who is now a senior at CU Boulder, turned 22 last month. I adore her madly. As I like to say, it’s the biggest risk and the greatest reward I’ve ever had. Circumstances didn’t allow me to have a family earlier in my life, so I’m lucky to live in a time when people have lots of options in terms of how to create a family. 

When my daughter started college, it was a big deal because up to that point it was really the two of us as a close-knit family. To keep busy as an empty nester, I took some painting classes. More recently I’ve gotten into acting classes, which I really enjoy. Acting is so much more than standing up on a stage and reading lines. It’s really about diving into every line of the play and talking about how you want others to feel. Learning with other aspiring actors is like being in an episode of Seinfeld. Every person is wonderfully idiosyncratic and interesting. It’s a neat way of getting into this other world.

I am also quite the baker, not the fancy-schmancy stuff but chocolate chip cookies, brownies, cheesecakes, and pies—the traditional stuff we all know and love. 

Tell me about your experience in education. How did it help shape who you are today? 

My dad worked for private universities and was laid off from work when I was a junior in high school. That shifted where I thought I could go to college because I had to support myself financially. I ended up going to CU Boulder. Even though I was a white woman with a middle-class upbringing, I felt different because I was working two to three jobs to make it through. 

I didn’t know how I was going to pay the rent or tuition or fees and books. I’d sell plasma. I worked in catering and at the front desk at the dorm. I was an RA. I did whatever I could to make ends meet. I was kind of a shy and sheltered gal, believe it or not, and it forced me to get out of my shell and figure things out. And I did. I think my experience helps me understand and empathize with what our students go through. 

There were a couple faculty members at CU Boulder who really took me under their wings during my undergraduate education. One was John Buechner, a political science professor who ended up serving as CU Denver chancellor and then later as CU president from 1995-2000. It was John who asked me years later to come and work for him at CU.

Education opened up my world, in particular my graduate degrees from our own School of Public Affairs. It introduced me to different ideas and people and values, which helped me shape my own.  It’s in the contrast that we learn from others and find out who we are and what we believe.

You’ve held multiple roles at CU Denver, including chief of staff and associate vice chancellor for academic resources and services. How has our campus community changed over the years?

I started my career with the CU System in the Office of Government Relations and the then-University of Colorado Health Sciences Center 34 years ago. About 10 years ago is when I started working much more closely with CU Denver. Over that time, I’ve seen it come into its own. We’re now clear about our direction. We are proud of our deep commitment to increasing social mobility, one student at a time.

What I’ve always loved about this campus is it feels like a small community. Even though it’s growing, it’s still in touch with its small-town roots. It’s the personal networks. I run into people on the street and say, “How is your baby? How are the kids doing?” Many of us have in some ways grown up with each other. 

The campus has also transformed physically. When I was here as a student getting my master’s in public administration, I took classes in what is now the Hotel Teatro. Shortly thereafter, North Classroom was built. Over time, the university has really created an identity, through the look and feel of its buildings, its mascot, and its branding. We are a choice, a primary selection. And, luckily, it is still a nice place to work. In other words, people are kind here. I want to retain and instill that kindness across the board as we strive to be the best, which makes my new assignment the ideal passion project for me.

In your next role, you will be focusing on the integration of goals 1 and 5 in the Strategic Plan and creating a positive, welcoming workplace culture. What excites you most about this opportunity?

What excites me most is bringing groups together to work on a common goal. I love the blend of the diversity, equity, and inclusion space next to the HR space, interspersed with the International Affairs, Faculty Affairs and Staff Council spaces, because we want all individuals to feel welcome and blossom here. It’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to work in the sweet spots, and it’s a treat to be at the center of the Venn diagram to explore how our policies and values align.

I want CU Denver to have a remarkably welcoming culture that is consistently supportive. And, it needs to be a culture of shared responsibility where DEI is part of everything we do, including how we are engaging and supporting our people. I will be looking at our policies and values and the ways we are modeling who we are. With new and promoted Cabinet members on board, a new Strategic Plan, and several major initiatives underway, it’s the perfect time to look at how we are in alignment on being an equity-serving, best place to work.

Looking back at your time as the chancellor’s chief of staff, what makes you most proud?

I have been honored to be in this role for several years where I never stop learning. Some of my favorite projects were setting the stage for the Equity Task Force and cabinet search committees to come together and move from individual ideas to collective visions. The common theme was creating space to listen to voices across our campus community and move forward in new ways. For example, what policies get in our way of being an equity-serving institution? Who is creatively finding ways to develop career paths for our employees? How can academic curiosity and innovation be ignited and sustained? I continue to witness incredible talent and dedication within our staff and faculty in supporting students academically and personally. And students are beating incredible odds to stay in school. It’s the shared goal that brings us together and our previous successes that we can build upon.

During Michelle Marks’ first days as chancellor, I joined her for 20 equity listening sessions in 10 days. This intensive experience reminded me that this is a campus where people rise to the occasion again and again. I want to sustain that trust and make sure we continue to improve.  Michelle has a unique way of blending her faculty expertise in team development, listening intently to stories, and translating those experiences into strategic action. She invites input, carefully considers what can be done, and fearlessly moves forward. Seeing a powerful, wicked-smart leader gives me more hope than I’ve ever had for CU Denver and its future. While I’ll miss being in the center of things, I am excited about the opportunity to bring together talented people to find ways to truly make a long-term difference. That’s the goal and I’m ready to tackle it. Thanks to the support of people all around here. I am incredibly proud to be a member of the Lynx community and look forward to helping lift us up even further.