CU Denver faculty participate in a panel at the Community Town Hall on Publicly-Engaged Scholarship.
Andrew Guerrero, instructor of music and entertainment industry studies in the College of Arts & Media, left, and Dean Laurence Kaptain

Transforming for impact: CU Denver’s future is interdisciplinary and engaged

August 19, 2019

Albert Einstein once wrote, “All religions, arts and sciences are branches from the same tree.”

This metaphor served as inspiration for campus and community leaders gathered at the Community Town Hall on Publicly Engaged Scholarship, which was hosted in RiNO by the College of Arts & Media Aug.14.

Faculty from the inaugural cohort of TIAA Chancellor’s Urban Engaged Scholars took the stage, with their deans, to share their journeys in publicly engaged scholarship.

The event also explored opportunities for CU Denver to embrace interdisciplinary curricula in order to better prepare students for careers that don’t yet exist.

Integrated skills never expire

“Increased specialization in higher education has caused individual academic disciplines to become fragmented and siloed, obscuring the connections between different forms of human exploration,” said keynote speaker Ashley Bear, PhD, senior program officer with the Board on Higher Education and Workforce at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

In a conversation with Laurie Baefsky, associate dean for research, collaboration and innovation in the College of Arts & Media, Bear shared findings from the seminal NASEM report she co-edited: “Branches from the Same Tree, The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education.”

Bottom line: integrated curriculum across arts, humanities and STEM fields gives students the best chance for success in career readiness and civic engagement, and as lifelong learners.

“Integrated skillsets never expire,” said Bear, especially considering that the jobs of today are expected to phase out and reinvent by 2030. Communication, teamwork, creativity, ethical decision-making, and critical learning will enable CU Denver graduates to be successful wherever the future takes them.

Ashley Bear
Keynote speaker Ashley Bear, PhD, senior program officer with the Board on Higher Education and Workforce at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Baefsky, who served on the NASEM consensus report committee as one of the report’s co-authors, called upon the CU Denver community to overcome barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration, whether they are institutional, bureaucratic, financial, or geographical.

Impact through engagement, doing what they love

Town Hall guests met four of the trailblazing, impact-making TIAA Chancellor’s Urban Engaged Scholars, along with their respective deans, in a chat with CU Denver CityCenter Executive Director Nolbert Chavez.

CityCenter organized a panel of peers from across the university in selecting a single TIAA Chancellor’s Urban Engaged Scholar from each school and college in recognition of outstanding contributions to the Denver-metro region through community-engaged scholarship.  

While the focus of their research was vastly different, from music performance to data science, all four scholars had one thing in common – a dean who signaled a green light for engagement.

College of Arts & Media

  • Andrew Guerrero, instructor of music and entertainment industry studies, TIAA Chancellor’s Urban Engaged Scholar
  • Dean Laurence Kaptain, PhD

Andrew Guerrero, instructor of music and entertainment industry studies in the College of Arts and Media, founded the nonprofit Youth On Record to reach the region’s most vulnerable youth through access to music. His experience playing in the platinum-record band Flobots taught him that it takes more than a great voice to succeed in the booming music industry. Guerrero lists record producing, communication, writing and reading music and business acumen as necessary skills for up-and-coming musicians. 

“Music is a huge thing for economic growth in this city,” Guerrero said with a nod to Kaptain for  integration with the industry. “The more artists Denver produces, the more people come to Denver.”

School of Education & Human Development

  • Antwan Jefferson, PhD, assistant professor of human development and family relations, TIAA Chancellor’s Urban Engaged Scholar
  • Dean Rebecca Kantor, PhD

Antwan Jefferson, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the School of Education and Human Development, approaches his scholarship by always asking, “How do we turn our focus outward, to the city?”

“Things that happen in cities affect children in schools,” said Jefferson, who works with communities to address issues of place and displacement and equity in education. He engages at the individual level with students.

Dean Rebecca Kantor is intentional in orienting the school’s culture and structure to encourage community engagement.

“There is reward for you to define yourself in these engaged ways,” said Kantor, who is a champion of engagement-forward policies for bylaws, tenure and faculty reviews.

Jefferson said that he may have left higher education were it not for Kantor’s support in designing his job duties and teaching load to enable his engaged research. 

“We do things, always, with a sense of engagement,” Jefferson said of CU Denver.

School of Public Affairs 

  • Danielle Varda, PhD, associate professor of public affairs, TIAA Chancellor’s Urban Engaged Scholar
  • Dean Paul Teske, PhD

Danielle Varda, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs, is the director of the Center on Network Science, which serves as the evaluator of Denver Day Works, a program initiated by Mayor Hancock and run through Denver Human Services to address the needs of Denver’s homeless population. Varda takes a human-centered, translatable approach to her work.

“The key to being a community-based researcher is to make things easier to understand,” she said alongside Dean Paul Teske.

College of Architecture & Planning 

  • Jeremy Németh, PhD, associate professor of regional and urban planning, TIAA Chancellor’s Urban Engaged Scholar
  • Dean Nan Ellin, PhD

Jeremy Németh, associate professor and director of the PhD program in the College of Architecture and Planning, studies gentrification, urban design and social equality in the Denver metro region. Living in RiNo when the area underwent gentrification and witnessing the impact on his working class neighbors inspired his work.

Jeremy Németh, associate professor of regional and urban planning in the College of Architecture & Planning

“As engaged scholars, our job is to find these problems – we have expertise and privilege that we need to bring to the table,” Németh said in his conversation with Nan Ellin, dean of the College of Architecture and Planning. 

Scholars not in attendance

  • Francisco Conejo, PhD, senior instructor of marketing, Business School
  • Kevin Rens, PhD, professor of civil engineering, College of Engineering, Design and Computing
  • Esther Sullivan, PhD, assistant professor of sociology, College of Liberal Arts and Science

The bigger picture

“We are public employees – what is our responsibility to Denver, and the region?” Baefsky said. “That is one of the critical questions that we have to continue to ask and answer.”

Work and research performed by the engaged scholars is vital to the health of the university, and to that of society, said Baefsky. She calls for CU Denver to continue nurturing engaged scholarship and continue experimenting with integrated courses while evaluating the impact on students. 

The outcome, CU Denver leaders say, will benefit not only students and staff, but also the Denver metro region in its entirety.