Community First Foundation CEO Kelly Dunkin, Denver Foundation leader Patrick Horvath, and SPA Institute Executive Director Lisa VanRaemdonck at December’s SPA First Fridays Event
Community First Foundation CEO Kelly Dunkin, Denver Foundation leader Patrick Horvath, and SPA Institute Executive Director Lisa VanRaemdonck at December’s SPA First Fridays event.

CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs: For 50 Years, a Place to Lead, Solve, and Change

February 28, 2023

From CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs (SPA) you can go anywhere—but there’s no need to travel far to get there.  

From the school’s 1380 Lawrence Street base, it’s just a 25-minute walk to the State Capitol and the world’s first branch of the United Way. It is less than 30 minutes to the Colorado Health Foundation, Colorado’s largest foundation. In 15 to 20 minutes, you can get to Denver’s mayoral office or police headquarters—plus the state’s departments of education, natural resources, revenue, and human services. And that’s just a few of the important agencies and institutions that support the patchwork quilt of public life across the West.  

No wonder SPA’s early leaders chose CU Denver as the perfect place to throw down roots half a century ago.  

This year, as CU Denver celebrates its own golden anniversary, SPA is also celebrating 50 years of education, research, and outreach that helps cities and communities operate better and more equitably.  

The school’s 7,000 alums include those who run major foundations, serve in elected office, direct nonprofit organizations, and build advocacy groups. They lead universities, government agencies, cities, and towns. They are police chiefs, emergency managers, and trusted advisors to governors and members of Congress. The school has benefited from remarkably stable leadership, with just four deans in 50 years (nationally, dean tenures average about five years). 

And its influence extends far beyond Colorado’s borders: Since the 1980s, U.S. News and World Report has regularly ranked SPA among the top 40 public affairs programs in the country (it is currently 29th). U.S. News also lists five of SPA’s specialty programs among the nation’s top 25, including environmental policy and management, which is tied at 10th with Harvard University’s program. 

At this pivotal moment in SPA’s history, Dean Paul Teske, PhD, feels a renewed sense of value and urgency to the school’s work. “Before, we may have felt comfortable that we’re training people to work in government and nonprofits, and we want them to have the tools of budgets, and HR, and those kind of things,” he said. “But we need to address more. We need to be talking more about democracy, and ethics, and what used to seem like more basic stuff that maybe we all take for granted.” 

How It Started 

Paul Teske, PhD, has been dean of the School of Public Affairs since 2008. 

Though the need for effective government and public policy is as old as civilization, Dean Teske credits President Woodrow Wilson as an early influence on public affairs academic programs. The college professor-turned-politician advocated that a well-run government needed well-trained people to do so efficiently and neutrally. Perspectives like these helped spur expansion of higher education public administration programs during the first half of the 20th century.  

By the 1960s, Teske said, growth in government and other sociopolitical developments increased interest not only in the administration of government programs, but also their effectiveness. CU Denver’s SPA grew out of the University of Colorado’s Political Science department in Boulder. The public administration master’s program was led by Leo Riethmayer, who envisioned that the public affairs field would support its own free-standing graduate school. He founded that school in the 1972–73 academic year (Robert Wilcox was its first dean) and by 1975, the Graduate School of Public Affairs (which would become SPA), took up its permanent residence at CU Denver.  

Setting the Pace 

SPA’s central Denver location proved ideal and the school initially offered master’s and doctoral programs in public administration and criminal justice, then grew its public policy offerings as Marshall Kaplan became dean in 1981. An adviser for three presidential administrations, Kaplan shepherded SPA’s growth in research activity, community visibility, and national reputation over the next 15 years.  

The Denver Community Leadership Forum and the Rocky Mountain Leadership Program—now gold-standard development programs for future Colorado leaders—were started at SPA, as were research centers in public management, health policy, and public/private sector cooperation. High-profile public forums engaged world leaders from Russia, Nicaragua, and the Middle East. And, in 1993, donors established the Wirth Chair in Sustainable Development, CU Denver’s first endowed chair and a magnet for high-profile speakers, including former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Vice President Al Gore.  

One alum from that era, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock (’95), said his master of public administration degree taught him intricacies of public finance, analysis, and statistical data. “Having a deeper understanding of public administration and having the technical tools of an administrator have been instrumental in my career,” Hancock told SPA’s Views magazine in 2004. 

Growth Spurt 

When Kathleen Beatty, PhD, became dean in 1996, the school continued to expand its program offerings. An executive master’s of public administration program was added that prepared mid-career professionals for senior leadership. Online offerings emerged, and new curricula in nonprofit management, domestic violence, homeland security, and emergency management drew students interested in these specializations.  

Kathleen Beatty, PhD (third from left) served as SPA’s dean from 1997 through 2008. 

Beatty also presided over the 2007 launch of a program that became SPA’s biggest growth engine: a bachelor’s in criminal justice, under direction of Professor Mary Dodge, PhD. The school dropped the word Graduate from its name, and student enrollment grew by over 80%. Today, undergraduates make up 46% of SPA’s student population. “We expected it to be big—but this thing was like a rocket ship,” recalls Dodge, who had arrived at SPA in 1998 as one of three full-time criminal justice professors (the school now has 10). 

Mary Dodge, PhD, has been a prominent faculty member in SPA’s criminal justice program since arriving in 1998.

In 2008, Paul Teske—drawn from the East Coast to CU Denver a few years earlier by its heart-of-Denver location and the opportunity for more relevant, real-world interaction—became dean. “We need to become more of a resource for government at the state and local level,” he told Views that year. “There’s a real opportunity there for SPA to get more engaged in the community.” 

A big way SPA has done this during Teske’s tenure is through the 2013 founding of the First Fridays breakfast series. Research production and influence has also increased: for example, a 2022 study by SPA’s Center for Education Policy Analysis made national waves for its analysis of recent education reform in the Denver Public Schools district, whose dramatic improvement in academic outcomes surprised some observers.  

Last year, the Center for Policy and Democracy was established—with support from SPA faculty couple Linda and the late Peter deLeon—to study how policies and politics impact important issues in democratic societies. In January, the center hosted its inaugural Conference on Policy Process Research, an international conference with presenters from around the world. 

Education with a Multiplier Effect 

CU Denver has always served a high proportion of students who work or otherwise need flexible access to learning. SPA has supported this through a broad range of learning credentials (including nearly a dozen certificate offerings) and pathways oriented toward mid-career professionals, and by its early adoption of online education. Today, Teske said, about two-thirds of SPA credit hours are delivered online, which makes it one of CU Denver’s two most online-centric schools (along with the Business School).  

Nimol Hen is a current doctoral student (and master’s alum) who has been well served by SPA’s embrace of nontraditional learners. Since arriving in the U.S. as a refugee from Cambodia in the 1980s, Hen’s life has been shaped by the intersection of policy and politics—and the human toll that can result when governance goes awry.   

“I’ve always seen myself as a public servant,” said First Generation and Multicultural Business Program Director Nimol Hen, who now is pursuing her third CU Denver degree, a doctorate at SPA.  

After getting a CU Denver bachelor’s degree, Hen pursued a master’s of public administration in the 2010s. A single mom at the time, she was also working as a CU Denver academic advising director. “I was motivated in so many ways to improve not only my own outlook, but my son’s outlook and trajectory,” she said.  

Hen’s doctoral pursuits align well with her new professional role as founding director of CU Denver’s new First-Generation and Multicultural (FaM) Business Program. “I’ve always seen myself as a public servant, and I knew I would find myself helping bridge some of the systemic, institutional, structural obstacles that have been in place for underserved populations,” she said.  

Her classes help her hone policy analysis and guide thinking about public/private partnerships she’s building as a program director at CU Denver. And her work dialogues with students from underserved communities bring to life issues she explores in her coursework—of sustainability, socioeconomic equity, and social justice. “This has been a culmination of all the things I’m deeply passionate about,” Hen said.  

Experiences like Hen’s suggest how SPA’s work can spark positive change. So many of today’s flashpoint issues—from police brutality to public school curriculum, to water and energy policy—are at the heart of the school’s work. “There’s a sense of urgency now that what we’re doing academically and theoretically is important, and it needs to be amplified and translated into the real world: whether through our students, or faculty running for office, or our alums,” Dean Teske said. “To feel that we do have an impact is exciting and important, and it’s something we’re proud of.”   

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