On Jan. 25, Georgia State University President Mark Becker virtually visited CU Denver to share his experience leading a strategic planning process that transformed the Atlanta-based university—once considered Georgia’s “best-kept secret”—into one of the country’s top public urban research institutions. His visit comes at a pivotal time for CU Denver as Chancellor Michelle Marks leads the university through a similar 10-year strategic planning process.
Marks hosted the Zoom conversation with her colleague, who she described as one of the most visionary, innovative leaders in higher education. “President Becker put student success first in the strategic plan for Georgia State University, which over the last decade has dramatically improved graduation rates and eliminated disparities based on race, ethnicity and income. I’m delighted and grateful that he’ll be sharing his perspective with us as we begin our own strategic planning process,” Marks said.
Becker addressed cabinet members and deans before convening with CU Denver’s 2030 Strategic Planning Steering Committee and eight visionary working groups, tasked with generating innovative ideas to advance CU Denver over the next 10 years.
The insightful discussion on the power of strategic planning, especially for two public urban research campuses during such a challenging time in history, drew hundreds of CU Denver students, faculty, and staff involved in the process.
“It was powerful to hear President Becker share not only how Georgia State University created a bold strategy, but how they then used it to chart the course of the university,” said Martin Dunn, dean of the College of Engineering, Design and Computing and chair of the Strategic Planning Steering Committee. “It certainly raises the bar in how I think of our potential at CU Denver and our opportunity and responsibility to achieve it.”
“What makes us different is our advantage”
When Becker became Georgia State University’s president in 2009 at the heels of a nationwide economic recession, he was told his job was to make the university more like the University of Georgia—think CU Denver compared to CU Boulder. Becker rejected the idea. “This is not a college town, this is a city,” Becker said of the downtown Atlanta campus. “We have to serve the students we have, not the students they have, and we have to take advantage of our unique location … What makes us different is our advantage.”
Instead, Becker spearheaded a 10-year strategic plan that helped Georgia State University emerge as a national model for student success among an incredibly diverse student body, with record-setting graduation rates, strong ties to the civic community, and a multimillion-dollar research program.
The university’s success wouldn’t have happened without a strategic plan, Becker said. The 11-month process involved a semester of town halls, campuswide surveys, another semester of compiling and evaluating documents, and lastly testing the plan with external stakeholders that included elected officials and major donors. “The feedback was succinct: we needed to stop writing in academic jargon and write and speak in plain English. If we didn’t want to be the best-kept secret, everyone needed to understand our story.”
The process resulted in five big-picture goals that centered on students, research, and a public institution with global ties. “We had the audacity to say that what we are going to do is going to be so impactful that the rest of the country would copy it,” Becker said. “The gut check was, now we have to do it.”
Today, Georgia State University is one of the most diverse universities in the U.S., with more than 60 percent minority or underrepresented students. From the strategic planning process, its six-year graduation rate increased from a low 40 percent to a mid-50 percent, and the graduation rate among Georgia State University students who complete a degree either there or at another institution is approaching 80 percent. In addition, the university has been recognized as a major catalyst for the revitalization of downtown Atlanta and the economic health of its region.
That speaks volumes to the potential of CU Denver.
“The most exciting time for public urban research universities”
As CU Denver continues its 2030 Strategic Planning process to build momentum and shape the university’s future, Becker offered words of encouragement for the campus community. “Now is the most exciting time for public urban research universities,” he said, emphasizing innovative success through a pandemic and greater recognition of racial inequality.
“If we had told ourselves almost 11 months ago that we were going to go through what we’ve been through in terms of a pandemic, we wouldn’t have believed it. But we’ve proved that as universities we can do more than we give ourselves credit for,” Becker said in his final remarks. “Our business community also recognizes they have to step up and be more inclusive of hiring, and our student body will have even better and more amazing opportunities than they have in the past.”
CU Denver’s 2030 Strategic Planning process emerged from feedback gathered during Marks’ 100 Days of Listening Tour. In phase one, members of the campus community were invited to share their vision for the future by completing a survey or attending a virtual session by Jan. 22. Phase one outcomes, as well as ways to get involved in phase two working groups, will be communicated to the campus community in early February.