When Executive Vice Chancellor of Administration and Strategy Jennifer Sobanet, EdD, joined CU Denver nearly seven years ago, the campus was a very different place. Today, a residence hall dedicated to first-year students and a state-of-the-art student wellness center, among other additions, help fill the downtown Denver location daily with learners. Like the physical footprint, CU Denver’s mission has evolved into a student-first institution that puts equity at the forefront.
So, it is understandable that when Sobanet is asked what she is most proud of during her time at the university, she has to pause. As she looks around the campus she helped transform with her business acumen and human-centered approach to problem solving, though, the answer is simple: “It’s not a particular project,” Sobanet said. “I’m most proud of the culture that I’ve helped to create.”
In May, Sobanet—who recently completed her doctorate in educational equity from the School of Education & Human Development—will leave CU Denver to pursue her next leadership role in higher education with an eye toward an eventual presidency. She leaves behind a legacy of being a trusted leader who has a knack for getting things done and bringing teams together.
“I have had the pleasure of working closely with Jennifer over the last three years, and I learned quickly what an invaluable asset she is to our campus community,” CU Denver Chancellor Michelle Marks said. “She is an accomplished leader who has been instrumental in some of our campus’ most successful initiatives in the last few years, and she was a trusted adviser when I first joined CU Denver and continues to be. She is also a leader who cares deeply about people, which is evident in how she approaches projects and decision making.”
That was apparent to Marks when she arrived at the university in July 2020 and, to be safe during the pandemic, the two met outside for what became an eight-hour hike. Marks quickly saw that Sobanet would be a strong source of knowledge, a financial and strategy expert, and a trusted colleague. “Each day, she brings to work a focus on collaboration, thoughtfulness, humility, and deep intelligence about higher education,” Marks said. “I have known since I met her that she is destined to go far in her career, and I couldn’t be more supportive of Jennifer as a leader.”
Sobanet’s rich experience includes several education degrees and positions in higher education, state government, and in the private sector. She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics, a master’s degree in international studies, and an MBA in international financial management from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Early in her career, she spent nearly a decade in management consulting and corporate finance after serving in Colorado Governor Roy Romer’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting as an economist and budget analyst. She went on to serve as the chief financial officer and vice president of finance and administration at Front Range Community College in Colorado and the acting executive director and chief operating officer of the Colorado Department of Higher Education before joining CU Denver in July 2016.
CU Denver News sat down with Sobanet to discuss her tenure at CU Denver, leadership, and what’s important to her as she looks ahead to the next chapter in her career.
What are your most notable accomplishments during your tenure at CU Denver?
There are three things that stand out to me. First, I’m proud that we have taken an equity-minded approach to some of the toughest issues that we have faced, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The second one is our strategic approach to the complex issues that we’ve dealt with, including connecting our human and financial resources to our Strategic Plan implementation, and our recent budget realignment process. The third one is bringing a human-centered, ethical approach to my work. I strongly believe in partnerships and working with people to find common interests. Whether it’s collaborating with a CU System office or the legislature, my approach is to think deeply about issues and how they impact our students, faculty, or staff.
What do you think is the best part about working in higher education, and what are some challenges?
We get to be around the brightest, most imaginative, creative people who are incredibly capable. The challenges have only become greater as universities must help the public see the value of higher education in today’s world. At the same time, universities are expected to be so much more than a place where students are taught. We’re expected to provide services that support not only our students but also our faculty and staff. In a sense, the complexity of what we’re being asked to do has turned us into, I think, a richer community of learners—and it makes the work stimulating and interesting.
Why did you want to get your Doctorate in Educational Equity?
I’m a lifelong learner, and I have this insatiable curiosity about life and this world. A pivotal moment in my career was when I worked for Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia. With his support and leadership, we analyzed the attainment gap (which we now call the opportunity gap) between post-secondary credential attainment of white adults in Colorado and Black, Hispanic, and Native American adults in Colorado. We found that Colorado had the second-largest gap between White and Latino adults in the country. At that moment, I knew I needed to learn more. A lot more. After I left the Lt. Governor’s office, I came to CU Denver to not only work but to learn. I was in the inaugural class of CU Denver’s doctoral program in educational equity. I began asking myself, “How can I use my role in higher education as a way to begin to not just expose these gaps in our state but also address these gaps?”
How does that knowledge impact your work?
What I bring to the table are sharp business skills, financial strategy, and management experience. I merge that with my almost 20 years of experience in higher education, a doctorate in educational equity, and a human-centered leadership style. Together, I use these skills to create high-performing teams of people who are very empowered to use their talents to solve the adaptive challenges of our time. What I’m proud of is when my teams are successful and have true outcomes as a result of their individual and collective talents.
You clearly combine business expertise and people-centered leadership. Why do you think it’s important to have both in higher education?
I think that leadership has evolved from the industrial revolution of making widgets to a knowledge-centered society. We’re realizing that through leadership, humans are the ones who are doing everything. We have the ability to analytically and intelligently implement the path to whatever aspiration we’re trying to achieve. By combining a human-centered approach with sharp business skills, we can bring together all aspects of humanity to get something done.
Looking back at your time at CU Denver, what makes you most proud?
I’m most proud of the culture that I’ve created, and I’m proud of my team members. I love the way that the Board of Regents now looks to us as one of the leading universities across the state and our students thrive here. I have been so fortunate to have worked with such great talent and to have helped empower people to use their talents to help this university excel. Whatever we’ve been thrown, we’ve been able to face it and work through it together.