Times remain uncertain in the era of COVID-19, but Michelle Marks has relocated from Virginia to downtown Denver and is immersing herself in CU Denver’s one-of-a-kind community.
“It’s always been a driving force in my life to be passionate about students and student success, and to fight for students who have more grit than privilege,” Marks, PhD, said over Zoom. “That has been a theme throughout my entire professional life, and I can’t wait to join the team at CU Denver to continue that work.”
On July 1, Marks joins CU Denver as the new chancellor. She comes from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where she currently serves as vice president for academic innovation and new ventures. Her experience as an administrator and faculty member in academia have prepared her for her new role at Colorado’s premier public urban research university.
Marks holds a BS in psychology from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, an MA in industrial/organizational psychology from George Mason University, and a PhD in industrial/psychology from George Mason University. Over her impressive career, she’s held the positions of provost for academic affairs, associate provost for graduate education and professor of management in the Business School at George Mason University, and assistant professor of psychology at the International University in Miami, Florida.
On April 15, Marks participated in a virtual Q&A with University Communications. Read on to learn more about the new chancellor and her vision for the future of CU Denver.
Why did the job as CU Denver’s chancellor interest you?
I see so much accomplishment and so many possibilities for CU Denver.
Urban public universities like CU Denver have a unique opportunity and also a responsibility to support the vitality of their city, and there has never been a more important time than right now as we face the impact, and the recovery, from this public health crisis. Recovery is going to require new medical and health solutions, new policy solutions, new urban management solutions, new technology solutions, and many other innovations. Universities like CU Denver are key players in the response to this and to other societal challenges for Denver and beyond.
What’s also exciting to me is that CU Denver is a research university that has never lost sight of its commitment to access and equity. Unlike so many research universities who pride themselves on exclusivity and selectivity, CU Denver has maintained its core commitment to helping more people get access to a great, high-quality education.
So many CU Denver students are the first generation of students in their family to go to college and become college graduates, and this gives them a path to achieve their version of the American dream.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Collaborative, values-driven, inclusive, student-centered, and accomplishment-oriented. I have a lot of heart, but I also rely on data and input. I appreciate the importance of bringing a broad range of perspectives into a conversation. In challenging times like right now, we have to be ready to work together to emerge from this pandemic as an even stronger institution.
I like to celebrate the achievements of students, faculty, and staff—I plan to be the biggest cheerleader for CU Denver’s successes! I’m very willing to entertain new and creative ideas and ways to help achieve our mission. I think we are really going to need some big ideas and solutions to help deliver our promise to students, especially during this time.
I think it’s important to have a lot of discussion about how we are going to move forward, but it’s also important to get things done. In this particular case, with our guiding north star being the safety and wellbeing of our community, we need to ensure our students don’t lose a beat on their path to graduation. And as we plan for our recovery, we are also going to focus on how we emerge from this pandemic as even more cohesive, more empathetic, and ready to leapfrog ahead.
We are in this together. I will count on everyone to contribute to the journey forward, and I want them to be able to count on me as their biggest champion to lead them through the next era. I think that’s easier to do as you get to know people as individuals, and I want to make myself accessible.
How has your previous experience prepared you for your new role as chancellor of CU Denver?
I’ve spent 10 years on the senior leadership team at George Mason University, which is the largest and most diverse research institution in Virginia. There are similarities between CU Denver and my current institution. They are both public research universities in densely populated areas and both serve an increasingly diversified student body.
I’ve served in a variety of roles that give me different perspectives. I’ve moved through the ranks as a faculty member. I’ve overseen graduate education and academic affairs. Probably the most unique thing about my professional experience is that I’ve spent the last five years leading university transformation. I led the effort to put quality programs online. I launched a major national program to help students from racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse families earn four-year degrees. I’ve formed several innovative partnerships with employers and other institutions of higher education to develop state-of-the-art programming in high-demand areas. I’ve raised money to support student and university priorities.
These different roles help me to understand how to collaborate with faculty, staff, and students, and also elected officials, employers, and government leaders. I know that everyone is going to need to play a role in the next stage of CU Denver, and I plan to bring everyone to the table to explore how we can grow and thrive, together.
How will you support diversity and inclusion on CU Denver’s campus?
I think CU Denver should be a place where everyone feels that they belong, and everybody should be able to bring their true selves to work and to school, but I don’t think that in itself is enough. We can’t stop there. The focus needs to be about equipping our students and community for success in what’s becoming an increasingly diverse and complex world.
I see an increasingly fractured world out there, and I think higher education needs to do its part to ensure the next generation of leaders has the toolset to find common ground and to come prepared with better solutions. This involves really listening to each other, learning about our differences, and finding empathy for each other in a respectful way. Our society needs campuses like CU Denver to make this a priority.
I want an institution-wide focus on supporting equity and inclusivity that combines intentional classroom experiences with practical experiences in the community and beyond. I will be looking at the CU Denver community for examples of ways we are already doing this and for help designing an even more comprehensive plan.
Where do you see CU Denver in the next five years?
I think there’s an opportunity to strengthen CU Denver as a research university and to continue the focus on student success and on equity. I also think CU Denver can become an even greater asset to the city. Denver is already an international transportation hub, but with the assets of a research university, it can also be a knowledge hub. I think we can grow CU Denver as the anchor institution of an innovation district where faculty and students cluster with startups, entrepreneurs, employers, investors, and nonprofits.
I have no illusions…I know it’s going to take some real, collective, hard work to recover from this pandemic. I know when I arrive it won’t be business as usual, but I do know that we will be focused on the rebound, on thinking innovatively and focusing on students, and on envisioning an extraordinary future for the campus and community.
What do you think are the greatest opportunities for CU Denver?
From talking with Chancellor Horrell, I understand that this campus has really come together during the pandemic to do what is right for students and employees. I think we need to seize the incredible collaboration that is happening to work together to ensure all of our students have the chance to succeed in college, to partner with employers to help ensure a strong, diverse talent pipeline and to prepare graduates for new types of jobs that will emerge as essential in the post-recovery economy. I see opportunities to engage more students and alumni in university activities and events, which will build an even stronger community. And we will definitely look to our faculty experts to guide the region’s emergence from the pandemic. When I get to CU Denver, I hope to engage many others in conversation and seek input and ideas for the future.
What do you think it means to be “CU in the City”?
I think CU in the City means CU Denver has a unique ability to intertwine with the city and be an asset to the city, and to provide opportunities to students that are not as easy to find at remote campus locations. For example, students and faculty have year-round access to employers, entrepreneurs, government, and nonprofits that congregate in the urban area. There are more opportunities for internships and co-ops and various forms of civic engagement. These are often the transformative learning experiences that build upon classroom learning and help prepare students to hit the ground running when they graduate.
Chancellor Horrell noted in her email to our community that you had “come to fall in love with CU Denver” during the search process. Tell us more?
I was already excited about the possibility of joining CU Denver from what I knew about the institution. It became clear in meeting the community that people and passion are at the heart and soul of the campus—the deep care people have about each other and the students, the passion for diversity.
It’s easy to care about this community. That struck me from all the different individuals that I got to meet as part of my interview process who led with questions about diversity, equity, and values. They led with how great the community is and their enthusiasm for innovation. There is real, interest in partnership and civic engagement. All of that fits my values.
On a Personal Note …
What’s the most interesting place you’ve traveled to and why?
I love to travel and experience different cultures and history and people, and I have been truly fortunate. I’ve traveled to many interesting places around the world, leading study abroad programs, working on issues related to global education, and just traveling for fun with my family and friends.
My most recent, interesting travel was last summer, when my family went on a vacation to Africa, which involved a safari in a beautiful, secluded Botswana delta, hiking Table Mountain in South Africa, and flying in a microlight over Victoria Falls. It was fabulous, except for one part: my daughter convinced me to raft the Zambezi river, one of the world’s grade 5 rapids. I should’ve been concerned when a set of rescue kayaks appeared to escort us for the rafting journey. But I made it through, and it was exhilarating!
What stands out about your own college experience?
When I was a junior in college with no clear idea of my direction, there was a professor who invited me to join a small group discussion in her office on Friday afternoons. We talked about her research, and she challenged the small group of us to formulate intriguing questions about meaningful things. That hooked me. I wanted to design a project to study something that I thought was important.
With my professor’s encouragement, I ended up doing an honors thesis that we published together during my undergrad studies. It wasn’t in a top tier journal, but It did set me on a trajectory of graduate school and a lifelong commitment to learning. I think students’ interactions with faculty members inside and outside the classroom often become transformative learning opportunities.
What are you most excited about in moving to Denver?
I’ve always loved Colorado. To be in an urban location with a lot going on, and to get to have the beauty of Colorado’s outdoors and sun, sounds perfect. The surprise has been how many people have told me I am going to absolutely love living in Denver. Even on the East Coast, everybody has a friend or family member that lives in Denver.
I want to get to know the city and region. I’m taking recommendations for running and hiking trails and restaurants and other things to check out, and I can’t wait to meet the whole community.
What do you think it means to be a Lynx?
It means that you have the privilege of being part of a diverse, learning community that’s creating and applying knowledge to improve the health and well-being of Denver, of Colorado, and of the world.
But it also means you have an obligation to contribute to the inclusive, respectful, and compassionate environment that fosters learning, scholarship, and innovation, and that is critical to lifting up lives and making our world a better place.