Meet Dorothy Horrell

New chancellor to help university 'fulfill what's possible'

January 18, 2016
CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell visits with students
CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell visits with students in the Student Commons Building.

Dorothy Horrell, PhD, officially became chancellor of the University of Colorado Denver on Jan. 4. She recently sat down with Today to offer some initial impressions of CU Denver, share insight into her leadership style and chat about where she sees the university going.

In a Chancellor’s Communique emailed to the university community on her first day, Horrell said she’d already begun to hear about the hopes of many who believe CU Denver is poised to move to the next level. “I believe my role is to help you, individually and collectively, fulfill the promise of what is possible,” she wrote.

To ensure she hears all voices, Horrell will hold a Reach Out and Listen Tour that begins Jan. 27 and continues through mid-April. In the following Q & A, Horrell talks about the tour and shares her thoughts on a range of topics:

Q: Why were you interested in becoming CU Denver’s chancellor?

A:  People I trust and respect started the ball rolling, letting me know that, in their opinion, my background and experience made me a good match to lead the university at this time.  As I learned more, I began to see how the variety of things I’ve done in my life could come together for the benefit of CU Denver. I knew the institution from a distance, but when I saw how CU Denver is poised for even greater impact and success, it magnified my interest significantly.

I am a product of public education and I’ve always had a passion for public education at all levels. It’s been the difference-maker in my life. I believe strongly in its role in terms of creating opportunities, opening doors and making more possible for the people served by it.  And I love Denver, and believe that this great city deserves a great university.  The potential to strengthen our relationships and build even stronger partnerships is exciting.

I’m not much of a maintainer, and maybe that speaks to a restless part of me. I’ve found my niche in places where there’s an opportunity to help an organization move to the next level. In the time I’ve had here so far, I’ve become convinced that CU Denver has many of the pieces in place to do that.

I tend to be a weaver — I believe that’s a strength of mine. I see the pieces and parts and imagine something greater. My heart and my head ganged up on me and eventually, after conversations with my family and other people I trust, there was something about CU Denver and this opportunity that touched me. It said, ‘You’re not quite done yet; there is a difference you can help make here.’

Q: You spent several weeks this fall transitioning into the position. What now most excites you about stepping into this role?

A: There are several things that come to mind. First, some of the most heartening and enjoyable conversations I’ve had so far have been with our students. I’m interested to know: Why do they choose CU Denver and how is the experience for them? We’ve talked about our motto, Learn with Purpose, which I think in many ways defines our students. They come here with intention and purpose. They value our diversity and are energized by our location. You can’t totally generalize, but I believe the majority of our students make a deliberate choice to attend CU Denver because they know the education they receive and the experiences they have here will be an important step in helping them achieve their life goals.

Second, the quality, commitment and engagement of our faculty is really exciting because that’s at the center of who we are and what we do. I’ve got so much more to learn, but what I’ve learned so far about our faculty and the good work they’re doing, not just in classrooms but also in conducting cutting-edge research and providing valuable service to the community, is simply incredible.  That provides us with a distinctive, competitive advantage that has served the institution well throughout its history and will be a major contributor to our long-term success.

CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell
CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell.

Third, there are so many people who believe in this university, both within and outside the institution, who are eager to help us move forward.  That hopefulness is powerful, and I don’t want it to be misplaced. I am committed to helping the hopes and expectations that people have for this university and the work it does to be fully realized. It’s a huge responsibility that I take seriously. In many cases, these folks are leaders in our community. Already, I’ve discovered an abundance of them who have said, ‘How can we help?’

At a university, it really takes an army to get the job done. It’s about much more than that one individual who leads and what they can bring.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

A: At heart, I’m a collaborator. I’ve always believed that no one of us is as smart as all of us. I’m very impressed with the leadership team at the University of Colorado Denver. We have bright and committed thought leaders, people who bring their very best to this place and really want to see it excel. When you have people around a table who bring a diversity of thoughts, experiences and perspectives, it’s a gold mine.

So, my style is one of bringing people together and using their collective intellect, creativity and passion to foster collaborative ideas and solutions. There are times when, because of timing and circumstances, it’s not possible to have everyone involved. In those cases, I will gather as much information as I can and trust my own experience and instincts in terms of determining what is in the best interests of the institution. As anyone who has been in a leadership role knows, there is not just one silver bullet or singular approach to decision-making. It really depends on the situation, but my preferred approach is engaging people and using the richness of that interaction to emerge with the best decisions possible.

Folks will see that I’m not at all afraid to roll up my sleeves. Perhaps that comes from my background as a farm kid. I believe that nothing is above or below any of us. I don’t set expectations for anyone else that I don’t already have for myself.

I bring a positive orientation to life – it’s just the way I choose to live. So even though there are challenging issues, I really believe that if we look for the best in each other and keep the university’s and our students’ best interests in the forefront, we’ll be empowered to make great things happen. I adhere to my Irish grandmother’s adage: “From the day of your birth ‘til you ride in a hearse, nothing’s ever so bad that it couldn’t be worse!” I like to have fun and I love to laugh. I think a bright spirit fosters even more positive impact and results. I want people — whether it is our students, faculty, staff, or others from the community — to want to come to this university and feel their lives are better because of it – that this is a place that lifts people up in every single way possible.

Q: What was a key lesson, or lessons, you took from leading other higher-ed institutions, and how will you apply that here at CU Denver?

A: We should keep our students — their needs, their goals, and their success — at the center of everything we do. Every major decision that’s made should be examined in the context of how it impacts and serves our students. That’s a lesson I’ve learned at other places and continues, for a lot of reasons, to be appropriate here.

I’ve also learned that things aren’t always as they appear. These are complicated times and it’s necessary to peel back the layers to fully understand the issues at hand. Having high-quality and dedicated faculty is absolutely key to the success of our enterprise. Being able to identify, hire, retain and reward the very best faculty is essential. I also know they can’t do the work alone. Higher education has become more complex with the changing nature of students and their different needs. While the teaching and learning that happens in the classroom is critical, the importance of everything that undergirds the student experience cannot be overstated. The array of student support services, from the time they apply to the day they graduate, needs to be seamless, and delivered with care, professionalism, and with attention to details. Excelling in delivering those services is how we will really move the needle in terms of the success of our students.

Q: When you spoke to the university community at the open forum in September, you said you plan to serve as CU Denver’s “advocate in chief.” How do you intend to go about doing that?

A: I will be the spokesperson and the champion for CU Denver in every way possible. It means that I’ll represent and fight for the interests of this university within the CU system and beyond. There are many leaders at the system and on the Board of Regents who are very excited about the potential of CU Denver, and I want to provide them whatever information and support they need so that we can help them help us. I’ll have many opportunities to be the ambassador for CU Denver. When I first became president of Red Rocks Community College — I was 37 at the time — I remember being a little taken aback that when people saw me, they saw the institution — even at the grocery store. It was a parallel kind of existence that I expect will continue here.

I will work hard to make sure that CU Denver’s many contributions and achievements are anything but a best-kept secret. There are still people who aren’t aware of the important role we play in the city, state and region. I will be telling our story and looking for opportunities to forge new partnerships that benefit our students and secure the university’s place as a valued and valuable asset in the broader community. In the end, I want to ensure that we have the ability to do the kind and quality of work that we are uniquely positioned to do.

Q: What can we look forward to during your upcoming Reach Out and Listen Tour?

A: It will be a chance for everyone’s voices to be heard — individually and collectively — to express what we hope for as an institution. What is it we imagine that CU Denver can be — based on a lot that is already in place, and inspired by the highest aspirations we have? What will it take for us to get there? In a focused, efficient way, the tour will allow the institution to hear feedback from a variety of other stakeholders as well. We’ll use the information collected to formulate an aspirational and strategic vision for CU Denver. I sense that our university community is ready to coalesce around this important notion of ‘Where are we going together?’ All of the input received through this process will help to jell that vision pretty quickly, I think.

It will also be a chance to develop broad-based ownership and buy-in for that shared vision. I am eager — and I think a lot of people are eager — to put some things in motion. I believe this process will begin to foreshadow the future of CU Denver and how we will move forward in becoming even more distinctive and successful as an extraordinary asset to Denver and beyond.

Editor’s Note: Chancellor Horrell’s Reach Out and Listen Tour begins with a forum on Wednesday, Jan. 27. One session will be at 8 a.m. in the Lawrence Street Center, second-floor Terrace Room, and another will be at 4 p.m. in the Student Commons Building, Room 2600. Please watch your email and CU Denver Today for additional details between now and then. RSVP at the Reach Out and Listen Tour website, here.