Chancellor Marks handing out a cupcake

Q&A: Chancellor Michelle Marks Reflects on the Past Year of Challenges, Positive Disruptions

April 20, 2021
Chancellor Michelle Marks

Chancellor Michelle Marks joined CU Denver during one of the most challenging years in modern history. A global pandemic. Social injustice. Political unrest. Under her leadership, CU Denver persevered, and plans are well underway for a full return to campus this fall.

As Marks reflects on the past year, she’s optimistic that CU Denver will use lessons learned to progress into an even more innovative, inclusive, and excellent institution. 

CU Denver News virtually sat down with Marks to hear an update on some of the university’s current robust initiatives, including the 2030 Strategic Planning Process  and leadership searches, as well as her vision for the future of CU Denver. 

As you reflect on your first nine months at CU Denver, how has your experience been? What are you most looking forward to about our plans to return to more in-person learning and activities this fall?

It’s been great. I l love CU Denver, especially the people, who have been so kind and welcoming to me. On my 100 Days of Listening Tour, I heard how much people love this place, and immediately I could see why. 

CU Denver serves students who have traditionally been left out of higher education—who make an intentional choice to be here. Our faculty and staff know that the work we are doing is important. They are here because they want to support our students. There is a hunger for innovation and a belief that we can do things in new and creative ways. That attracted me from the get-go.

What were some of the biggest challenges of the past year? Were there any positive disruptions that you see CU Denver carrying into the future? 

The past year has been tremendously difficult. From the loss of loved ones to the isolation and uncertainty to financial losses. The mental health challenges for our students, faculty, and staff are very real. I have had the opportunity to speak to so many students, faculty, and staff over Zoom and get a glimpse into their personal lives. Sometimes that looks like balancing work with being a parent. I have worried about my colleagues and our students who are trying to balance so many things, and those who are in isolation. But I see how hard everyone is working to do right by our students and by each other.  

On a personal note, I have only been able to see my daughter once since moving here last summer. She’s a sophomore in college in Virginia. I miss her so much. We will have a reunion in May when we are both vaccinated.

This year has also brought so many positive disruptions. Universities aren’t generally known for their agility, but our quick pivot to move to remote teaching, learning, and working showed us all how nimble we can be. 

We shifted our student services to offer them in ways and times that were more responsive and accessible. We invested in faculty development efforts to help them prepare for more online teaching. We’ve used technology to create strong learning environments. Our students have talked to me about really creative ways they’ve found to build virtual connections to each other, but they’ve also told me they miss seeing each other. That’s why we are planning a fall semester that has the best of both worlds. We are also working on a telework policy to provide more flexibility to our employees, and more training for our managers so that they can better support their employees. 

2020 also brought the killing of George Floyd, among others, which sparked the national movement against racial injustice, and we have also seen a rise in Asian hate crimes linked to the pandemic and historic racism. While this is a huge challenge, I am hopeful this movement will lead to progress on the national stage. Here at CU Denver, it led me to start my chancellorship by listening to our community specifically on issues of racial justice and equity. Those conversations framed a number of commitments and actions we’ve taken since, and will continue to take, to make the transformative change needed to create a more equitable culture of belonging and inclusion, and for CU Denver to become a national leader in this work. That is a very positive disruption.  

You’ve launched a robust 10-year strategic planning process. How is it progressing and what can the university expect at the end of the process?

I am thrilled with how it’s progressing. This is truly a CU Denver-driven process. Our terrific community input led to our draft guidepost statements of our purpose, vision, values, and characteristics of our 2030 graduates. Our eight vision teams, with cross-campus representation, are thinking creatively about big goals and how to distinguish CU Denver through the next decade. They’re wrapping up their work very soon. After that comes the work of synthesizing all of these pieces into a cohesive, visionary plan for CU Denver. We’ll be holding a number of community sessions to talk through the plan and make any adjustments needed based on community input. By June, we’ll have a final plan, and starting in the fall, we’ll move into the really exciting part: implementation.

Tell me about your focus on partnerships. Why is it important to have partnerships (local, statewide, nationwide, and global)? Can you provide an example of a new partnership that will have a strong impact on our students, faculty, staff, and community?

As a public institution with a mission to serve our state and society, I think we need to be an anchor for our city, a hub for innovation, a talent pipeline, and a connector. Partnerships are the solution – with business, government, the nonprofit sectors, public schools, as well as our community. Through partnerships, we’re able to combine resources and work together to build a skilled workforce, drive robust economic growth, address inequities, and enhance community sustainability.

Partnerships also provide internships and other experiential opportunities for our students, which often lead to employment opportunities for our students and alumni, as well as avenues for research and learning experiences for faculty and students. They enable our faculty to design courses that provide students with the skills to meet emerging industry needs. They can also provide a rich forum for development of entrepreneurial ideas by students and faculty.

A recent example of a robust partnership is one between the College of Engineering, Design and Computing (CEDC) and Trimble Technology, which contributed significant equipment and hardware software for the new Trimble Technology Lab on campus. This enables our students to be well prepared and fluent in industry tools. 

You recently hired a provost and two vice chancellors, focusing on communications and DEI. You are also in the midst of hiring other senior leaders focusing on research, digital learning, and student success. How do you envision these new leaders taking us to new heights as we prepare for another academic year and the implementation of our Strategic Plan? 

I believe that one of the most important jobs of chancellor, or any leader, is to assemble the right leadership team and the right organizational leadership structure to best position the institution to achieve its goals. 

My first priorities as chancellor were to complete my listening tour, get to know the campus, and understand our priorities, our strengths, and areas where we must grow, strengthen, and invest for the future. While that future is being charted right now in our strategic planning process, and we don’t know exactly what it holds, we do know that it will include student success, online and hybrid learning, enhanced digital platforms, partnerships, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

So, I took stock of CU Denver’s leadership organization structure, particularly my executive team and cabinet, with a specific eye toward implementing our 2030 Strategic Plan, and made changes to align our leadership accordingly. These changes are the initial steps of what will be an iterative process of steps to position us to achieve the goals we set for ourselves for 2030. 

Are you feeling settled in as you approach being here for one year? What are you doing for fun in your free time around Denver and the rest of the state?

I love Denver. I haven’t traveled around the state as much as I hope to in the future, but I have hiked at Beaver Creek, Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, the Flatirons in Boulder, and Red Rocks—I can’t wait to see a concert there. It amazes me that you can be hiking in March in a T-shirt and there is still snow in the mountains!