Marks and Kennedy portraits

SPA First Friday: Marks & Kennedy on the Future of Higher Ed

March 8, 2021

The School of Public Affairs at CU Denver hosted its March First Friday event via Zoom last Friday, with two notable guest speakers: Chancellor Michelle Marks, PhD, and University of Colorado President Mark Kennedy, MBA, talking about the future of higher education.

Hosted by Dean Paul Teske, PhD, SPA First Friday included discussions about COVID-19, online education, diversity and equity, civil discourse, public education, and strategic planning. Kennedy and Marks took turns responding to Teske’s questions and those from the audience.

Quick Shift to Remote Teaching

Teske began the discussion by focusing on how the pandemic affected higher education. Both Kennedy and Marks emphasized how proud they are of the CU community. “We’re proud of the fact that our faculty and staff shifted almost overnight to remote teaching, a week before the mayor told us we had to,” Kennedy said.

Marks, who started her role as chancellor in the middle of the pandemic, mentioned that she’s spoken with students, faculty, and staff who have lost loved ones. “It’s important not to sugarcoat things, but optimism cannot be underestimated as we’re battling this pandemic and its impact on our work and our mental health,” she said. “I’m so proud of CU Denver for the quick pivot to remote teaching and learning.” 

Universities, Civil Discourse, and Truth

“We want to have balanced conversations, but we also want to see truth,” Teske said. Marks admitted this is a difficult issue. “Amid the pandemic, its economic impact and the racial injustice it’s revealed, and the insurrection at the Capitol, we’ve seen how the erosion of truth exposes our vulnerabilities and our inequities,” she said. “Universities are so important to the solution.” Kennedy emphasized the need for citizens to consume balanced news with reliable sources. “We need to understand that the other side is not our enemy,” he said.

Marks was particularly enthusiastic about how CU Denver can advance civil discourse—specifically because half of its student body is diverse. “We can deliberate and think about how we can improve democracy,” she said. “Our students reflect the changing demographics in Colorado and our nation. We must lead robust discussions that can rebuild empathy.”

Diversity and Mental Health

Teske asked about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at both the system and campus levels. Kennedy stressed that DEI initiatives are very important. “Ultimately, you measure what’s important to you,” he said, pointing out that one-quarter of CU System’s strategic plan is focused on DEI efforts, including a $5 million DEI Innovation Fund.

Marks agreed about the importance of diversity and the work ahead. “This campus has a passionate commitment to diversity and social justice,” she said. “We’re proud of our diverse student body and yet Black and brown students don’t graduate at the level white students do … Also, our faculty and staff don’t represent the diversity that we have in the Denver area and in our undergraduate students.”

Later in the conversation, Teske asked about mental health, particularly of college students. “There’s been a trend across America and students coming to college with more mental health issues than before. Certainly, during the pandemic, this has been exacerbated,” Marks said. CU Denver needs to think about students holistically, she added. Kennedy pointed out that across all CU campuses, mental health services are a priority, which is ultimately “going to be a competitive advantage.”

“I feel an incredible sense of optimism for the opportunities that exist in part because the CU Denver community isn’t stuck in their ways.”

– Michelle Marks, Chancellor of CU Denver

Marks concluded her remarks by pointing out the strengths of CU Denver and how the university will continue to improve after the pandemic. “I feel an incredible sense of hope and optimism for the opportunities that exist in part because the CU Denver community isn’t stuck in their ways,” she said. “There’s a strong student-centeredness— keep watching us as we move forward.”

Watch the recording below: