“This Is CU Denver’s Moment” – Key Takeaways from Inaugural Future Fest

September 29, 2021

For the first time in 18 months, droves of CU Denver students, faculty, and staff, joined by valued benefactors and community leaders, convened in the heart of campus on a sunny fall day for a celebration of CU Denver’s future. Held in the popular Lola & Rob Salazar Student Wellness Center courtyard and emceed by Theo Edmonds, associate dean for transdisciplinary research and innovation in the College of Arts & Media, the inaugural Future Fest on Sept. 28 showcased powerful stories of CU Denver’s people and provided updates on short- and long-term goals outlined in a visionary 2030 strategic plan that will propel the university toward a more equitable future.

“This is CU Denver’s moment,” Chancellor Michelle Marks, PhD, said. “To me, an event like Future Fest is so much more than a party. It’s a public declaration of who we are and what we care about. And by doing this, we strengthen our community, signal our priorities, and show our pride in the people who learn and work here.”


Read more: Chancellor Marks’ Future Fest Remarks


Below are key takeaways from Future Fest, which will happen every year as part of CU Denver’s welcome back festivities and replace the mid-semester State of the Campus address. In addition to two lively speaker panels, the new format included live music from the student band Voz de la Clave, food trucks, giveaways, balloon arches, cocktail tables, and handouts of beautifully illustrated hard copies of the strategic plan.


Chancellor Marks Outlines Action Items for Strategic Plan Implementation

When Marks kicked off the strategic planning effort in January 2021, she challenged the Lynx community to dream big. In less than six months and in the middle of a pandemic, the community more than rose to the occasion. The input of more than 3,000 students, faculty, and staff and contributions of homegrown talent from across the university guided the vision for the 2030 strategic plan, coined “Make Education Work for All.” 

“Our plan is designed to create social mobility for students whose success is not guaranteed,” Marks said. “’Make Education Work for All’ expresses how we’ll shape ourselves into a university that Colorado and the nation need but currently lack.”

The strategic plan and its five goals are ambitious and inspirational—and they are actionable. At Future Fest, Marks provided an update on current action-items for each goal.

Goal 1: Become the Nation’s First Equity-Serving Institution

Starting this fall, CU Denver will be implementing equity-minded professional development with Marks, her cabinet, deans, associate/assistant deans, and associate/assistant vice chancellors, followed by all employees. This academic year, all schools, colleges, and campus units will start the planning to diversify the ranks of their faculty and staff.

The university is also progressing toward federal recognition as both a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and an Asian American/Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI) while submitting applications for millions of dollars in federal grants to help better serve and support its students. 

Goal 2: Become Known as a University for Life

The university is developing a strategic enrollment plan that focuses on the learners CU Denver currently serves: in-state and out-of-state students, international students, transfer students, first-generation students, veterans, and others who need education delivered more flexibly to meet the demands of their lives. As seen over the past year, students need new ways of learning that work for their lives. This year, CU Denver will also develop  a campus-based digital learning vision and strategy.

Goal 3: Be Internationally Known for Research and Creative Work 

Goal 3 will kick off with a Strategic Plan Research Symposium, a series of two Friday morning sessions on Oct. 29 and Nov. 19 to brainstorm the first two grand challenges in which the university should invest to enhance its impact and international prominence. By spring, CU Denver expects to have named those two areas and allocated seed funding.

Goal 4: Serve as the Anchor Institution for an Open Innovation District in Downtown Denver  

Marks announced two initiatives aimed at realizing CU Denver’s ambitions of building an open innovation district in downtown Denver. Immediate action items include launching a process to determine the vision and specific niche that  the innovation district will fill for Denver. In tandem, CU Denver is moving forward on construction of a new building to house interdisciplinary computing and engineering as the anchor for its innovation district. 

“For years we have been hopeful the state would fund this building, but we can’t wait any longer,” Marks said. “We’ll still be working with the state, but we’ll also launch an ambitious fundraising effort to support this effort. Late this fall and into the spring, we will engage our community and a design firm to define what we need from this new space.”

Goal 5: Be Known as a People-Centered Best Place to Work

CU Denver will hire a first-ever (CU Denver-specific) chief people officer, who will lead the charge in creating an organizational culture focused on trust, empowerment, and collaboration. “This is a new model for us; these are our values and we intend to live them by honoring the humanity, talent, and hard work of our people—making work meaningful, impactful, and fun,” Marks said.


CU Denver Welcomes Transformational Additions to Its Neighborhood 

Over the last decade, CU Denver has experienced a complete makeover—and it keeps getting better. 

“This very space where we’re gathering looks very different than it did a year ago,” Marks said. “Just in the last month we’ve celebrated three transformational additions to our neighborhood.”

In August, the university opened City Heights Residence Hall and Learning Commons, located in the heart of campus and, at full capacity, home to 555 first-year students. The addition marks the university’s first on-campus housing dedicated to first-year students. A portion of the modern building houses some of the university’s most-visited academic services, including Math and Statistics Support, the Writing Center, and the Learning Resources Center. 

The third floor of the City Heights Learning Commons is the first space on campus dedicated solely to the success and support of all faculty, equipped with offices, event space, a kitchen, lockers for drop-in visits, and more.

In mid-September, the university unveiled a larger-than-life Lynx statue in the courtyard area between Student Commons and the Lola & Rob Salazar Student Wellness Center. Standing at 8-feet tall and 1,000 pounds, the bronze sculpture is a striking representation of CU Denver’s mascot, the Canadian lynx. 


New Hires on Senior Leadership Team Offer Fresh Perspectives in Interactive Panel

At Future Fest, the campus community had the opportunity to hear from several members of a diverse new leadership team, as well as Student Government Association President Chris Hilton. They sat before the crowd and provided candid answers to questions about themselves and the future of CU Denver. One thing was clear: CU Denver’s leaders are committed to helping students succeed and moving the institution forward in profound ways.

When moderator Sarah Buller, director of organizational effectiveness and engagement, asked what they are most excited about for CU Denver’s future, they responded:

“Everybody here. We are an incredible team, and together we will accomplish it all.” – Constancio Nakuma, PhD, Provost​

Our students.” – Monique Snowden, PhD, Senior Vice Chancellor for Strategic Enrollment and Student Success

“A force that is awakening.”  Antonio Farias, Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion​

“Our strategic plan, especially our goal of becoming a university for life.” – Marie Williams, Vice Chancellor for University Communications

Untapped potential and economic value.”  Anthony Graves, Managing Director of Partnerships and Innovation​

Owning our story.” – Chris Hilton, President of the Student Government Association​

“How this place does provide opportunities for all.” – Jarrod Hanson, Chair of Faculty Assembly, who had a schedule conflict and provided his remarks via the recording below.


Lynx Lectures Showcase Powerful Stories of CU Denver’s People 

From helmet safety to the gender wage gap to diversity, equity, and inclusion in AI technology, CU Denver’s faculty are helping solve some of the world’s grandest challenges. Delivered in lightning-speed Ted talk-style presentations, the Lynx Lectures showcased the powerful work being done by faculty and students and how this research fits into the university’s strategic plan.

Helmet Safety

In 2020, the NFL awarded nearly half a million dollars to CU Denver and Chris Yakacki, PhD, professor in the College of Engineering, Design and Computing and co-founder of  Impressio. Trevor Young, a graduate student studying biomechanical engineering, hung up his football cleats after suffering a concussion and is now helping Yakacki develop innovative helmet prototypes.

The Gender Wage Gap

Traci Stitzmann’s “The hidden cost of prayer: Religiosity and the gender wage gap,” demonstrates how beliefs and practices reinforced by the world’s major religions account for 37% of the gender wage gap. “People have become complacent about this wage gap,” said Sitzmann, PhD, professor of management in the Business School. “I’m proud to say that as part of our strategic plan, CU Denver’s pay is based on job description rather than gender.”

LivedX Measures Success Through Lived Experiences 

From her own immigrant story, Geeta Verma, PhD, professor of science education in the School of Education and Human Development, founded LivedX, an online platform that aims to reduce educational and economic disparities in society by valuing the lived experiences of all youth, especially the minoritized and marginalized, as formal academic credentials. “We must find ways for students to succeed that aren’t limited by grades or SAT scores,” Verma said. 

The Power of Human Connection

Manuel Espinoza, PhD, professor and instructor in the School of Education and Human Development, received his graduate degree at CU Denver and his PhD from UCLA. He left, he said, and came back home. A Chicano ethnographer and philosopher of education, Espinoza captured the invaluable moments between him and his students through a captivating poem titled “Auraria, Forever.”

Manuel Espinoza