Kennedy, Marks Share Challenges, Opportunities for CU and CU DenverToula Wellbrook | School of Public Affairs Mar 8, 2021
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Teske contextualized the hour-long discussion by describing the transformation that higher education was undergoing—long before the COVID-19 pandemic—amid decreases in state funding, shifting student demographics, flexible curricula, questions about the value of degrees, and other forces. The onset of the pandemic a year ago accelerated higher education’s transformation, with challenges and opportunities likely to endure beyond the pandemic.
The Positives in Higher Education Right Now
In response to Teske’s starting question about the positives in higher education at this moment, Kennedy said, “Higher ed is now needed more than ever. Education helps people to be prepared for the rapid advance in technology that we’re facing.”
Kennedy credits higher education with the uplift that he and his wife—both first generation college graduates—experienced. “It’s no longer one and done: You’ve got a degree, you’re set for life,” continued Kennedy. “You need to have extra help to keep up along the way.”
Kennedy shared that the rewarding experience of working in higher education coupled with a critical need for it, now more than ever, sustains his ever-positive view of the future despite the challenges that higher education currently faces.
Next, the conversation centered on points of pride and lessons learned while pivoting to meet the challenges posed by social distancing and remote learning, teaching, and working.
“We’re proud of our students. Clearly, what technology is teaching is that being adaptable and persevering through all these changes is going to be one of the most important skills for your success in life,” Kennedy said. “For better or for worse, our students have had crash courses in that in the last year.”
“The CU community really stepped up,” he continued, “and I’m appreciative to all our faculty and staff for all they’ve done to make that happen.”
Chancellor Marks, who assumed her role at CU Denver in July 2020, mid-pandemic, said, “This has been hard on everybody, and through this there has been a lot of shifts and changes and new information that is changing all the time. I’ve certainly learned the importance of communication … It’s important for people to know what’s going on and not to sugarcoat things when we’ve had to deliver information over the last year.”
Marks added, “But, I also believe that optimism and hope and conveying a sense of momentum cannot be underestimated in terms of the importance of moving through these difficult times.”
Different Realities in Public Discourse
Teske asked the speakers to comment on the existence of different realities and versions of truth in public discourse and the role that higher education could play in addressing this issue.
Citing the economic impact of the pandemic and the racial injustice that it reveals, along with the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building, Marks said, “We’re seeing how the erosion of truth exposes our vulnerabilities and our inequities.”
“As a society, we all own the responsibility for finding truth and for disagreeing civilly and for safeguarding and for improving this democracy, which I think we’ve all seen how fragile it is,” Marks continued. “I think that’s why universities are so important to the solution.”
Kennedy partially attributes these different realities in the most recent years to fewer people paying for news. “If you don’t pay for your news, you’re the product. You’re having social media that you’re getting for free that is customizing what you see to reinforce what you want to believe … That’s where I encourage people to actually pay for your news and pay for news from different points of view—and credible points of view.”
Moving on to how partisan politics can impede the functioning of democracy, Kennedy said, “We just need to figure out how to understand that the other side is not our enemy. The other side is somebody we can learn from, and together we are much stronger.”
“Universities are that place, where we need that critical thinking, where we need to ask students those tough, difficult questions—not telling them, asking them—and getting them to think,” he continued.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Teske then asked the panelists to talk about progress around diversity, equity, and inclusion—which have been raised to a new level in our society and in higher education.
“CU Denver has a passionate commitment to equity and social justice, and I learned a lot about this during my hundred-day listening tour,” said Marks. “It’s one of our most important organizational values. CU Denver is remarkably diverse … and yet Black and brown students don’t graduate at the rates that white students do. We’re doubling down on more ways to provide more wrap-around support to students who need it, to strengthen our relationship with high schools, to find the barriers, and knock them down. And yet, we need to do more. And we will do more.”
State Funding Challenges for Higher Education
With Colorado ranked number 47 in the United States for state funding for higher education, yet charging tuition rates just above the national average, the panelists delved into strategies for filling that gap and changing the funding situation.
Marks said, “We work to change it by advocating in the legislature. CU has an incredibly powerful advocacy group, and frankly, we have a lot to say about the value of higher ed to the state’s economy and to society, which I think is a compelling and convincing story.”
“I’ve been talking to the employers since I’ve been here,” she continued, “and they want great talent, and they want more diversity in that talent, and that’s what we do at CU Denver. We provide a very diverse group of students with a great education, and we are working more and more to link that education with the needs of employers and the post-COVID economy.”
Political Governance of the CU System
Teske then asked Kennedy to share how he has found the best ways of working in the complicated political governance of the CU System, comprising of Regents with political party affiliations, elected by congressional districts for six-year terms.
“There is no doubt that at times we would receive pressures, one way or another,” said Kennedy. “I think the issues that [the CU System faces] are not going to be partisan issues. There are very few [partisan issues], if any, that are focused on what we need to do to make CU deliver the best education, discovery, and service we can.”
“Part of what I’ve been working hard at doing,” he continued, “is bringing them into the tough decisions that we’re facing … so that they can wrestle with them with us, and to gain their input early … There’s also been an increase of reaching out across party lines in recent months, which I think is also very healthy.”
Visions for the Future
With both the CU System and CU Denver engaging in strategic planning efforts this year, Kennedy and Marks discussed what they perceive to be the future challenges and opportunities.
“CU Denver needs to position itself for a world where we know that higher ed is changing,” said Marks. “The old model is: You learn. You earn. You rest. So, in that model of college, the learning goes right after high school and before career.”
“The shelf life of knowledge is shorter,” she continued, “so as we think about what a university should be, especially a university positioned in the middle of an urban core, we know that it has to be a partner to both students and employers over the course of a lifetime.”
“To redesign higher education to work for everyone, to transform lives, to uplift communities, to expand economies, and … we’re going to think about how we retain high quality, retain affordability, continue—and even grow—flexibility. We want to be best in class for transfer students. We want to think about the concept of hybridity … and stackability of credentials,” said Marks. “We want to pride ourselves on our inclusivity, not our exclusivity, which is different and much needed in higher education.”
At the system level, Kennedy shared the four pillars that frame the CU strategic plan: affordability and student access; discovery and impact; diversity, inclusion, equity, and access; and fiscal strength.
“We believe that the best way to have affordability is to have more people get a degree, because if you get that degree, you’re going to get an uplift,” said Kennedy. “We’re going to really be focusing on graduation and retention rates, with a special eye on less represented populations and our veterans.” He said that the CU System also will focus on campus wellness and mental health and will survey students to gauge inclusivity.
At the conclusion of the panel discussion segment, the more than 100 attendees were invited to submit questions to the president and chancellor as part of the Q&A portion of the event.
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