CU Anschutz Keynote Address

Chancellor Marks speaks to the CU Anschutz community about her experiences at CU Denver.

January, 2022

Good morning.

I’m honored to be here this morning and to talk to so many incredible women and leaders. I want to thank Karen and Jan for their invitation. And I want to thank the remarkable team here at Anschutz for facilitating this event.

I know putting this together takes a lot of hard work — it takes a lot of work every year, but especially these past couple of years. So I just want to take a moment and thank everyone who played an essential role in making today possible. Thank you.

It’s an incredibly challenging moment in our country, in our state, on our campuses.  I think, in such challenging moments like this — where the outside world seems so fraught and chaotic — our instinct as people is to turn inward. To be reflective and contemplative. These become our mechanisms for considering how our own individual stories fit into the context of this much larger, global story.

It’s a powerful capability. Because it helps us see that our triumphs and our failures, while distinct, are also shared. Which means that the qualities of those outcomes — joy, love, strength, compassion, grit, hope — are likewise shared.

Sometimes, the ability to make this connection happens naturally. Think of families, or tight-knit communities. In those units, it’s easy to see how your unique experiences are shared by others.

But other times, it takes intentional work to make this connection. This is especially true when the experiences of our own lives are radically different from someone else’s. We have seen too often lately what happens when that work isn’t done — or done poorly. It sows division, it fosters anger, it leaves room for hate.

Universities are the place where this work must happen. As learning environments that bring together people from around the world, our classrooms, studios, labs, and common areas provide that bridge for students to connect their individual stories with the larger human story.

Greater understanding leads to greater unity. And unity is an essential driver of progress.

So today, I want to focus on how we are investing in this important work at CU Denver by telling you a story.

It’s my story of reflection and contemplation. It’s the story of my move to Denver from Virginia a year and a half ago, to begin my job as CU Denver Chancellor on July 1st, 2020. And it’s the story of what it was like to start this job in the early days of the pandemic, and what it was like to grow into it in a constantly changing world. It’s more of a learning story than a leadership story. Or maybe it’s a story about learning to lead through uncertainty, which characterizes our world over the last 18 months.

Let’s start on June 20th, 2020.

My then-19-year-old daughter, Allie, and I put on our masks and boarded an airplane for the first time since the pandemic began a few months earlier. We landed at DIA, where a Subaru Forrester that I purchased online the week beforehand was waiting for us at the airport. We hopped in the car, followed google maps to downtown Denver, and headed to an apartment that I had only seen virtually.

I spent that last week of June 2020 unpacking, figuring out things like how to make wifi and a television work because at that time, Xfinity workers weren’t allowed to enter homes — they just dropped off equipment at the front door. And let me tell you, that is way outside my expertise. So it’s a good thing my daughter was there. See, I told you this was more of a learning story.

Afterward, I went to Target to buy some things, and I remember having to circle the store multiple times to buy house essentials — because I had to follow those one-way floor arrows …if you missed finding saran wrap the first time, you’d have to go around the track again….

There were no movies in theaters, no concerts, no fans at sporting events, no patrons in restaurants, no college students in the physical classroom. And after my daughter left to head back to college, I didn’t know anyone in Denver.

Alone, in my apartment, I spent a lot of time thinking about what my first official day on the job should look like.

Normally, in the time of normal — for which I can barely remember at this point — one might meet with faculty and staff leadership, maybe key donors, and talk about the excitement of joining the team, tour the campus with students and have lunch with them in the Tivoli Student Union, have some photo ops with Milo the Lynx, explore all of the incredible museums, art galleries, shops, sporting venues, restaurants and breweries that Denver has to offer.

Instead, on July 1, my first official day on the job, I stood by myself alone in front of my office building and took a selfie. I tweeted: “First day. Walked to work, down 15th street, through Larimer Square, masking up and here I go.” Then I walked into an empty office building and took the elevator 14 floors up to a vacant suite.

Nothing of summer 2020 resembled any other summer in our lifetimes. Or any other experience of our lifetimes.

Colleges across America had just completed the spring semester, disrupted by the pandemic, pivoting rapidly to a virtual learning environment. And while universities were celebrating their “quick pivot” to virtual learning to salvage the spring semester, we were all now coming to grips with the fact that this “pivot” wasn’t really a pivot at all. The pandemic wasn't going to be over any time soon.

As you well know, more people were getting sick and more were dying. People were terrified. Social anxiety was maybe the highest of our lifetimes. Economic instability triggered mass layoffs, leading to even greater uncertainty and compounding the cultural strife.

One month before, George Floyd was killed. Racial justice and police reform movements were center stage. And politically, we were just months away from a presidential election that was (and is still) emblematic of a sharpening divide in our country.

By summer 2020, it was clear that were at a tipping point, and that the uncertainty about the future was only beginning.

At CU Denver:

  • Most people were working virtually, preparing for a virtual academic year.
  • Like most colleges, the financial impact was enormous and a plan for employee furloughs had just been announced.
  • We have a student population that was hit even harder by the pandemic fallout. 70% of our students are working learners, many from low-income families, and they were losing their jobs at restaurants and in the service industries, and many couldn’t afford to come back to school without their jobs.
  • And leading up to my start date, I received several written letters signed by large numbers of students, faculty and staff demanding action on issues including campus police reform, transparency in hiring practices and attention to diversity, equity and inclusion.

We needed to prepare our campuses for a more sustained period of virtual learning. We needed to fundamentally shift our thinking.

When I reflect on all of this, I understand now how worried I was. Was I going to be able to do this? How can I help people and co-create when I can’t even meet my community without a computer in between us?

To me, leadership has nothing to do with hierarchy. Leadership doesn’t automatically happen when you get a big title like Chancellor. I’ve always thought about good leadership as helping people to achieve their full potential while co-creating a commitment to a mission and a vision for the future.  

But this was going to be no ordinary beginning.

A bit about my background

I spent over two decades in academia — the first half of my career as a faculty member, as a professor who worked heads-down doing research, teaching classes, working my way through the ranks. And the second half in administrative leadership roles. At George Mason University, the largest public research university in Virginia, I began as one of the few female faculty members in the business school, and the only person in my department with a young child when it was not ok to say you had to miss a meeting to take a sick child to the doctor. At that time, there were no family balance policies, so I kept my head down, did not call attention to myself, did way too much service to make sure I was seen as a team player, and figured out how to get things done.

I was moved over to administration by the provost at the time. That move was never a career aspiration, but he was persuasive. And I valued how much he believed in me. Still, I’m not sure what he saw in me, and when I asked him, he told me it was because I was the only person shorter than him.

As it turned out, he became my first mentor and played a defining role in my career.

I took on more and more, ultimately as the chief innovation officer, leading challenging initiatives like employer and community college partnerships, scaling our online programs and micro-credentials, and inventing new models for student success. All of this to get more people access to a great education and the promise of more meaningful careers and better lives.  

Then in early 2020 I learned about CU Denver:

  • An urban public research university, not even 50 years old yet, so a teenager in the world of higher education.
  • A student body unique in Colorado — 50% first generation students, 50% transfer students, 50% students of color. Many adult students, working students, parent students, veterans.

I knew this was the kind of university and student population that I wanted to serve. I had lots of experience thinking differently about how we need to change the centuries-old-model of the university as “the ivory tower” to work more for students who have traditionally been left out of the system. According to Colorado’s Department of Higher Education, the post-secondary credential attainment rate is only 39% for African American students and 29% for Hispanic students, compared to 64% for white students. I had devoted my career to serving underserved populations. I thought I was up for the challenge.

And I saw a huge opportunity.

CU Denver doesn’t yet have a well-known national reputation. It gets overshadowed by CU Boulder in the brand department, but it’s made incredible strides in its youthful beginning. It has nationally ranked programs, has potentially the best location in the country with central real estate in downtown Denver that puts it close to employers in a cool and growing city. It has terrific faculty, it’s the only public research university in the state, and of course, it has two other qualities that are immensely important to Colorado’s economy, which is currently a net importer of talent: The first is our diverse student body, and the second is the fact that the majority of this student body stays to live and work in Colorado after graduation.

I saw the opportunity, to bring the community together around a vision of redefining the model of tomorrow’s public urban research university to lead to a more equitable and innovative society. And I had done institution building before. So, I thought I could bring something to the table. 

That was my plan at least.

But, back to July 1, 2020, when nothing was going to go according to plan.

I found myself asking many existential questions:

  • How can I lead in an operational and cultural landscape that is constantly changing? Where there are so many unknowns, and often conflicting information?
  • How do I keep education going for 15,000 students and their families who depend on us? Who look to us to help them and their children reach their dreams, to lift up their lives, and to improve society?
  • How will I keep this community safe? And I say this knowing that I’m speaking to you heroes who have chosen healthcare as your profession, where there are constantly life and death situations. But I’m just an educator, and I’m not used to a job where I am worrying about whether I can keep my community alive. I’m not trained for this. And now I am finding myself thinking about what decisions I need to make to keep this community alive and well.
  • And I’m asking myself about the business operations — how can I keep education going, for the students and for our employees? And how can I support thousands of jobs that support thousands of families? Revenues are down, and we have millions of unanticipated expenses moving virtual, keeping campus safe, buying covid tests.
  • And I know my community is scared. Hurting. Anxious. Angry about things happening on campus, in our communities and the country. And worried. So how do I reach them? How do I listen to them, really hear them, so I can figure out how to help? They aren’t here on campus. They don’t know me, and I don’t know them. And I literally can’t even stand face-to-face with them to look them in the eyes just to say, “I’m here for you.”

Leading a university through a pandemic was a major commitment. A terrifying one, I’ll admit that. There were — and are — lots of decisions to make. Decisions such as:

  • When to go virtual and when to return to campus.
  • What safety protocols should be in place.
  • Whether to require vaccines.
  • How to take a campus parking garage and convert it into a testing and vaccination center, and how to buy covid tests.
  • How to help students, faculty, and staff adjust to safety protocols; expand telework options; and manage a virtual workforce.
  • How to get factual information to our community and manage anxieties, and how to support our parent employees when kids and parents are home together doing virtual work and virtual school.

Those decisions would have been enough, but it wasn’t enough — because I was also new.

This institution needed a vision for the future.

And I didn’t have a good enough understanding of our people, our students, our faculty, and our staff. I couldn’t know our opportunities and our challenges, what needed to change and what was working well. I didn’t have years of institutional memory to lead me forward through the dark and winding hallway to a post-pandemic university. I needed the collective intelligence and ideas of 20,000 people who were invested in our future success.

I needed a community.

And that’s what terrified me. Not because I didn’t believe there was an incredible community here at CU Denver. There absolutely is. It terrified me because the tools, the strategies, and the knowledge I used throughout my entire career to build community were basically useless when I needed them most. So I had to start over.

A learning story always has a beginning. Sometimes multiple ones. And for me and my story today, this was the most important beginning. And it opened with listening and learning.

I chose to spend my first 100 days on the job listening. The first 10 days were exclusively devoted to racial justice. I met with 172 students, faculty, and staff in 20 listening sessions.  Virtual sessions on zoom. I also received 25 emails sharing insights.

On day 1 of the job, I emailed the entire campus to tell them that my motivation as an academic leader stems from my belief that education is the key to social equity and economic progress. Simply, I believe education can change the world. And I told them that on July 20th, they could expect specific commitments for action. And that’s what happened. I announced a plan for equity, inclusion and transparency.

Over the course of my first 100 days, I heard from more than 1000 faculty, staff, students, friends and employers of the university, in 62 listening sessions, where 5000 ideas were shared.

  • On Nov 10, 2020 I sent a report of my listening tour. It was arranged into 10 themes and questions, and based on what I now understood, I knew that we couldn’t just wish success into being and that we had to focus our efforts on where we’re headed to take CU Denver to the next level. I also knew that, even in the middle of a pandemic, this community was ready to build on the momentum to create a bold strategy for the future. So together, we embarked on an inclusive strategic planning process to ultimately position us for future success.

One and a half years after my first day on the job, the world feels eerily similar. Still battling the pandemic, moving between in person and virtual worlds. But the beauty of my learning story, like all stories, is that they continue to evolve. And the lessons I’ve learned throughout my leadership journey, both successes and failures, I know will continue to shape my work here and the ways I engage my remarkable community.

Here are a few takeaways:

Inclusive leadership is fundamental.

  • Without buy-in and investment from your community, progress is impossible.
  • Last January, we launched our Strategic Plan steering committee, and 8 vision teams, with a charge to run an inclusive strategic planning process, facilitated by in-house talent.
  • We had three phases:
    • Phase one was to identify a vision statement, mission, and core values.
    • Phase two was to have the eight vision teams work on themes that emerged from my listening tour, from empowering our community through inclusive excellence to leading in student success, leveraging our geographic location, and putting our people first. I took a backseat and let 3,000 people generate 7,000 ideas. The eight vision teams used these ideas to produce 8 vision reports, integrated by the steering committee assigned project management team.
    • Lastly, Phase III was when major goals emerged, and I personally hosted 62 listening sessions with more than 1,000 people to seek feedback on these high-level goals. They became our campus 2030 plan, presented to the Board of Regents in June 2021.
  • Every meeting was done by zoom.
  • This is our campus’s plan to make education work for all — our community created it, they own it. It does the things a good strategy should to – inspires, elevates, differentiates.
    • Goal 1: to be the first equity-serving institution in the nation.
    • Goal 2: to become known as a university for life.
    • Goal 3: to be internationally known for research and creative work.
    • Goal 4: to serve as the anchor institution for an open innovation district in downtown Denver.
    • Goal 5: to be known as a people-centered “best place to work.”
  • We’re now organizing our priorities, our budget requests, and our actions around these five goals — with detailed roadmaps, investment plans, and community engagement. And every strategic decision we make has our goals and our values front and center.

Build a leadership team.

When you’re a professor, you’re the sage on the stage. You are supposed to transfer your brilliance to your students, and your research innovations create new knowledge and understanding. You are supposed to be “the expert.”

But as you move in your careers from an individual expert — whether you’re a professor or a physician or an IT or HR specialist to a leader — of teams or organizations, leadership becomes more of a team sport. So who you surround yourself with should be a top priority.

I walked into a 12-person leadership cabinet in transition, and one with zero people of color. In my first year we conducted five national searches, made five outstanding hires, including four people of color. I also asked each of my remaining cabinet members – what are your dreams for the future? What do you love doing? What are your superpowers? 

As a result, now, 18 months into the job, 10 out of the 12 cabinet members are either new hires or have reconfigured roles to align to their talents and career aspirations. It’s a new leadership team that brings diversity in representation, experience, and perspective, and one that reflects the diversity of our community at CU Denver.  

And those that are here now chose to be here, or to stay here. They want to play an important role in repositioning CU Denver as a public urban research university that works for all — learners of all kinds and at different stages in life. For these “talented many,” public urban research universities are a transformative force. We don’t merely help close inequitable gaps in opportunity and social capital — we offer multiple pathways to innovation and growth. We are catalysts, partners to the people and communities we serve. And we strengthen our society and economy by building the talent and careers of tomorrow.  

Now is our moment to usher in a bold and better era in higher education. My team has a deep passion for this mission, and the more we get to know each other’s personal and professional motivations, the richer our collective work becomes.

This summer I took my cabinet off site for 48 hours. We spent the first day learning about each other. My chief of staff was the first to volunteer her origin story and the influential childhood experiences that impacted the leader she is today. That act of courage — to share something personal and vulnerable — generated a lot of empathy and created a great connection. One by one we shared and bared parts of ourselves that most of us probably never thought we would be sharing with colleagues, some of whom were days into their jobs. We shed tears for each other’s challenges and triumphs. No one expected that connection – I certainly didn’t. And after that, we knew why we were all here together — because we all see education as the surest path out of poverty, abuse, homelessness, and injustice.

From that moment forward, we became a team.

Focus on the moment, but invest for the future.

COVID requires so much brain power and energy. We have to continue to take it each day at a time, but we also have to look forward. Because as bad as it has been and still is, it won’t be like this forever.

And at a time when income and racial disparities are on display for all to see, exacerbated by the pandemic, we can’t afford to keep the status quo – time to make the changes our society needs.

With a new leadership team and a new strategic plan committed to just that, we are now implementing. We took this fall to take a 10-year strategic plan and turn it into a series of 1, 2 and 3 year roadmaps that lay out the near term actions we need to take. We have a team that’s bringing the roadmaps around the university and seeking input, feedback and participation. We’re aligning our budgeting process, our hiring, our programs and our communications around this plan. We have a branding study underway. We’re celebrating our successes and finding champions inside the university and out. And we continue to approach this part of the process deliberately, using the same strategies we relied on in the development phase.

  • Continuous listening and learning.
    • There is a lot you don’t know. Take advantage of people’s willingness to share their insights. Not just at the beginning, but always. Don’t assume you know what others need or want. Just ask.
  • Can’t wait for perfect information. If I’ve learned anything over the last 18 months, it’s that we have to get comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty. Make the best decisions you can at the time, with the best information you have at the time.
    • Be clear, communicate clearly, early and often, and explain your rationale. And if the situation changes, don’t be afraid to adjust.
    • And if you get it wrong, like I have many times, don’t be afraid to apologize. We all get it wrong sometimes.
  • Get cozy with your core values – the institutions and your own. Because when the going gets tough, they are the lens through which you focus on tough problems. For us, it’s been our students, our people, equitable treatment and the safety of our community.
  • Have confidence in others. Set high level vision and direction, build strong teams, and then rely on your people. Don’t tell people how to do their jobs – empower them to come up with the best ideas. You’ll be amazed at what they can do. I am inspired every day by the creativity, the cleverness, and the care that people bring to the table.
  • Bring compassion and care to the table. They’ve always been important leadership qualities, but this pandemic has brought all of our anxieties and struggles to the forefront. Mental health challenges for students and employees are soaring. Work/family boundaries have dissolved. I have watched faculty try to have a meeting they waited weeks to have with me, only to have that be the moment that their two year old melts down.

So this is my leadership learning story. It’s ongoing, written more every day. And it remains influenced by the stories of so many others, which I continue to learn and continue to be amazed by.

I hope that one day soon we can all come together in-person to hear each other’s journeys, to learn from our individual and shared experiences, and to find those connections that help us work together to strengthen our diverse universities, communities, and world.

Thank you again for letting me speak today. I’m happy to take your questions now, and even more happy to hear what stories you might want to share.

Remarks by:

Michelle Marks
CU Denver Chancellor