Will Simpkins, Ed.D.The American Association of State Colleges and Universities has named 30 higher-education professionals to its 2024-25 Millennium Leadership Initiative. Among them is Will Simpkins, Ed.D., vice president for Student Affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver, who will join fellow cohort members Wednesday through Saturday in Washington, D.C., and virtually over the next year. 

Now in its 25th year, the program aims to diversify and enrich the American college presidency and is rooted in providing higher-education leaders from traditionally underrepresented communities with the skills and networks necessary to advance. The program also connects aspiring presidents and chancellors to experts, experiences and resources, and offers a realistic look at what the roles warrant, preparing participants to navigate the current and future higher-education landscape.  

Simpkins will join a community of nearly 750 past participants, 163 of whom have gone on to become university presidents or chancellors. He spoke with the Early Bird about what he hopes to glean from the program and the value of diversifying higher-education leadership. 

EB: What inspired you to pursue this opportunity? 

Simpkins: I was encouraged to apply by two incredible mentors and colleagues who are now university presidents and was supported by President Janine Davidson, Ph.D., who is also a past participant in AASCU’s new presidents initiatives. For the MLI in particular, there is a focus on incubating diverse talent at the senior levels of institutions. When I began my career, there were only a handful of out LGBTQ vice presidents of Student Affairs and even fewer out LGBTQ college and university presidents. While I am now one of many, we have a long road to travel for our institutions to truly represent our students, and I hope to be part of that journey.  

EB: Why are leadership-development programs like this so important?    

Simpkins: We are entering a new era of American higher education, characterized by a politicization of our work and finances. Ensuring that our students continue to have rich learning experiences and that our faculty members have the resources they need to thrive as scholars and teachers will require skills that many of us were not required to cultivate as practitioners or scholars early in our careers. 

EB: What specific skills do you hope to build?  

Simpkins: In this cohort program, led by sitting presidents and chancellors from public institutions across the country, we will dig into building positive relationships with board members, navigating state and federal politics, developing donor relationships to ensure long-term institutional viability and planning for the future. For the folks in this program, having a space where we can ask tough questions about how to navigate these politics as queer folks (like me) or folks of color is absolutely invaluable.   

EB: What are you most excited to learn from other cohort members, and what do you hope to share with them about your experiences at MSU Denver?   

Simpkins: I always enjoy hearing others’ experiences navigating their own journeys. This helps me make meaning of what I’m experiencing and maybe even borrow some strategies to further MSU Denver’s mission and my professional goals. Engaging with each other in deep learning is central to building the skills to navigate this human-centric, critical-by-nature world of higher education. I always leave groups like this incredibly grateful for my MSU Denver experience, an institution that has courageously done the right thing for decades, where our values guide our decision-making more than any other institution I’ve encountered. I am proud to be a Roadrunner and carry that pride with me into these rooms.