After great struggle, greater success

MSU Denver’s dramatic and difficult birth in 1965 helped forge a spirit of resilience and innovation that will serve the University well on the road ahead.

By Doug McPherson

Publish Date: April 18, 2016

Students in front of old 333 building

  Students study in front of the old 333 building. MSU Denver used to be housed
  in multiple buildings scattered across central Denver.

Looking Back

If MSU Denver had been a newborn baby in 1965 rather than a fledgling institution of higher learning, it would have been rushed to intensive care immediately following its birth.

But as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” MSU Denver is indeed stronger for what it endured in its infancy. Some say it’s a miracle it was born at all.

“You can’t read the early history of MSU Denver and not think our strength began with the struggle of the legislative process and how hard it was for a core group of legislators who believed that Colorado needed an institution like this,” said MSU Denver President Stephen Jordan. “Our scrappiness comes from those lawmakers before the University was opened, and even after it was opened to keep it open. It set the foundation for the culture of the people at this University.”

The idea to create MSU Denver was conceived in 1961 out of necessity. Harry Temmer, a supervisor at a growing business called the Martin Company, which would become Lockheed Martin, needed skilled workers and technicians. After searching the far reaches of every college in the state, he began making noise.

“Nobody was training the people I needed, and half of them didn’t even understand what the hell I was talking about,” Temmer said years later. “Education in Colorado was antiquated and business was suffering because of it.”

As it happened, Temmer wasn’t alone in his frustration. Hospitals, schools, police departments and scores of other organizations in Denver were all victims of an ever-widening education-employment gap.

The complaints eventually made it to a state legislative task force on education chaired by a state representative named Roy Romer, the man who would become Colorado’s 39th governor in 1987. That task force soon learned that the current colleges in the state were supplying less than half of all the skilled workers needed. And things were getting worse: One study showed that more than 116,000 jobs would be available before 1970 – jobs that needed an education beyond high school. Plus, the Denver metro area’s population was projected to double by the same year. The situation was so dire it made national news.

But it was a brief article in the Nov. 25, 1962, edition of The Denver Post that got locals talking. A seemingly innocuous story noted that a committee of state lawmakers had recommended that the legislature fund a new four-year college.

For many in the state’s education industry – and others who didn’t want the competition – those were fighting words. The war was on.

Robert Bowen (B.S. history and political science ’71), author of “The Vision, the Struggle: The Beginning of Metropolitan State University of Denver,” published in 2015, said former Gov. Romer told him getting MSU Denver off the ground was the toughest battle of his political career. “I know he had some tough battles, so I started to research the history and discovered he was right,” Bowen said. “Like my book’s title, it was his vision but also a big struggle.”

While getting the funds lined up to open a school and hire faculty and staff was difficult, according to Bowen – it took two years of skirmishes and creative political maneuvering – the legislative process proved no easier.

In 1965, an appropriation bill sat before the House to fund the college’s opening. The House Whip, Mark Hogan, knew he needed 33 votes and lobbied hard to hit that number, but during a second reading, one representative changed his mind and the bill died on a 32-32 vote. The House continued with its agenda, and Hogan whispered to the House chair that if he put his hand on the dissenter’s shoulder, it meant the vote should be brought up for reconsideration. Hogan went over for a heart-to-heart with the indecisive representative and, after much discussion, Hogan’s hand landed on the man’s shoulder. The bill passed 33-32 on the next reading.

Yet when it landed in the Senate, a committee killed the bill instantly. Romer, now a state senator, persuaded the chair of the Joint Budget Committee, the late Joe Shoemaker, to add the appropriation into another bill before opponents could react. Shoemaker and Romer immediately moved that the rules be suspended to prevent a third reading of the bill. The motion passed and so did the bill, with funding for Metropolitan State College to open five months later. The lobbyists of other higher education institutions fumed while Hogan, Romer and Shoemaker rejoiced.

But even once it was established, Metropolitan State College still wasn’t safe.

“I was the point person in the fight with a very good friend of mine, the University of Colorado. They tried to kill this institution multiple times,” said Romer. “Now we’ve all outgrown that, we’ve all found our place, but … for a period of time – a year or two – this was a group trying to kill Metropolitan State College and our leadership of it.”

And the hits kept coming.

A headline on the front page of The Denver Post in 1964 screamed: “Metro College Killed.” One senator called students “a den of hubcap thieves.” Other lawmakers tried to financially starve the college to death by severely underfunding it – claiming there’d be no money for the school’s campus. CU Boulder representatives rolled out the idea for a technical institute, which would have negated the need for Metropolitan State College.

That’s when students joined the fight.

“The school owes a debt of gratitude to its first group of students,” said Bowen, who was among those lobbying at the State Capitol on behalf of the college. “I may sound biased, but honestly it was the role students played in the early days [that kept the school going]. The school had no reputation or alumni, but the students formed a lobbying group and, within a year, they changed the image of the school, increased funding, fought off the attempt to close the doors, and got previously banned intercollegiate athletics approved.”

Back to the Future

Since those early days, and despite steady and strenuous struggles over the years, the College – now University – has woven itself into the fabric of Colorado. Clearly, the early scuffles helped develop a resilient institution that not only survives but thrives.

But it’s not all smooth sailing ahead. According to Jordan, there are two immediate hurdles looming: closing the education attainment gap for Hispanics and African-Americans, and funding. “We have to enroll these students and help them persist and graduate,” he said. “We’ve made tremendous progress and will continue to do so, but the environment we’ll be doing that in will be one of decreased state resources. Colorado is the second lowest funded state for higher education on a per capita basis and it’s going to get worse.”

Steve Kreidler, MSU Denver’s vice president of administration, finance and facilities, agrees. “No matter what the predictions say about how good the future economy of Colorado will be, the way Colorado’s constitution is built, in 10 years the state will not provide MSU Denver with a single penny,” he said. This is where creativity comes into play.

Game-changing Partnerships

Under Jordan’s leadership – and that of MSU Denver’s Board of Trustees – the University has become something of a pioneer in forging mutually beneficial partnerships with the private sector. One prime example of this is the University’s Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center, built in 2012 via partnerships with entities including Sage Hospitality, a leader in the hospitality arena.

“MSU Denver was an innovator in its creation of the Hotel and HLC through unique financing tools,” said Walter Isenberg, Sage Hospitality’s president, CEO and co-founder, who also serves on the University’s Board of Trustees. “One hundred percent of the net profits of the hotel and restaurant flow to benefit the MSU Denver Foundation. I know of no other higher learning institution that has used this innovative approach to combine, in a sense, a perpetual funding tool with an experiential learning facility.”

This formula has equaled success for the University, which is $700,000 ahead of its initial revenue projections. Since the hotel – SpringHill Suites Denver Downtown – opened in 2012, its average occupancy has hovered around 77 percent with more than 150 sell-out nights. Rooms go for $178 per night on average, $3 more than initially planned. Additionally, the Department of Hospitality, Tourism and Events has become a magnet for students: The program currently has more than 540 students – a 25 percent increase since 2012 – and is widely considered the region’s best baccalaureate hospitality management program, yielding graduates who are prepared to hit the ground running.

“The Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center has changed the landscape for us to educate the next generation of hospitality leadership in the Rocky Mountain West,” said Isenberg. “MSU Denver created a world-class experiential learning environment that is one of a kind. Students have the opportunity to learn in state-of-the-art labs, while also being exposed to a real for-profit hotel, restaurant and catering operation.”

Private partnerships also fueled the development of the University’s Aerospace and Engineering Sciences initiative, which has been crafted and fine-tuned in close consultation with industry leaders. “We asked them, ‘What are the hard and soft skills employees need today?’ and our faculty responded by designing 25 new courses to support these needs,” said Jordan.

The resulting groundbreaking curriculum will include faculty and courses from multiple disciplines – as well as a new Advanced Manufacturing Institute – under one revolutionary roof: The $60 million AES Building, which is currently under construction with an opening slated for 2017. While roughly 60 percent of the building will house specialized engineering, computer and design laboratories with high-tech machinery, the fourth floor remains empty by design – it will be open to companies who want to build components or complete products on site with the help of MSU Denver students.

“Many companies are lining up to create new projects,” said Kreidler. “This obviously helps students but also aids companies in finding future employees.”

“It will produce a skilled workforce ideally ready for day one,” said John Heyliger, director of staffing for Lockheed Martin’s Global Talent Acquisition, of the AES initiative. “MSU Denver will have graduates emerging who are fluent in the future relationship between technology, engineering and manufacturing. Historically, our business has been very siloed. Students who come in knowing the entire lifecycle of that digital tapestry – from initial concept and design to production and qualification – are very attractive as potential employees. These are the students who are prepared to help lead the future of aerospace.”

Heyliger went on to cite the specific appeal of MSU Denver’s student population to Lockheed Martin. “Diversity and inclusivity are key to us, and this is opening up avenues for first-generation college students to work in a really cool industry,” he said. “The AES initiative will enable Colorado to grow talent locally.”

“We have to continue to create public-private partnerships that align our academic programs with key economic clusters by developing relevant curricula that fit the needs of the private sector,” said Jordan. “And we’re going to have to look to [the private sector] to help us fund those programs, which I think it will do because companies will get a product that meets their needs while helping to reduce their recruiting costs.”

Just as important as partnerships with industry are those within the general community. MSU Denver continues to serve as a vital resource not only because of its programs, but also increasingly because of its facilities. Case in point: the University’s Center for Advanced Visualization and Experiential Analysis – or CAVEA – which supports decision-making and complex problem-solving via the latest visual and analytical technology that includes stereo 3-D rear screen projection, 3-D printing capabilities and decision-support software.

In 2015, CAVEA hosted and helped some of Colorado’s top water officials address and analyze several complex planning issues and best practices prior to a larger convention on water resources. Kenneth Reid, executive vice president and CEO of the American Water Resources Association, said CAVEA proved to be “a unique venue” that was helpful to the group. “I would highly recommend CAVEA to organizations seeking solutions to complex, multifaceted issues,” said Reid.

New Developments

Working with the Board of Trustees, MSU Denver leadership recently identified 17 priorities – narrowed from 27 – designed to address the ever-changing economic landscape. They include new colleges, schools and institutes; new academic programs; new public-private partnerships; new construction and renovation; and reinvestments in current programs.

High on the list is the University’s brewing program designed in response to Colorado’s burgeoning brewery market. The Colorado Brewers Guild, which represents craft brewers, reports Colorado’s craft brewing industry poured $1.15 billion into the state’s economy in 2014. Colorado ranks third in the number of breweries nationwide, behind California and Washington.

The University tapped its brewing program in fall 2015, offering undergraduate degrees in brewing and brewpub operations as well as a minor in brewing and a certificate program. About 30 students are currently enrolled in the program.

“It was a mix of the school being proactive and seeing what a good industry this is – especially in Colorado – and the industry calling for a more educated workforce,” said Scott Kerkmans, an instructor and coordinator of the brewing degree program.

Continued investments in the program will include remodeled space and equipment in the catacombs of the Tivoli Student Union but may also include a presence at Denver International Airport: Tivoli Brewing is working to develop a brewpub at DIA that would serve as a training ground for MSU Denver students.

Other University priorities include:

  • The creation of a health care institute that integrates multiple current health care and wellness programs to help foster an interdisciplinary approach to health care education. This will enable MSU Denver to better meet the high demand for employees in one of Colorado’s strongest economic clusters.
  • A new, stand-alone School of Hospitality, Events and Tourism that will help MSU Denver draw students from around the world while meeting a growing demand for degrees in a field that is mostly resistant to economic fluctuations.
  • The University’s partnership with the Detroit Institute of Music Education, which will include bachelor’s programs in commercial music performance, commercial songwriting and music industry entrepreneurship. MSU Denver students can take courses online and at the DIME Detroit campus. The partnership has the potential to grow to new locations, including Colorado and other states across the nation.

Master Minds

The University is also responding to employers’ needs for advanced degrees. It already offers master’s degrees in social work, teacher education and professional accountancy, and the Board of Trustees has approved master’s degrees in business administration and health administration. Other master’s programs being explored include: clinical behavioral health care, cybersecurity, art education, public interest design, music education and speech-language pathology. 

And another plus for graduate degrees: they’re self-funded with no dependence on state money or undergraduate program funds. The current graduate offerings are drawing more students because of their relevance, flexibility and affordability.

MSU Denver’s price tag caught Aaron Wamsley’s (B.A. history ’07) eye, but it was also the academic quality that left a lasting impression. Wamsley, a second-grade teacher in Pagosa Springs, was among nine students who graduated in 2012 with a master’s in teacher education with a concentration in elementary education.

“While Metro had by far the cheapest program, the professors were amazing,” said Wamsley. “You could tell those people really cared about education. Metro did a great job of preparing me to be a teacher.”

MSU Denver’s graduate programs are also designed to meet students where they are, which in many cases, is at work.

“A large percentage of our students are working,” said Social Work Department Chair Christian Itin, noting that the master’s in social work program is available as a fully online option. Itin said students can take classes online, in the classroom or both. “We allow students to move back and forth between the two. That’s fairly unique,” he said.

Forward Thinking

Today, a full 50 years after its birth, MSU Denver continues to hear and respond to the community’s needs. It’s this responsiveness – coupled with the University’s past – that Jordan says keeps him optimistic about the future.

“I go back to that scrappiness – it’s a cultural trait of the faculty, staff and especially the students who want to change their life’s condition. They know what it’s like to live without a college degree. They know the value of education,” said Jordan. “The trait allows us to be creative and innovative and do more with less and it will propel us forward and sustain us in the future.”

For alumnus and author Bowen, the University’s success is about what some call the MSU Denver spirit. “Students, faculty and administrators all pulled together to make it work,” he said. “To succeed, that spirit needs to be marshalled like it was in the ‘60s to convince the legislature and the community to give this school the support it deserves, and reward a job well done. MSU Denver should never, ever forget its roots or lose sight of its original vision. It was that vision that won the day, and it will win the day again.”