MSU Denver

President’s Welcome Back Speech:
“Recover, Stabilize, LAUNCH!”

President Janine Davidson, Ph.D.
Sept. 13, 2022

Welcome to the fall 2022 President’s Welcome Back event! For those of you who are new or who haven’t come to this before, MSU Denver hosts a Welcome Back each September as a state of the university event, where we stop and take stock of where we are and where we’re going.

It is hard to believe, but, as that great video showed, I have been here now for just over five years. So today, I’d like to pause and look back at those years to highlight where we’ve had great success, and then share with you how I see us launching into the future.

Five years ago, I said I had three priorities: “student, students, students.” MSU Denver’s student-focused passion is what drew me here and what motivates me still. I then identified five focus areas to get started. It turns out, we have done pretty well on these – despite the shocks of Covid-19.

MSU Denver 2017 Priorities

Strengthen Student Success

We have made such great strides to strengthen student success by providing the resources that Roadrunners need and deserve. We stood up the Student Affairs branch and established the Classroom to Career Hub to ensure that our students have wraparound support and leave here prepared for successful careers, postgraduate education and lifelong learning.

We doubled the numbers of employers recruiting our students – we now have 4,000 active employers in our Career Link platform, where they have posted more than 7,000 career opportunities this year.

We also established our Center for Multicultural Engagement and Inclusion to support students’ sense of belonging across our diverse student body.

We’ve expanded online learning by leaps and bounds. My first semester here, we had just eight online or hybrid programs, including degrees, certificates and minors. Now we have 61!

All credit to the faculty here, who rallied to the Covid pivot and sustained the innovation after. We upgraded to the Canvas platform on a compressed timeline and leapt ahead in our online evolution. Faculty completed more than 20,000 hours of training to implement best practices in online learning.

Today, 24% of our students are taking only online courses and 49% are taking a mixture of online, hybrid and face-to-face courses. This is how we meet students where they are, providing options to fit around their complex lives. Shoutout to the Center for Teaching, Learning and Design, who continue to help faculty innovate in the classroom

Finally, we have made immense improvements in our transfer student process. With half of our students coming in as transfers, this is something we must not just get sort of right – we must be best in class. Through a cross-functional effort including faculty and staff, we have slashed the wait times for transcript reviews. My goal is to automate as much of this as possible and get the average review time down to minutes, not days. And with the pending upgrades to our IT system, along with this improved cross-functional coordination, I know we can do it.

 

Invest in People

Our faculty and staff are our most precious resource, so it is critical that we make sure you have what you need to not only do your job, but to love coming to work. We spend a lot of time here – and for most of us it is our passion. My goal is to be recognized as a “best place to work” in Denver.

I’m proud that we’ve been able to invest in you through compensation, recognition, infrastructure, and professional development

We created a new pay structure in 2019 that includes annual compensation reviews and have committed to providing competitive wages, which includes keeping pace with the College and University Professional Association database (CUPA) for faculty and three pay survey providers for professional staff.

Compensation: We increased compensation last year and awarded employee retention stipends to those who helped us weather the pandemic, and last month we announced an across-the-board increase for employees to make sure we’re supporting those who have been most affected by inflation and other economic challenges of the past few years. We will continue to work on compensation.

Recognition: Championing you for the great work you do is one of my absolute favorite things. It shows what right looks like, motivates us all and simply sparks joy. We elevated employee recognition with initiatives like Roadrunners Who Soar and our Roadrunner Shoutouts, and will continue to look for way to recognize our teammates.

Professional Development: We talk about meeting our students where they are and helping them go where they want to go, and we want to do the same for faculty and staff with rich professional development opportunities. HR has done a great job with our Launch and Lead trainings, and they’re also helping plan the upcoming leadership summit on Nov. 4. We’ve started hosting inspiration hours, where we bring in inspirational leaders to meet with small groups for intimate conversations about leadership and development.

I am passionate about professional development, and helping leaders become the best they can possibly be – because when leaders are leading with intention, expertise and passion, MSU Denver becomes an even better place to work and grow. Do take every opportunity to partake in these programs – the investments are for you!

Finally, we invest in people when we give them the tools they need to do their jobs. We have made some critical investments to our workspaces and intend to do more.

Built environment: We were able to modernize areas of campus in desperate need of upgrades with pandemic recovery funding, such as technology and classroom upgrades – including 150 academic spaces renovated this summer.

IT upgrades: Sometimes what you don’t “see” matters most. We are updating our antiquated IT backbone from systems improvements for online learning, Human Resources modernization, Financial Aid and more and also working with AHEC on the Wi-Fi. This is a massive undertaking made possible with long overdue investments from the state.

 

Address our Shrinking Resources

A great deal of my time and energy goes into ensuring we have the resources we need to serve our students and thrive as a community. We have made progress here through legislative outreach, fundraising and grants.

At the state Capitol, we have engaged legislators directly to address the historic underfunding at MSU Denver and have advocated for more funding for underrepresented students statewide. In 2017, our base funding allocation from the state was under $52 million. Our allocation this year is over $82 million … a 60% increase.

We’ve also secured critical funds for IT initiatives such as our Workday implementation, which you’ll hear a bit more about later this morning. And we have secured State funding for critical capital projects, including our Interprofessional Simulation and Skills Hub, which will feature cutting-edge teaching and learning space for health professions, while also renovating parts of in West Classroom.

By being more proactive and strategic in our efforts at the Capitol, we’ve earned a more prominent seat at the table and influenced policy that benefits our students and other Coloradans. We’ve helped pass key bills such as the removal of standardized tests from college admissions requirements, which disadvantage students along racial and socioeconomic lines, and policies benefiting undocumented immigrants that have made them eligible for state financial aid and professional licenses.

Internally, we overhauled our efforts to secure institutional grants, and from the 2018 fiscal year to this year we doubled our total grants and contracts from $29 million to $57.9 million.

We’re also garnering record support from donors, who have seen what we can do when we have the resources to do it and want to be a part of what’s going on at MSU Denver. When I interviewed for this job, our endowment was just $7 million. Today it is pushing $20 million. We just had a record fundraising year with $10.6 million raised, a 90% increase over 2017-18. We also raised 38% more scholarship dollars last year compared to my first year, and alumni engagement grew 49% in that time.

Of course, none of this is happening by accident. Our first-ever comprehensive fundraising campaign, “Roadrunners Rising,” is now underway. We’re in the so-called ‘silent phase,’ but we’re already making a lot of noise and you’re going to hear more and more about it. We are laying the foundation for our campaign, in which we intend to raise at least $75 million dollars over five years. We are well on the way, with more than $26 million raised so far in the early stages.

 

Deliver on the Promise

A lot of our successes today is based on delivering on the promises of my predecessor, Dr. Stephen Jordan, and there is no better example than our status as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a designation we earned in 2019 after a 12-year pursuit to better reflect and serve our community.

That began with a task force in 2007, when we served just 13% Latinx students. Based on the preliminary results of our fall 2022 student census, we now educate 35.7% Latinx students. Even more exciting, we have closed the retention gap for Latinx students – from fall 2021 to now, our retention rate for Latinx students is identical to the University average. That is kind of a big deal.

This is the culmination of many intentional steps by so many people at this University. We established a vice president of Diversity and Inclusion during my time here, and then a full-time HSI director.

Since earning HSI status and as a Minority-Serving Institution more broadly, we have received $6.4 million in grants for initiatives like Postbaccalaureate Opportunities for Hispanic Americans in Denver Nutrition Program, Space Tech Scholars, and our Transfer Pathway Fostering STEM Connections. This is how we deliver on the promise that becoming a federally designated HSI allows us to tap resources that serve all our students

Other ways we’re delivering on the promise of this institution are extending the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship to all descendants of those families that were displaced to make way for this campus, and our Indigenous and Native Peoples’ Tuition Program, which through a combination of government and institutional funding, ensures those students don’t pay tuition or fees at MSU Denver.

At MSU Denver we want to be more than a Minority-Enrolling Institution, but one dedicated to Minority-Servingness. That’s going to be a topic of our fall retreat with the Board of Trustees – how can we take the lessons we’ve learned from HSI and apply them to other underserved Coloradans?

We have pledged to become an anti-racist institution, and like our HSI designation we will put that into practice. Making progress in the face of hundreds of years of injustice does not “just happen.” It requires intention, hard work, and dedication to continuous improvement and learning. I am honored to lead an institution committed to these goals.

Because of these efforts and more, I am excited to announce that MSU Denver has been selected as a Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award recipient for 2022, the ninth straight year we have been recognized by the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education. MSU Denver is one of just over 100 four-year institutions to receive the award nationally and one of just two in Colorado, so thank you to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which leads many of those efforts; and to everyone on campus who contributes to this mission day in and day out.

 

Lead Inclusively and with Intention

The last area that I’m so proud of in my time here is our commitment to lead inclusively and with intention. This is where we make sure voices are heard and that we are bringing all the expertise from across the community to our strategy-development, innovation and day-to-day decision making. It means being a part of the greater Denver community as an “anchor institution.”

I began my presidency with a listening tour and stood up President’s Advisory Councils to gather input from all corners of campus. We expanded the President’s Cabinet to bring more voices to the table as we develop policies and strategies for the University.

When we developed our 2030 Strategic Plan, we engaged more than 400 community members and 500 faculty and staff. We gathered nearly 2,000 ideas from students, alumni, employees and others through town halls and focus groups. This is shared governance in action, which taps into the incredible talent all across campus and maximizes our resources for the good of the organization. Going forward, we will benefit from our efforts to restructure and elevate our data analytics enterprise, so that we can more easily and accurately track our progress and make data-informed decisions.

In my time here, we’ve also proven to be a leader in civic engagement, and that includes our students. MSU Denver had the highest undergraduate student voting rate in the country in 2016, and we were named a Platinum Seal campus in the 2018 midterms and Gold Seal campus in 2020.

We played a key role in the 2020 U.S. Census, receiving a grant to help reach hard-to-count areas and linguistically diverse communities around Denver.

We created a Free Expression Statement to reiterate our commitment to free speech and inquiry, which should flourish at universities and are key to maintaining a healthy civic society.

We’re about to launch a Public Service Institute, which builds upon previous campus efforts to strengthen and diversify service opportunities, such as our federal internship that sent students to Washington D.C. this summer to work with Congressional representatives, government agencies and service organizations.

And we are leading through innovation, positioning new colleges and programs to succeed at the forefront of high-demand industries such as aerospace and cybersecurity, part of an overall enriching, holistic education offered at MSU Denver. As provost Tatum says, “Roadrunners are on the move.”

The pandemic – which has been half of my presidency – has been a shock and also a transition. I want to acknowledge how hard this period was for many of our Roadrunners who faced the disease themselves or with family members or who also suffered stress and anxiety from it all. It was a lot.

And now, as we look back, I am so proud of how we supported each other and our community, how we weathered the crisis in general, and how we are emerging from the storm. We rose to the challenge time and again to serve the greater Denver community alongside our Roadrunners.

Our public health response to Covid-19 proved vital for our community. We hosted the largest testing center in the state. The Health Center at Auraria has administered more than 36,000 vaccines for campus constituents and community members. And they’re still going – the Health Center will have the newest boosters that protect from the original strains and omicron variants as well starting Sept. 19. The Health Center has been approved as a provider of the monkeypox vaccine too, and it’s also now an official Colorado Medicaid provider, which means it can serve the more than 8,000 students on this campus who are insured by Medicaid.

The way all of you here have responded to the difficulties and opportunities of working through the pandemic has made us so much stronger. It has honed our teamwork and leadership skills, posturing us as a leader in the city.

Something else happened during the pandemic, too. It exposed many weaknesses in our systems and infrastructure. Things we had been coping with, putting patches on, covering up with workarounds or deferring for too long. It is not OK to have 20th century IT systems in 2022. It’s not OK for call centers to crash or heating to break in the middle of the winter or for our classrooms to be substandard. It’s not ok to be doing so many things by hand that can be done by machines.

So, when Covid hit, some of those things just reached the breaking point. But miraculously, we were presented the resources, through the millions of dollars in one-time grants from the federal government and some from the state, to finally address these long-deferred issues. This has allowed us to jump ahead with our online learning offerings, alternative work arrangements, and upgrades to our facilities and infrastructure.

So, we are actually emerging in a stronger place because of the investing and strategizing we’ve done together. Covid threw us into a spin, but we’ve recovered, we’re stabilizing, and we’re preparing to LAUNCH! back on our course.

Let me pause for a moment to let you inside my head as we face this next phase. I’m going to use a flying metaphor because I was a pilot. Sometimes in times of crisis, I look back to the things I learned as a young pilot. Covid reminded me of what happens when a plane goes into a spin. Most airplanes recover if you just let go of the controls, but not the plane I used to fly at the Air Force Academy when I was an instructor.

When my aerobatic plane went into a spin, you had to actively recover from the spin. You had to really assess what was happening. It was super disorienting – you’re descending at 1,500 feet per minute, straight down to the ground while spinning. The first thing you do is pull all the power off the engine, throttle to idle. Then you neutralize the controls and pull the stick all the way back in your lap and you’re just sitting, hanging, and you have to figure out which direction you’re spinning. If you’re spinning left, you slam in the right rudder with your food, and it’s massively disruptive. Then you pause for a moment and you’ve recovered.

But now you’re in a steep nosedive going 2,500 feet per minute, hanging in the straps. You can’t just pause – you have to recover from the dive. You do that gently and controllably pulling back on the stick. Then when you’re catching your breath, having recovered from this violent maneuver and this death-defying dive, you have to get back on course. The only way you can do that is if you put power back on the engine.

So that’s where we are. Covid was really disorienting. We had to figure out where we were spinning and how to recover. We recovered, and then we had to figure out how to stabilize. As soon as we recovered, we realized we did all these things to help ourselves. Our online training is better, our engine room is better, we have better classrooms and invested in all these things, but our enrollment is still going down. We’re in this dive, so what are we going to do? We’re going to stabilize our enrollment. That’s what we’re doing. We’re doing it with intentional efforts because we know they will work.

Over the summer, we looked at what works. What can we do to enhance our retention? We used data analytics to figure it out, and we put more power on the engines of the things that are working and we’re watching carefully to see it happen. As we pull out of that dive, we’re going to put more power on the engine, and we’re going to launch, and we’re going to be the university of choice for everybody in Colorado.

So, we’re stabilizing and we’re moving toward launch in five focus areas.

WelcomeBack_Fall2022_AM-4

Recover, Stabilize, LAUNCH!

People and processes: I want MSU Denver to be the most joyful, mission-centered and purposeful place to work in Colorado. That’s why we are Doubling down on professional development and leadership training. We are changing the workload for faculty and honing our data-informed decision processes to make our everyday work more focused and transparent.

Student servingness: This is where so many of our “stabilizing” investments are. Student Access, Service and Achievement is the first pillar of the Strategic Plan for a reason and enhancing the student experience will always be a priority at MSU Denver.

We are doubling down on what we call STW’s – “Stuff that works.” These are data-informed practices that promise to scale student supports and increase retention and graduation rates. It is about being student-focused, or customer-focused, in all we do. From financial aid to advising, we will meet students where they are, provide sense of belonging, and clear the obstacles to their dreams.

Some examples of what we are building and scaling: Concurrent enrollment, which helps high school students get a head start on a degree and saves them money. Pathways to Possible recruits and supports students from turnaround high schools, supporting them with programming, stipends and scholarship opportunities. Advising overhaul: Re-thinking our entire advising structure and also investing in “Navigate” tech to empower students to move along their path and free up our staff to do the higher-end student engagement. Transfer processes and smoother pathways between MSU Denver, the Community College of Denver and other schools. We are the No. 1 transfer destination in Colorado, and we will be the national model for transfer student service.

We want to remain affordable, and we recently announced a tuition lock that provides 2- to 4-year cost certainty for students and their families, which is especially critical with inflation and the possibility of a recession.

Our third Strategic Plan pillar says we will create a pipeline of high-impact career-related experiences, and we’re investing in Earn and Learn, internships, co-op programs and other experiential learning opportunities. And when we talk about career-focused education, we don’t just mean jobs in the private sector. Advancing and diversifying public service is one of the things I’m most passionate about, because I’ve dedicated my career to service, and I know how much this country needs Roadrunners. Too often government and nonprofit opportunities are unpaid, meaning the only people who can seize these opportunities have been those who can afford to do so for free. Unpaid opportunities lead to only the wealthy and well-connected gaining critical experience that leads to paying jobs and more prestigious positions, creating a class of public servants who aren’t representative of all Americans.

Finally, we will double down on servingness as a model MSI. We have closed gaps for Latinx students, and now we need to do it for our Black and Native/Indigenous students. MSU Denver educates approximately 54% students of color now, making us one of the most culturally rich and diverse communities in the state. This diversity is what attracts so many to our community, and it also means we need to double down on our efforts to bring these diverse communities together and help everyone find their sense of belonging. Equity, diversity and inclusion are integral to supporting our people, both in our pedagogy and our support programs, and the University’s Diversity Strategic Plan charts a course for doing just that.

Infrastructure: Having modern infrastructure is key to our mission. It enhances learning and makes our work life more invigorating. We are working with AHEC partners on some exciting plans. You have already seen the Classroom upgrades, but there is more in the works… MSU Denver and AHEC are master-planning with an urban design focus, and we plan to activate (and monetize) the campus. Think mixed-use buildings that blur the lines to the city on all sides.

We’re also considering housing for faculty, staff and students. Addressing affordable housing is part of taking care of our people as well as attracting and supporting students.

We’re working on the first part of our Health Institute project, with the nursing labs renovation in West Classroom and more to come. We also have plans for a physical C2 Hub space.

The vision is that the Auraria Campus will stop hiding in plain sight. It will be a Denver “destination” where Roadrunners live, work, and learn alongside other Denverites.

Resources: We will continue to build our base resources through multiple lines of effort.

First is fundraising, and we are well on our way to our goal in our first ever comprehensive campaign. Advancement is partnering across campus to fully develop the strategies that will support our strategic plan and connecting donors to those investment opportunities. When this campaign is over, we hope to be raising between $15 and $20 million per year – that’s where MSU Denver ought to be and where we aim to be.

We will continue to advocate for equitable funding from the state through strategic engagement with our legislators and other elected officials.

The Office of Sponsored Resources and Programs and the entire academic enterprise under Provost Tatum’s leadership is on the way to massively scaling its efforts, too.

Key to all of these efforts is our brand, so we will continue to invest in ways to share the MSU Denver story at the Capitol, with donors, and in our new creative campaign, which includes statewide outreach. This University has a strong brand in the metro area, but it’s time that people in all corners of Colorado hear more about the amazing opportunities available when you become a Roadrunner.

Innovation and Technology: We’re making our budget processes more inclusive and empowering in our execution phases. Our budgets are becoming more strategic with more multi-year forecasting. Workday is going to streamline University processes and make our lives easier.

The vision statement in the Strategic Plan says we are a nationally recognized leader for social mobility – where students of all ages and backgrounds build a better, more equitable Colorado through innovative and transformative education. This is where we will really LAUNCH! our enrollment in new areas.

Many prospective students – especially low- and middle-income or first-generation students – are being turned off of higher ed. They are being told it is not necessary, is out of touch, or is simply too expensive to be worth it. This misinformation is an attack on higher ed that is diverting too many prospective students from their dreams. Moreover, it is a tragedy for our community and our country. It is a recipe for stagnation and will ensure we fail to compete as a nation in an increasingly complex, high-tech and globalized economy. The fact that we may think this negative narrative about higher ed is untrue or unfair is irrelevant – we must adapt to meet this challenge.

Employers, parents, legislators, and our own governor have made it quite clear that we must stop clinging to outdated models. We must meet students where they are in their careers and their zigzaggy lives – including community members who don’t see themselves in higher ed but need to retool and upskill, and those who have been told that college is irrelevant. We cannot keep trying to cram them into outdated models that do not work for them.

We at MSU Denver are going to take on this challenge.

One exciting way we’re thinking about this is the forthcoming Office of Innovation and Transformation. This office is being conceptualized to develop and scale innovative ideas to advance student outcomes; to nurture innovation and research across disciplines; to open the pathways for faculty to create intellectual property to serve communities and industries; and to generate revenue for MSU Denver.

It will contribute to a more flexible and adaptable learning ecosystem, increase micro-credentials and our online offerings, and expand our innovation footprint. The first prototype from this planned office will integrate virtual reality and cybersecurity as we pioneer new ways to support a high-demand workforce. This Office of Innovation and Transformation is part of the academic aim to position MSU Denver as the urban teaching, research, and innovation university.

 

So, I hope you have a renewed sense of pride and passion for the how far we have come and for the immensely purposeful path we are on together.

As Billy Jean King says, “pressure is a privilege” – the pressure of Covid did expose our weaknesses, but it also presented us the resources to address them. It has in fact made us stronger together.

If I can leave you with one takeaway today, it’s this: MSU Denver is the place to be. I am so proud of all we’ve done in our five years together, and I can’t wait to see what we do in the next five.

Look around this room and look around your offices and classrooms later today. Some of the most talented and dedicated people I’ve ever worked alongside are in this room, and that’s why this place is so special. This is truly a University primed to launch!

Thank you for coming today and for showing up every day for our students and for each other. It remains my greatest honor to serve as your president.