Fostering change: CMU president marks 10 years leading school
In the past decade, the start or completion of nearly $300 million worth of construction and renovation projects at Colorado Mesa University has transformed a small college once derisively called MIT — Mesa in Town — into the fastest growing university in Colorado.
Nearly every academic building has been renovated or rebuilt. Five residence halls have gone up, and a sixth is on the way, tripling the number of beds. More beds are needed for more bodies as the student population has ballooned by 67 percent to nearly 10,000. More than 560 full- and part-time faculty members are teaching those students, nearly 50 percent more than 10 years ago.
Those professors are teaching more programs, including a doctor of nursing practice program and master’s degree programs in education and nursing. Those degrees were added in recent years to the only graduate offering the university had administered since 1997, a master of business administration degree. A handful of bachelor and associate degree and certificate programs have been added as well, plus a law enforcement officer training POST Academy program, a human performance lab for exercise science studies and a mechanical engineering degree program taught in partnership with the University of Colorado.
Even the school’s name is different.
It’s no coincidence, though, that having Tim Foster at the helm is one of the few things that has stayed the same at CMU in that time.
Clearly, the hallmark of the 56-year-old’s first decade at the school — Saturday marked his 10th anniversary as president — is growth. It sometimes has been faster than people expected or desired, including some homeowners in the path of the main campus’ westward expansion and neighbors of the original site of a lab where students and staff study body decomposition.
Some may argue with Foster’s methods, but few argue with the results. The cycle of more — more buildings, more programs, more instructors, more students — has been a bright spot in a decade of a roller coaster economy and a rare glimmer of success in a time that has been hard for Colorado public school budgets.
BOON TO LOCAL ECONOMY
The local economy has benefited from the university, both as an attraction for employers and an institution responsive to the needs of the local workforce, according to Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Diane Schwenke. Schwenke served on a community and staff group that suggested the name change to a university, among other changes, and continues to serve on a board that advises Foster on the direction of campus. She said Foster responded to the demand for nurses with a faster track in the nursing program, for example, and officially spun off Western Colorado Community College in 2005 and has overseen the creation of more programs that allow workers to take a pathway from certificate to associate to bachelor’s-level programs.
“Tim is a get-it-done individual. He’s short on process and long on outcome. It’s about what we’ve done rather than how we’re doing it,” she said. “I think he saw possibilities where CMU could go before anyone else saw those possibilities.”
Foster is quick to call the school’s transformation a team effort. His executive staff includes people he met during his time as a state representative between 1988 and 1996 and while executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and Colorado Commission on Higher Education from 1999 until he came to then-Mesa State, as well as some whose resumes impressed him after he was hired at the college.
Foster said he looks for people who are committed to campuswide goals of putting instruction before sports, of keeping class sizes small while enrollment grows, and of practicing “management by walking around,” meaning they seek solutions by communicating with students and staff, not sitting in an office gazing out a tiny window.
“We go after the smartest people. There are plenty of people who work on campus who are way smarter than I am,” Foster said.
But it would be disingenuous to claim growth happened on Foster’s watch without his help or permission. Former Mesa State Board of Trustees Chairwoman Lena Elliott said Foster’s vision for the campus’ future in his hometown is a major reason why she signed the paperwork to hire him.
“We had a lot of good people (apply) but Tim knew the community and could hit the ground running,” Elliott said. “He can make a decision to do something but he also knows how to get there.”
THE TRUSTEES’ FIRST PICK
The hiring process in 2004 came soon after a consortium that included Mesa State, Metro State, Western State and Adams State colleges, all universities now, disbanded, with each college forming its own board. Mesa State’s board of trustees at that time was less than a year old, and its members were still getting to know each other and the rules of operating a public board. The board went into executive session to discuss what it wanted in a president, then down the line picked Foster as its lone favorite for the job before bringing any of the half dozen candidates who made it through the interview process to campus.
The process drew a lawsuit from the editor of the college’s student newspaper, who successfully argued trustees violated the state’s open-meetings law. It also caused some to wonder if other candidates had been given a fair look. Former Trustee Jamie Hamilton said Foster was just every trustee’s first pick.
“We asked, ‘What’s going to differentiate us?’ Someone that has connectivity, a business background, someone who can work in the legislative arena and with CCHE. Every time we started asking what we wanted, he was the perfect match,” Hamilton said.
Hiring someone who had never been a professor or head of another school raised some eyebrows on and off campus, Hamilton said. Former Trustee Charlie Monfort said Foster had an understanding of higher education from his work in Denver, but the college at that time needed someone with a “business side,” too. Foster is a former attorney who has been involved in numerous businesses.
“There were some situations at Mesa that needed to be rectified and he understood that,” Monfort said.
Those situations included improving the school’s financial situation, according to Foster. He said leaving the consortium helped because the college no longer had to plug its revenue into other schools that needed financial help. It’s no secret Western and Adams are in the worst financial position of any public four-year schools in the state since leaving the consortium, according to a legislative report released in December.
The other change was a difference in management style. Foster encourages students and employees to visit his office during an open hour at 2 on Monday afternoons. He disbanded the dean system to save money. He wanted to keep the top tier of faculty candidates from falling away so he asked what they expected in pay from peer institutions and tried to match it. He said remodeling and constructing classroom buildings also has been done with professors in mind. It’s hard for a professor to meet expectations, he said, in an outdated room with minimal technology and half the resources students need.
“You’ve got to provide them the facilities and tools to be great,” Foster said.
“Buildings were a mess” in 2004, according to English professor Julie Barak, and the campus “was a depressing place to be.” As the campus environment improved, Barak said, more students with higher high school grade-point averages and ACT scores were attracted to the school. The admissions index score required to get in, a measure based on ACT, GPA and class rank, increased in 2007 and again last fall. The average admissions index score of Colorado Mesa students was six points higher in 2011 than in 2004.
“There’s no way you can say anything but good things about having twice as many students but also better students,” Barak said.
CREATING An on-campus CULTURE
A campus tour clinched the deal for Colorado Mesa student Ariel Diamond. It was the last of 12 campuses the Rapid City, S.D., resident visited before deciding where to enroll post-high school.
“It had the nicest facilities, the nicest campus, and the price — it was the total package for me,” Diamond said.
As president of the Associated Student Government, the CMU senior meets with Foster at least every other week. She said students appreciate that they got a say in the recent naming of Dominguez and Escalante halls through an online community survey and that Foster responded quickly to a student body request to remodel Tomlinson Library.
“They really feel like they have a relationship with President Foster and he knows their name. It’s something he does purposefully, to let them know they matter,” Diamond said.
Foster said he realized after the local economic bust in 1982 how important people and culture are to making a place inviting. On a college campus, that meant creating nicer facilities and more places for students to live on campus to encourage them to make campus a home, not just a place to stop off and take classes.
Foster said he was told when he first arrived that a past president said he never planned to build another residence hall. Seeing a need for a better on-campus culture for students and thus more rooms to get them onto campus, Foster rejected that notion and got started on Grand Mesa Hall.
Grand Mesa’s location close to the campus’ western border on College Place prompted neighbors to ask how far he planned to move west. They had seen plans for 20 years suggesting the campus would creep west but nothing had been done to attain that goal. Foster told the neighbors he thought it would take 10 or 15 years to get to Cannell Avenue. When it happened within three years of him saying that, a neighbor accused him of lying to her. Foster said it was just a guess, something he’s not willing to venture regarding how long it will take the campus to reach Seventh Street, as planned.
The school has spent $16.3 million since 2006 to buy 113 properties in the growth path. Mesa County and the city of Grand Junction have contributed an additional $4.8 million to that effort. It’s not something every homeowner has welcomed. While some sold willingly, others got recession-era prices for homes they had paid more for in boom times and some held out until their homes were surrounded by parking lots and new campus buildings. Homes at 1220 and 1240 Cannell Ave. are the last in place east of the street. Clark Carroll, owner of the home at 1240 Cannell, told The Daily Sentinel in 2011 he had no immediate plans to sell.
It’s not the first time the school has hit some bumps in the past decade. State funding hit all public institutions hard during the recession, causing schools to rely more on tuition and less on the state. While Colorado Mesa has the sixth-lowest tuition and fees among the 12 public four-year schools in Colorado, its tuition and fees made the largest jump in 2012-13 — 152 percent — compared to 2004. Enrollment growth helped keep greater tuition increases at bay but environmentally friendly energy projects and other measures helped save money, too.
Colorado Mesa’s plans to build the first forensic anthropology lab west of Texas hit snags in 2010 when neighbors of the proposed site along 29 Road in Pear Park found out about the farm and protested. CMU, which didn’t notify residents about the location before starting construction, backtracked and moved the site near the county landfill on Orchard Mesa. Pear Park residents who were initially incensed have no hard feelings toward Foster, according to Bob Carpendale.
“He was pretty reasonable to deal with. Everyone around here’s happy. I just didn’t want a body farm in my backyard,” Carpendale said.
A COMPETITOR, JOKER AND FRIEND
University president is a demanding job, but it’s not Foster’s only role. He is married to wife, Lisa, and has four sons: Stuart, Sean, Scott and Stephen. He is a passionate swimmer, coach and cyclist, often pulling to the head of the pack on rides across Colorado National Monument, according to Rodney Johnson, his friend since seventh grade.
“Most people who go riding with us say they don’t want to go ‘Foster pace,’ ” Johnson said.
Foster is a practical joker, facilitator, and loyal friend as well, according to former law firm partner Steve Laiche.
“If Tim Foster is your friend, Tim Foster is your friend no matter what you do to him. He is as loyal a man as I have ever seen in my life,” Laiche said. “He’s my medical power of attorney, that’s how deeply I know him and how much I trust him.”
Laiche teaches at the university and taught at Mesa State College when he first moved here in the 1980s. The difference between the students and campus then versus now is stark, he said, with both improving dramatically.
“It was a glorified high school before,” Laiche said. “I’m sending my son there next year. I wouldn’t have sent my children there in ‘87…If it wouldn’t have been for Tim Foster, that school wouldn’t even be there.”
John Marshall, CMU’s vice president for student services and a member of the class of 2001, said the small-school qualities that brought him to campus are still there, but he has enjoyed watching the campus grow first-hand.
“It’s a lot more fun to be a part of something dynamic,” he said.
The physical change is evident to anyone who comes to campus after a long absence, according Colorado Mesa Trustee Dan Robinson. But a culture shift is noticeable, too.
“There’s a sense of ownership people have. There’s an energy, excitement, a culture of learning, a culture of inclusion. It’s an impressive place to be,” Robinson said.
Robinson credits Foster’s team and the leadership of the board of trustees for that culture shift. Fellow trustee Doug Price agreed, saying Foster “can be seen as being the guy at the front of the parade but he has a capable team” in that parade.
“I think I’m a pretty good executive but I learn from him all the time,” said Price, president and chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain PBS. “Nobody’s perfect since Jesus, but for 10 years I think he’s been pretty close to the perfect college president.”
Possibilities for the future include expanding west to Seventh Street and adding space for the Health Sciences Department, science buildings, another theater and residence halls, according to Foster. The average tenure for university presidents is not in the double digits, but Foster said he plans to stick with the job as long as it doesn’t become bland and predictable.
“I like to do things as long as I find it fun and interesting,” he said. “An organization needs turnover eventually. It’s important to have fresh thought.”