Big man on campus

We can’t say enough good things about the bang-up job Tim Foster has done in the 10 years since taking over as the president of what used to be Mesa State College.

In Sunday’s lead story, the Sentinel’s Emily Shockley detailed the growth of of the campus — in terms of both enrollment and new buildings — since the college’s board of trustees gambled on Foster to lead the school despite his never having been a professor or the chief administrator of another college.

In the ensuing decade, nearly $300 million in construction and renovation has transformed CMU from a tiny hometown college into the state’s fastest-growing university. The transformation included a name change. Once criticized as sounding clunky, the name Colorado Mesa University now has cachet, reflecting the vigor and optimism of a school on the rise.

The school is a bright spot in Grand Junction’s still-recovering economy with more buildings, more programs, more students and more instructors than ever.

Foster has brought a “better product” mindset to the operation, focusing on talented professors, small classes and reasonable tuition costs, while continually reinvesting in the campus facilities to foster growth.

“If success is putting cash in the drawer, we could do that,” he said in a recent meeting with the editorial board. “But, at the expense of a vision for the future.”

That vision has paid dividends. As the campus environment has improved, more students with higher grade-point averages and ACT scores have been attracted to the school. The average admissions index score of CMU students was six points higher in 2011 than in 2004.

Before Foster landed the job, his biggest selling point was his understanding of higher education funding. He had been a state lawmaker between 1988 and 1996 and then executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and Colorado Commission on Higher Education from 1999 until he came home to Grand Junction to run Mesa State in 2004.

State funding for higher ed has been on a consistent decline during Foster’s tenure, squeezed by the Legislature’s statutory obligations — funding for K-12 schools and Medicare.

As a result, Colorado Mesa University holds the distinction of experiencing the largest decline in per-student funding from the state over the last four years.

The average amount of money CMU has received from the state for each in-state, full-time-equivalent student has dropped 47 percent, from $5,286 in 2009 to $2,824 this year, according to figures provided by the university. Foster thinks the state should give its public colleges and universities the same amount of money per student.

Such are the challenges of running a growing university. Some of the biggest criticisms that have been leveled at Foster involve his handling of growth-related issues, such as how the school’s expansion impinges on neighboring areas. We think those are good problems to have and certainly better than problems associated with falling enrollment.

Foster said he plans to stick with the job as long as it doesn’t become bland and predictable. While he’s made no public statements about a desire to return to politics, he’s made a name for himself as a dedicated public servant, especially to his hometown. Colorado hasn’t had a Western Slope governor since John D. Vanderhoof in the 1970s. Should Foster ever aspire to make a run for statewide office and succeed, the Western Slope would benefit.

Until then, we feel fortunate that Foster arrived at Mesa State College when he did and helped the school get to where it is today. Whether he stays another decade or moves on to greener pastures, CMU has a promising future thanks to Foster’s leadership and vision.


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