There’s no better testament to Tim Foster’s leadership than the fact that his successor comes from within the Colorado Mesa University family.
But this is not about Tim Foster.
The CMU Board of Trustees conducted a nationwide search for a new president that drew 64 applicants. None was more aligned with the board’s goals for the position than John Marshall, CMU’s longtime vice president for student services.
Marshall didn’t squander an obvious home-field advantage in the hiring process. We had the opportunity to interact briefly with the three finalists this week and Marshall dazzled in sharing his understanding of the president’s duties and articulating a vision for CMU.
There isn’t a more consequential organization in western Colorado than CMU. Marshall reinforced again and again that being president of the university is much more than enrollment numbers and capital projects.
“We are woven into the fabric of this community,” he said. “We can see in a very tangible way what happens when we lean into this community and don’t wall ourselves off.”
Ultimately, CMU exists to move the region forward, not to act as a standalone institution concerned only with its own agenda, Marshall said.
“We need the city and county investing in us, that’s absolutely true,” Marshall said. “But being a good partner is about reciprocity. It’s not always a question of what’s good for CMU. There are time when we have to show up with no immediate tangible benefit because that’s what the community needs us to do.”
We can think of several examples of CMU trying to do right by the community — offering classes at a reduced cost to displaced workers or expanding its COVID testing capacity beyond students and faculty. But beyond a macro-level orientation about the university’s role in the community, Marshall showed an expansive understanding of what CMU must do to stay relevant —and solvent.
■ It needs disciplined budgeting to maintain financial strength — “not so we’re sitting on a pile of cash but to be able to invest in programs and forgo tuition increases on kids who can least afford it.”
■ It needs to leverage more public-private partnerships that combine private investment, a curricular need, a long-term revenue opportunity and something that’s good for Grand Junction or the region. The teaching hotel on campus is a good example.
■ It needs a politically astute president who can navigate the Capitol in Denver and fight against historic funding inequities that have shortchanged higher education in western Colorado.
■ It needs good enrollment management. “We’re going to grow because of, not in spite of, our north star — first-generation, low-income students of color,” Marshall said.
CMU must do better at helping adults with some college, but no degree, complete their studies. It can also push further down into high schools, giving students the option of concurrent enrollment for degree-track students or skills-based courses for students who want to enter the workforce right out of high school.
■ It must take a lead in fostering civility. “We’ve never been more divided in this country,” Marshall said. “This university cannot be a passive bystander in that conversation. We have to show leadership. We have to bring people together of different values and experiences and have a conversation where we can move this country forward.”
Finally, the university needs consistency, Marshall said. He’ll do his part by sticking around for many years. Marshall attended CMU as an undergrad, making him the first CMU alum to become president.
“Following John Elway is not a good idea, but I’m doing it anyway because I believe in this place,” he said.
Marshall’s multifaceted and granular-level expertise made him an easy pick to lead CMU. He led CMU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which gained national attention for the innovations developed and utilized by the campus.
But he really proved himself in the community by being involved in efforts to develop a better calendar for School District 51 and pressing for later start times for adolescents. He was also part of a D51 committee focused on improved student safety.
That kind of involvement shows a commitment to the entire community, not just to CMU. And it reflects Marshall’s “why” for CMU.
“Our ‘why’ is not simply to get degrees in hands,” he said. “Our ‘why’ is to lift the tide of this entire region. A healthy community happens as we are more educated.”
We think CMU is in good hands for the foreseeable future.