When Brad Baca was selected as Western’s President in April, campus opinion appeared to be split into two distinct camps. Many staff and faculty are quick to tell you that Baca is extraordinarily committed to Western, and to Gunnison—indicated by his twenty years of service to the university.
Baca, in his recent capacities as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, as well as with his background in state politics and education—is certainly well versed in academic and state policy, and well connected at Colorado’s Capitol—promising attributes for a university president.
Additionally, he is likely more knowledgeable than anyone else concerning the school’s financial, administrative, and operational intricacies, and brings a unique perspective to the role as a first-generation Hispanic student himself.
And as he indicated during his listening sessions in March, he has been part and parcel to every major decision made at Western since the early 2000s. For some, Baca’s record at Western is a strength—his proponents point to his dealings over the last two decades as evidence of Baca’s managerial prowess and vision.
Some notable examples include securing free tuition for the children of staff and faculty, facilitating the financing for the construction of new buildings like the Mountaineer Fieldhouse and University Center, serving on the university’s senior Covid Cabinet, and navigating a series of successful fundraising, debt-relief and restructuring, and financial aid efforts. His full CV detailing his Western accomplishments, and his earlier career efforts, can be found HERE.
But for detractors, Baca is far too closely affiliated with the Strategic Resource Allocation (SRA), a study he co-founded, and which brought cuts to the Sociology, Music, and Arts Departments (among others), creating a rift and lack of trust among some liberal arts faculty, and signaling a possible long-term shift to the university’s academic offerings.
His close working ties to the Rady School and the Athletics Department ring alarm bells for some, who are concerned he will not make other academic programs and areas of campus a priority.
These calls—as far as I can tell, come largely from the humanities and liberal arts, Western’s queer community, and from other areas of campus who feel they will be left in the cold, particularly as Western continues to stare down unfavorable budget numbers—projecting a shortfall for this upcoming fiscal year which will eat into the university’s reserve funds.
Critics have been quick to make assumptions that problems which have long persisted at Western—our poor performance on LGBTQIA+ metrics, for instance, or our precarious financial situation, which has proved intractable despite a variety of efforts tracing back decades— will continue under a Baca presidency.
And frankly, I cannot blame them too much—Western has fallen short of its full duty to protect and serve students, and former President Greg Salsbury did himself, and our university, no favors with his communications before his hasty exit, which eroded trust and set campus on edge after an earlier email scandal.
Baca served seven years under Dr. Salsbury, and he took criticism from faculty during the presidential listening sessions for not doing more as a cabinet member and university leader to address problems of institutional culture, trust, and direction that persisted under the previous president. Baca, for his part, reportedly countered that he did what he could within that administration for the best interest of Western, and for transparency’s sake.
Full disclosure: I was one of the people who believed that an external hire might have been for the best, a set of fresh eyes to examine stubborn, complex problems. Dr. Michelle Rogers, the Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Redlands in southern California, was a strong candidate well liked by many students and faculty.
Dr. Rogers would have brought a distinct vantage to the role with her educational background studying equity, and she was the preferred candidate for some students, staff, and faculty who hail from diverse backgrounds at Western.
But as Baca pointed out when asked about his on-campus engagement with students during a student listening session—his role is different now. He is no longer chiefly an operational and financial manager—he is the face of a public university. President Baca will ultimately claim the glory, or take the flak, for everything that happens on campus from here until the end of his tenure.
And certainly, his role will still involve significant budgetary and policy elements, along with the nuts and bolts of running a public institution and reporting to a Board. But it’s too early to tell whether Baca will excel in the arenas of outreach, trust-building, and visionary leadership necessary to rebuild Western into a cohesive campus striving in mostly the same direction.
Heck, he hasn’t even officially assumed the role yet, and won’t until July 1.
What I have heard repeatedly from Baca’s proponents is that he is a strong listener, and a responsive one. I also hear that he keeps his cool under pressure and works efficiently to get things done without excessive fanfare. Personally, I would love to see these traits embodied at Western and modeled for the entire Mountaineer community.
Should he deploy these traits on Western’s problems—the budgetary issues and the future vision for the university’s academic programs and financial balance sheet, absolutely, but also the lack of high-level support for queer student and students of color, and a still-broken sense of institutional trust in need of careful mending—then he has the potential for great success.
For now, let’s reserve our judgment, maintain a watchful eye, and wish President Baca the best as he takes the reins at Western.