On Aug. 19, Top’s editor Brian Wagenaar spoke with Western’s president Brad Baca, who has been in the role since July 1 and has been busy on the Front Range conducting outreach to media, prospective students, and others.
Before becoming the university’s 15th president, Baca served in roles as the vice president of finance and chief operating officer for the university for nearly two decades, and became interim president for a period following former president Jay Helman’s departure in 2013 and 2014.
Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, is presented below:
Brian Wagenaar: I saw that you’ve been on the road a lot here these last few weeks. How has your first month and a half as president been?
Brad Baca: It’s gone fast, and it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. I’ve tried to focus my time being out and about — we did a roadshow on the Front Range — but also just doing a lot of events in the valley here to get out and meet people.
BW: Besides getting out in front of the public and some of those initial communications and relationship building, what do you see as your top priorities for the next year?
BB: One of the things we did was we had a Board of Trustees retreat up in Crested Butte, and we had some focused discussion on a couple of topics. One is strategic planning — the strategic plan we’re under is expiring after this academic year, so with that expiration and a change in leadership it created the ideal timing to delve into that and have some discussion about key questions, like: what does Western’s future look like? And also: where are we headed?
We also talked about housing, and I think housing continues to be a major obstacle for a lot of our faculty and staff. We need to continue to push really hard to create some solutions for Western that will help the valley more generally.
BW: Can you touch on the housing projects that Western is involved with currently? How are you looking at the housing issue?
BB: There’s a lot of projects that are happening in the valley, both up and down. For Western, what we discussed with the board is short-term solutions and long-term solutions. We had engaged some short-term rental owners to see if they might be interested.
It’s a program mirrored off what they did in Summit County, where [the government] approached owners of short-term rental units and offered them an incentive package and paid a fee to hold that unit for usage by the city or county. In addition to that incentive fee, the owners would get a monthly rental fee.
We explored that option quite a bit, and we had some interest from different folks in town. But at the end of the day, as we whittled down the details, it became clear that was probably not the best solution for Western. Now, we’re looking at a couple other short-term options, perhaps approaching some housing complexes about master leases.
I’m hesitant to purchase anything that already exists because that doesn’t really contribute to the solution of the problem, which is just having more housing. I would hate to use a lot of Western’s limited resources for purchasing an existing unit. So if there’s something we could do in the short-term, like a lease agreement with a complex that allows us a year or two of exclusive usage, that would be good.
On the long-term side, we’re still looking at the possibility of building some housing units on campus, and I’m putting together a task force to start to run some numbers and figure out what’s possible there.
BW: I wanted to ask you about student engagement — how do you see your role in engaging students? How can students contact you and what will the relationship between yourself and students look like?
BB: I fully intend to be out and about talking with students — hearing what’s going on out there. I firmly believe that in order to lead, I need to understand what the challenges are for our students — where we’re doing things well, and where we can improve the student experience.
I spent a good part of this week helping students move in, and spent time with their families later in the afternoon. I intend to be out of my office as much as possible, so I can be out engaging students.
There will be that kind of unscripted engagement, but I also want to be intentional — scheduling time with different areas of campus. We just moved into the president’s residence on campus, and I intend to have occasional lunches or dinners with student groups. I think that’s critically important.
BW: I wanted to touch on mental health, which is such an important issue on college campuses — what can Western do to address student’s mental health needs?
BB: It’s an important issue for us, and some of the steps we made last year in terms of expanding services for professional help was a good step. Currently, we are working very closely with Gunnison Valley Health, our new provider for on-the-ground mental health services.
I know they have identified that mental health is a big community need, and so I’d expect more focus and resources being put into the realm of mental health services. I hope Western can participate in that, and be able to expand in-person counseling services.
I think some of our academic programming — particularly with the master’s program in Rural Health – I’m hoping we can grow our own [professionals], so to speak, in terms of producing counselors and others interested in that realm of work.
We will continue to get feedback to see how that is all working and identify if we need to move some resources around.
BW: Turning the conversation to diversity and equity — how do you think Western can become a leader on these issues — and attract a more diverse student body?
BB: I think there’s a lot of opportunity for Western to improve in that area. One of the things I think is important is to bring some resources to campus that can help us understand best practices — what are we doing that is great, and what do we need to be doing more of.
I’ve become pretty close with Roberta Montoya, the chief educational equity officer at the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE), and am looking to bring him and potentially his team to campus sometime this fall to examine what we’re doing.
Additionally, I met with a group of local Hispanic leaders on the Front Range — and we had a really good conversation about how Western can be more focused on bringing diversity to our campus, in terms of students, faculty, and staff.
I intend to leverage the resources and connections that I’ve made in the last few months to help us figure out our next steps. We also have things that are already happening on campus. We have a very active DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) Committee on campus and I look forward to engaging with them to figure out ways to improve our diversity and equity on campus.
We just hired an equal opportunity officer, and they are going to really help us focus on tapping into more diverse pools of applicants for jobs on campus. Additionally, we’ve got the vice president of inclusivity position — the search failed this last spring, but we’re relaunching that process in the next couple weeks.
As we’ve had discussions around our strategic plan, one of the core principles you will see is a focus on DEIJ (diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice). Whatever goals we establish, DEIJ has to permeate throughout each of those goals.
BW: There was some discussion this year about retention concerns for faculty and staff — how can Western retain and recruit quality faculty and staff? How does the salary equity task force play into this?
BB: We experienced this past academic year the highest turnover rate that I’ve seen in many 20 years here. That’s due to a lot of forces — non-competitive pay, high cost of living and housing costs, and the impacts of the great resignation. A lot of institutions are struggling.
We have to take a multi-pronged approach to this — one element is addressing salary issues. The task force on salary equity helped address this — we made some strong advances in raising salary levels, particularly for lower wage earners on campus to make things more feasible for them. The housing piece is another key component.
One of the things we’ll be doing this year is looking to hire a consulting firm to help us put together a comprehensive compensation plan, because for a lot of folks there is an uncertainty of: what’s my future here? What are my opportunities here?
Having some type of compensation plan that identifies pay scales for different positions would be greatly important so folks know what to expect and can plan accordingly.
BW: On the academic side of things, what do you see as the strengths and the future of Western? What are your thoughts on online programs, 3+2 programs, and the graduate programs?
BB: We’ve got a lot of great things in play right now. I’m really excited about the new adult degree completion program, which gives us access to a market that we have not had access to in the past.
There are two things that I’m going to have us take a look at. One: how can we continue to identify ways in which our programs can interact both locally and regionally and take advantage of our location?
Our location is a strength, and one that we need to leverage better. Obviously, we do have programs that are exemplary in that area — the Master’s of Environmental Management (MEM) and Outdoor Industry MBA, for example. How do we incorporate that sense of place better?
The other thing that the State of Colorado is going to be asking us to look at is how we measure student success. They are going to challenge us to think beyond retention rates and graduation rates, at things like return on investment (ROI).
We are going to have to spend some time talking about that for each program — how do we enhance that return? How do we promote it, so that people know there are refined career paths for every program on this campus? That is a large component of what students want in their higher education.
BW: Turning to the environmental sphere — are there specific projects you would like to see happen on Western’s campus? How are you thinking about climate action planning and Western’s role in sustainability within the community?
BB: We are uniquely positioned to be a leader in this realm given our location at the headwaters of the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers. We aren’t doing what we need to be doing if we aren’t leading in this realm. We have a lot of innovative and creative faculty who have tremendous ideas, and I look forward to having conversations about what we can do moving forward.
I love our public lands emphasis [within the Clark Family School of Environment and Sustainability], and I think that we should be the place that people come to study if they want to work in public lands management. We’re having a lot of conversations about sustainable tourism — how do we play in that realm?
There’s a ton of opportunity and we need to take some time to focus on the things that are going to be most impactful for our institution moving forward.
BW: How do you see the role of donors in Western’s future? Should there be limits on their influence?
BB: Donors are going to be a critical piece of our future. With the state funding situation, we can’t continue to raise the cost of tuition and fees to students to bear these costs. Having investment by our donor community — and those who are passionate about what we’re passionate about — is going to be very important for us.
Part of that is aligning expectations early on, and it’s also about finding that overlap in passion with the donor and the strategic direction of the institution.
We’ve done some work in the recent past around naming rights, and having a naming committee — so that when a major gift is provided, there’s review by a group of faculty and staff to ensure that the project is aligned with Westerns’ strategic plan and our values, and that it supports our university’s mission.
BW: What do you want your legacy at Western to be? How do you envision your role in shaping that vision for the future?
BB: Still kinda working on that, Brian. As I was interviewing for this position, there were really two ideas that I had. One was that I would love for Western to be a school of first choice for students — by that, I mean that we’re delivering on student success and the aspects of a higher education experience that students want — and that we’re doing it on an affordable basis.
One of the ways we do get there is focusing on affordability and access, which I’ve been talking about a lot recently. That issue is near and dear to my heart as a first-generation college graduate.
So, what can we do to raise money to provide more scholarships for our students? What can I do in the legislative realm to try to buy down the debt of the institution so that we can reduce cost? How can we promote and demonstrate a strong return on investment?
The second thing I talked about is how can we make Western an employer of choice? Meaning that faculty and staff want to be here, and instead of looking at turnover rates of 20 or 30 percent, we’re having to manage the people who want to come and work here.
It’s about salaries, it’s about housing, but it’s also about making people feel empowered and enthused on a daily basis. I fundamentally believe that it’s the people that will drive the success of this institution — it’s not any strategy, it’s not any plan we have — it’s the people who are on the ground to do the work.
Looking forward five or six years from now, if we’ve made progress in those realms I will feel good about what I’ve done.
BW: One last fun question — what do you like to do outside of work, and what are some of your favorite outdoor spots in Colorado?
BB: I came to the valley 20 years ago, and what brought me here, largely, was the recreational opportunities. I grew up in rural Colorado and spent a lot of my time outdoors growing up — I have a real passion for just being outside.
I do everything from fishing to rafting, mountain biking, hiking, camping, and hunting. That’s my sanctuary, the outdoors. I like to go south of town, down to the La Garitas — Stuart Peak, San Luis Peak — those are some of my favorite places.