By Rebecca Briesmoore and Brian Wagenaar
The first of three scheduled student input and question sessions (one for each of the school’s three presidential finalists) was held in the UC South Ballroom on Tuesday, March 8. Sherry Ford, Director of Business Services for Western and a member of Western’s Presidential Search Committee, introduced the first candidate to take center stage for a full day of programming: Brad Baca.
Baca has served across a variety of administrative functions at Western since 2002. He currently holds the titles of Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Western.
Baca’s pitch to students
Baca opened with a short personal and professional introduction for the roughly 20 students in attendance. Baca was born in Greeley, Colorado and raised in Trinidad, near the New Mexico border. Baca is a first-generation Hispanic student and has multi-generational familial ties to the San Luis Valley.
“I had the privilege of attending an Ivy League institution for my undergrad, and quickly decided I wanted to get back to Colorado,” said Baca. After earning a degree from Dartmouth, Baca studied Public Policy at the University of Colorado in Boulder, earning a master’s degree focused on education policy.
“I’ve spent my whole career in public service,” says Baca, who worked for Democratic Governor Roy Roymer in the late 1990s before becoming the Director of Budgets for the Colorado Community College System; a position he held for roughly three years before coming to Western in 2002.
Since then, Baca says he has overseen every major initiative, overhaul, and bump-in-the-road at Western, including two recessions and a global pandemic. “I had no idea I was going to spend 20 years here, and at the time, I had no idea it was going to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“For all the things that I have been able to accomplish at Western, this institution and this community has given me so much more,” says Baca, citing a passion for public service and a strong sense of place within the valley.
Baca’s family is deeply rooted in both Western and the Gunnison Valley. Mr. Baca is married to Julie Baca, who serves as the school’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO). The pair live in Almont with their four kids. “I want to be able to give back at the highest level,” states Baca.
Regarding his leadership style, Baca emphasized “being present” with a listen-first mantra, inspiring creativity and prioritizing student experience, and working collaboratively across campus to resolve difficult issues as top priorities.
Recognizing his imperfections and shortcomings, Baca said he is dedicated to growth as a leader and wants to be realistic about the challenges facing Western. “I am committed to serving the students and this campus with every ounce of energy that I have,” said Baca.
The student vantage
Jackson Piggott, a senior graduating this May with a degree in Politics and Government and a Philosophy minor, was present at the session, introducing himself as a former member of Orientation and Western’s Student Government Association (SGA), and peppering Baca with multiple questions spanning several topics.
Piggott is honest in admitting that Western was not his first personal choice out of high school, but he came to Western and devoted himself to academics and campus activities. Piggott sees one of the university’s shortcomings is a lack of student involvement, which he pins on both a lack of offerings and a lapse in the school’s self-marketing. “Students don’t know [about] all the options that they have,” he says.
Piggot’s sentiments are echoed by Western junior Maddey Wilson, a Biology major with an emphasis in Pre-Physical Therapy who also attended the session. “I think the most important thing is to make Western more welcoming for all students. I work with first year and transfer students and have seen firsthand some students not finding a belonging here on campus [and then] transferring to another campus. I feel more events for all students would be helpful, especially with Covid calming down,” says Wilson.
Back when Piggott first became involved on campus and in student government, he felt that Brad and Julie Baca were two of the only people in administration that made an earnest effort to engage with students. “Any opportunity or any situation that arose within SGA for admin to be involved, [Baca] was there, and he was open, transparent, willing to answer questions,” says Piggott, who is open in his support for Baca.
“Hearing him as a finalist really [piqued] my interest and made me excited that maybe we don’t have have to look outside the walls of Western to find the right replacement for [former President] Salsbury,” adds Piggott, who notes that when he first thought about the search he was quite receptive to the prospect of an external candidate. Top of mind for Piggott is cultivating a more expansive and robust culture of inclusiveness and diversity at Western.
Piggott cites Baca’s 20 years at Western as a strength, both in terms of his knowledge base and his depth of commitment. “It’s not going to be a stepping stone for him, he’s already committed to Western” he adds. Piggott raises Baca’s finance background as advantageous for securing Western’s future, as well as Baca’s political connections within the local community and at Colorado’s Capitol.
Piggott’s primary concern about Baca, if he had to pick one, regards Baca’s focus over the course of two decades on finance and policy, and how that focus may limit him in other aspects, at least in the short-term. But Piggott says that Baca has always demonstrated a willingness to learn and listen, which gives him hope about Baca’s growth potential as a leader.
Despite his high marks for Baca, Piggott is keeping an open mind heading into the rest of the week. “I am excited to go to the other forums and give everyone a fair chance,” he says, adding that he hopes Western can become a destination school for programs like engineering and environmental management in the near future.
Laisha Flores, a first-generation college student majoring in Psychology with a minor in Spanish, appreciates that Baca is also a first-generation college graduate of Latino background. “It’s very important to have someone representing students like me,” says Flores. Flores originally was concerned that she hadn’t seen Baca at sporting events and student activities and asked him about his participation.
Baca, who responded that he attended as many student events as possible, acknowledged that the position of President holds additional responsibilities for engaging with students and that he can do better moving forward. “I liked the way he said there was room for improvement. He knew there was more he could do, and I appreciate that,” says Flores.
Flores is looking for a new president who will not only represent all students but be more present with them. She also wants the new president to be more transparent. “People felt that higher-ups were gate keeping information. We’ll know we made a good choice in our new president when we have someone who lets us know what is going on and what decisions have been made,” says Flores. She also hopes the new president will address racism on campus. “It’s still a problem at Western. It’s very visible when someone treats others differently.”
Charles Hammaker, who represents Western’s Multicultural Center in SGA and is an active member in all multicultural clubs on campus, appreciated Baca’s emphasis on increasing diversity on campus. “It sounds insignificant, but I think it’s an important part of a liberal arts education to be exposed to people of diverse backgrounds,” says Hammaker.
Hammaker, a senior studying English with dual minors in Spanish and Humanities and Diversity, was impressed by the way Baca answered questions. “He got hit with some difficult questions, but he handled them well and was even willing to talk more with those people afterward,” notes Hammaker.
Hammaker wants to see the new president follow through on their promises. He admits he would have liked to hear more from Baca about specifics on how he would implement his ideas but acknowledges that it’s difficult to have step–by-step plans before officially having started the job. He hopes that whoever the next president is, they will go through with what they planned to do and not just coast through the position.
Dalia Alejandre, President of the Amigos Club, also attended the session and encouraged all Amigos club members to participate. Alejandre, who is majoring in Elementary Education, agrees with Hammaker that Baca’s emphasis on diversity is important. She is looking for a new president who represents all student groups on campus and will be involved with students. “I want someone who will focus on students rather than what Western looks like,” says Alejandre.
Alejandre wants the new president to hold themselves accountable for their ideas and progress. Her only concern with Baca was that when she asked him about holding himself accountable, he said he would rely on students and the board of trustees.
“I wanted to see him have personal accountability,” says Alejandre. However, overall, Alejandre says she liked Baca’s ideas and is pleased that he has been very involved on campus. “He had a lot of great ideas about bringing positive change to campus,” says Alejandre. She’s also looking forward to seeing the other two candidates, adding, “We’ll see what the other candidates have to say.”
Students pose their questions
Throughout the session, students had a chance to ask more than 15 distinct questions, which ranged widely, and spanned student experience and success, engagement and retention, cultivating a more diverse and inclusive campus, and addressing systemic issues around mental health and racism.
The majority of students present during the session were linked in some fashion to Western’s Multicultural Center (MCC), and its five different campus groups: Amigos, Black Student Alliance (BSA), the Asian Pacific Islander Club (APIC), Native American Student Council, and the Polynesian Chant and Dance Club.
Fielding a question from Hammarker about the role the MCC would play on campus should he become President, Baca remarked that the MCC is a critical component of Western’s campus, and one deserving of additional investment, indicated by its top tier ranking in the university’s Strategic Resources Allocation study.
Baca was also asked about how he defines student success. He remarked that his vision of student success goes beyond simply retaining and graduating students, but extends to students discovering and acting upon their values, linking their future careers to the principles they have honed throughout their tenure as students. “It’s about living your values,” Baca said.
Asked a series of questions about recruiting and retention for students, staff, and faculty, particularly with an eye towards underserved students, Baca laid out a vision where Western is consistently a “university of first choice for students,” not merely a backup or alternative option. For Baca, this entails delivering a comprehensive student experience that includes an equity focus and serves all corners of campus.
Baca was quick to note that the demographics of university students are shifting quickly towards more first-generation students, students of color, and lower-income students. Along with this shift, he notes that Western must learn how to successfully recruit and retain these students to remain successful within the higher education landscape, citing a 16-percentage point gap in degree completion between White students and underrepresented minority students.
Baca noted that students invest in their education via two primary inputs: money and time. Top of mind for him is reducing cost to students via debt relief, reducing facility fees, and working within the Elevate Western fundraising campaign to fund expanded scholarships to lower costs for students.
Pivoting from the dollars and cents, Baca hit on another aspect of student wellness and success that became a recurring theme throughout the session: addressing the “social determinants” at the core of the student’s lives.
Social determinants are critical factors for predicting student success, and include facets impacting student’s daily lives like mental and physical health, housing access, cost and financial stability, transportation access, food security, and a host of other social and community factors.
Baca notes that when students fail to complete their schooling on the expected timelines, social determinants are often the primary barrier. With that realization, he adds, comes a responsibility on the part of Western to prioritize and invest in expanded mental health partnerships and housing options, which will include collaborations on private-public development partnerships and enhancing work with existing nonprofits and government entities to help address shortfalls.
“We need to lean into that conversation, and we need to find solutions to some of those problems,” added Baca, noting that he spent time listening to all of the sessions held in the spring of 2021 to better understand the concerns of Western’s community. Baca was also quick to offer expanded presence in student’s lives. “I will be more present. I will be at SGA…I want to have students over for dinner,” he says.
During the session, students posed Baca with several different scenarios based on current campus (or national) events, as well as recent campus history. This included an inquiry into how he would address incidents of racial discrimination and hatred on campus, which within the past few years have included multiple incidents of hateful political speech, a racially-motivated egging incident, and other instances of hateful acts, largely in the residence halls.
Baca centered his responses on the concept of campus culture, remarking that such incidents indicate “cultural breakdown”. While campus policies and enforcement are important, he offered that the key to addressing and curtailing such incidents is building a cohesive campus culture that demands accountability, instills a standard of conduct focused on acceptance and inclusion, and ensures transparency and consequences in the handling of incidents.
Addressing a question regarding controversies surrounding the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT), incidents of pushback on the curriculum on campus, and issues surrounding academic freedom, Baca firmly stood in support of academic freedom. “I can’t tell faculty what to teach, and nor would I,” says Baca, who promised to work to preserve academic freedom on campus and support faculty in their instructional endeavors.
Baca, responding to a related student question, acknowledged that Western must do better at recruiting and retaining diverse faculty to achieve long-term success in the retention of diverse students. Complementing his vision to make Western a first choice for students, Baca says he wants to take steps towards making Western a top-tier workplace for staff and faculty that they can be proud of. “I want us to become an employer of choice,” he says, building on his vision of becoming a premier student destination.
The presidential hopeful fielded a series of questions aimed at engagement and communication, reiterating his focus on campus presence, and said that if he became President, he would prioritize transparency and communication, as one student praised Interim President Nancy Chisholm for doing. Baca stated that he would not be content to sit behind a desk, and reiterated his promise to “be present” as President.
Regarding Western’s current campus climate, which Baca readily acknowledges includes deep-rooted trust and culture issues, he noted that Western dealt with a similar set of challenges during the 2013-14 academic year. That year, Baca assumed the helm of interim presidency. He cited communication lapses and concerns about enrollment and financial sustainability as pressing challenges over his interim tenure.
Western’s Board of Trustees charged Baca with putting together an action plan, which included a communications strategy to help engage the campus in meaningful conversations. Baca oversaw a series of campus convocations to discuss the issues of the day, and worked to address university enrollment and recruitment and encourage faculty creativity with an eye towards improved instruction.
Baca added that Western’s Board of Trustees is currently working on metrics for measuring the future President’s success. Those metrics include hard statistics on measurable quantities like student enrollment and retention, in addition to softer focuses like effective listening and communication that often prove more difficult to adequately measure, but which students have widely seen as lacking during the previous President’s tenure.
As the session came to a close, Baca took questions regarding campus security and safety, where he committed to prioritizing campus safety upgrades like lighting, cameras, and other aspects of student safety including mental health, sexual harassment and violence in strategic planning. Baca noted that the university is slated to spend $2 million on parking lot cameras and lighting upgrades in the near future.
“We’ve been a little slow to respond to that,” Baca admitted, referencing consistent student calls for improved safety measures on campus in previous years. Baca reiterated the need to work collaboratively with the greater Gunnison community to meet the university’s needs on complex issues like mental health and safety.
Baca concluded the session by encouraging students to show up for the two remaining sessions. Thursday’s session will be held from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. in the library’s “Harry Potter” room with candidate Dr. Michelle Rogers.