Editor’s note: this is the cover story in the fall issue of the University of Denver Magazine. To read more stories from the fall issue, click here.
A new chapter in the University of Denver’s 150-year history opened Sept. 1, when Rebecca Chopp began her tenure as the institution’s 18th chancellor. The first woman to hold the University’s top position, Chopp succeeds Robert Coombe, whose 33 years at DU culminated in his chancellorship from 2005–14.
Chopp, 62, brings to the post more than 20 years of experience in higher education leadership. Most recently, she served as president of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Before that, she was president of Colgate University, dean of the Yale Divinity School, and provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Emory University.
“Dr. Chopp is a distinguished scholar and academic leader who has taken two top-20 liberal arts colleges through the development of strategic plans that positioned those institutions to navigate through the complex challenges facing higher education today,” says Doug Scrivner, Board of Trustees chairman and chair of the chancellor search committee. “University members—including student leaders, faculty, administration, staff, alumni and trustees—who participated in the final interviews were uniform in their enthusiastic support of Dr. Chopp. All of this made her the right selection for DU at this time in our history.”
In addition to her leadership credentials, Chopp is a well-known scholar of progressive religious movements in American culture. Her recent work has focused on changing structures and cultures in higher education, on the role of liberal arts in a democratic society, and on religion and higher education. She is the author or editor of six books, including “The Praxis of Suffering: An Interpretation of Liberation and Political Theologies” (1986), “The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God” (1989) and “Remaking College: Innovation and the Liberal Arts” (2013).
A native of Kansas, Chopp earned a bachelor of arts from Kansas Wesleyan University, a master of divinity from St. Paul School of Theology and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
Soon after accepting the offer to become the University’s next chancellor, Chopp sat down with the University of Denver Magazine to talk about everything from her experiences in higher education to the passions that fill her free time.
Q: What appealed to you about this opportunity at the University of Denver?
A: I’ve actually been admiring the University for 20 years. I have watched it build its excellent academic programs and amazing facilities.
I’ve always thought that the University of Denver is a great university in so many ways: It is the perfect size for students to have lots of academic options and still enjoy close contact with faculty; for faculty and staff to enjoy cross-school intellectual engagement; and for fabulous arts and athletics. In my mind, it has a perfect combination of professional schools, graduate programs and a liberal arts undergraduate school. As in any university, the most important resource is its people, and the University’s faculty members are terrific scholars and teachers. I have just started meeting staff and students who seem engaged, energetic and really smart.
DU as a research university is ideally located as the intellectual energy in the U.S. moves more and more to the West. And it is in a superb location for attracting students. Today, students are interested in urban locations with lots of outdoor activities. For some time, I have also admired the University as one of the most global universities in this country in terms of providing an international context for education and scholarship. It is simply outstanding that about 70 percent of the undergraduate students study abroad through the Cherrington Global Scholars program.
But what I have learned recently, and what is very important to me, is the University’s amazing attitude. I’ve learned in the interviews for the chancellor’s position that DU’s forward-looking attitude is best described with words such as optimism, resiliency, creativity, engagement, energy and courage. And though those words are certainly in the reports I have read, every single person I met in the interview process—students, staff, faculty, alumni and trustees—expressed them in their love and dreams and commitment to this institution.
The attitude of an institution determines, I think, its culture, its ability to seize opportunities, its handling of adversity, and the nature of its environment for learning and development of students.
Q: Our vision statement calls on the University to be a great private university dedicated to the public good. How does that statement—the words “great” and “public good” in particular—resonate with you?
A: U.S. colleges and universities were formed to educate citizens both for the professions and as citizen-leaders for the greater public good. The commitment of DU to be a great private university dedicated to the “public good”—and the many ways you already realize that dedication—was a strong draw for me as I considered this position.
We are undergoing tremendous change in our country, and we are now living in a complex global environment. The University of Denver is and must be a leader and partner in addressing these changes locally, in the West, nationally and internationally. Everyone I have met so far at the University knows and cares about this commitment. I was impressed to read about the 1864 Service Challenge—186,400 hours of service for the sesquicentennial. That DU would celebrate its sesquicentennial through service to the public good is remarkable.
Q: In our quest to be great, we’ve worked pretty hard to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and inclusivity across campus. Do you have any thoughts about how you might help us in continuing those efforts?
A: I have spent my whole faculty and administrative career supporting interdisciplinary collaboration. My first experience as a faculty member at Emory was being in an interdisciplinary seminar, with 12 faculty from across the university, who met for a semester on “Being Human, Human Beings.” We read across the disciplines, and it was really a very formative experience for me as a young scholar.
Interdisciplinary collaboration is the frontier of knowledge in the 21st century. The strong and deep disciplinary foundations developed in the 20th century are not disappearing; rather the design and reach of knowledge is expanding to address problems and opportunities that exist at the crossroads of many disciplines. Interdisciplinary collaboration addresses the big problems and opportunities of the day in areas that link science to education, to public policy, and to the arts and humanities. The faculty and students at DU are leaders in exploring new ways of designing knowledge from across disciplines to address scientific, sociopolitical and cultural issues.
But the current structures and practices of universities present real challenges to interdisciplinary collaboration. We will need to work on questions such as: How can we create flexibility and nimbleness? How do we provide alternative spaces, and how do we support faculty members and students who want to collaborate to address the big problems of the day? Together we need to explore these questions, which I know are already being discussed.
Q: I believe you were a first-generation college student. How does that fact inform your approach to higher-education leadership?
A: Being a first-generation college student helps me to understand the importance of access and financial aid. Ultimately, education is about transforming individual lives. But equally important, education must make sure we have the best talent to lead the country and the world. Those two crucial goals—providing individual access and ensuring the most talented leaders—are intertwined. I’m passionate about making sure students get access to the University of Denver and the other top private universities in the country. I like to think that nothing gives more joy to those with the resources to invest in the future than contributing to or establishing a funded financial aid award that will provide generations of students access and generations of talent for our businesses, schools and cultural organizations.
Q: It’s pretty clear that American higher education is in for some restructuring and re-examination of conventional approaches. We’ve spent a lot of time here thinking about this and preparing ourselves for long-term viability and relevance. Our Strategic Issues Program has released a comprehensive report, “Unsettling Times: Higher Education in an Era of Change.” What do you hope to bring to the conversation?
A: I’m incredibly impressed with that process and document. I think everyone in education should read it. “Unsettling Times” is an extraordinary analysis and value statement of education in changing times
What do I bring to this already robust inquiry at DU? I’m a researcher in higher education, so I’ve done a lot of research on the issues, and I’ve written a lot on the issues. I’ve studied many research universities and liberal arts colleges. I am skilled at facilitating strategic thinking and, equally important, ensuring the implementation of the strategic directions once established. I have a lot of experience in bringing campus communities together to look at what the challenges and opportunities are, what the aspirations should be, where new linkages can exist, how to differentiate oneself, and what financial, structural and personnel resources will be required.
I like to call myself a utopian realist, which is a way to say I think it’s important to combine data, values and vision in strategic planning. I believe it is imperative to gather and to analyze data strategically. But you also have to have the capacity to create a vision based upon the institution’s values and aspirations. We are not in an environment where universities can be all things to all people. We have to make strategic choices based on data, values, vision and the capacity for risk.
Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, in their book, “Great by Choice,” argue that organizations that survive in turbulent times do so by focusing on their values and by identifying the things they can do well. Success in these unsettled times is about differentiation and combining your resources with your strengths. That tends to be what I mean by a utopian realist. It’s that vision of what the world ought to be like, what it really is like, and what you should do now.
Q: College athletics programs are also facing big challenges, everything from the prospect of unionized athletes to the responsibilities owed to the student-athletes themselves. What are your thoughts about the role of athletics programs in higher education?
A: I begin by understanding the role of athletics and other forms of student life in contributing to a robust community. The whole reason we have a residential community is to provide a 24-7 context for students to learn to live, build and lead communities in a democratic society. Athletics has to contribute to the whole of the educational experience.
We also need to affirm that athletics are valuable for the individual student-athlete. I’ve always been impressed by the student-athletes, by what life lessons they learn from athletics. I note that employers consistently like to hire student-athletes. And athletics can be a rallying point for the community. It’s fun when you go to the NCAA quarterfinals, the Frozen Four, the NCAA National Skiing Championships.
But to be responsible to the mission of the university, you have to ask, is the athletics program in the right balance with the mission and priorities of the university? That is the question that America is struggling with right now. It’s crucial to affirm the role of athletics, but we have to make sure that athletics is in the right balance—financially, culturally, admissions-wise and academically—with the mission and priorities of the University.
Q: Your inauguration ceremony at Swarthmore in 2010 had, as its theme, “Hope in the Age of Clamor.” “Clamor” seems such an interesting word choice for a theme.
A: One of my favorite philosophers talks about clamorous dialogue as the way to describe democracy in the 21st century. I was always fascinated with that theme because I think we once had a society defined by a homogenous center, and now we are a society characterized by all types of differences. In the U.S. today, we are struggling with defining, let alone realizing, common goals. Clamor describes a kind of intense differentiation in our culture and in our political situation.
But clamor is also opportunity, right? It’s good that many more people have voices, that the public sphere is not just one or two voices. Clamor also stands for the fact that we live in a global world where there are many voices in different languages.
To me, education is fundamentally an act of hope. It’s hope for the individual, that their life can be transformed, and it’s hope for the country, that the country will continually renew itself. I’m very influenced by [the late philosopher] Hannah Arendt, who wrote a beautiful essay on the crisis of education. She talks about how the purpose of education is to educate students so they can remake and renew the world, because the struggles they will face 20, 30, even 40 years from now will not be the struggles we face now. So I like the term hope, because I think education is always about the future. We create knowledge; we try to solve current problems to prevent future problems; and we educate the next generation and the succeeding one. So the phrase “Hope in the Age of Clamor” describes who we are at our deepest level and where we are in the current situation.
Q: What are your plans for connecting with University of Denver students?
A: I met some of the leaders of the Undergraduate Student Government and the Graduate Student Association Council, and I look forward to them helping me get acquainted with students. I like to meet students where they are: their performances, club activities, athletic events, and in the library and academic spaces. I also like to be out on campus and just wander up to students and talk. I will hold office hours, of course, and I hope to teach a class or to work with a living-learning community on leadership or another topic. I also hope students will reach out to me with suggestions as to the best ways to meet students and to meet with me.
Q: You’ve been president of Colgate University, dean of the Yale Divinity School and a provost at Emory, which, like the University of Denver, has robust graduate and professional programs. You made history in all these posts, beginning with the fact that you were the first woman to hold them. And you’ll be making history here as the first woman chancellor. Are there any particular challenges associated with being first?
A: I’ve really been fortunate in the places I’ve been. Many people have been very supportive, and often very proud, that they selected a leader who is a woman. I have had some difficult experiences, and I’ve had some funny experiences. An alumnus at Colgate, when I first met him, told me that he would accept a woman president so long as I never appointed a woman athletic director. And now, both Colgate and DU have woman athletic directors. Times have changed.
If I compare my experiences to those of some other women presidents and chancellors, I have been fortunate in always having male and female colleagues who would listen and help. I have a calm and forthright style, and I have a very good sense of humor, and I think my personal style has helped me navigate difficult or just awkward situations. I can talk about issues in a non-defensive way that contributes to solving problems. We are, after all, working together on the most important mission in our country: teaching and generating knowledge. It is always easier to resolve issues if everyone keeps the importance of the mission front and center.
Q: Do you mind sharing some of the information that doesn’t make it to a CV? Favorite pastimes? Favorite vacation spots? Kids? Pets? Spouse?
A: I am passionate about hiking. My husband and I are ardent supporters of the arts, especially the visual arts. I think we’ve been to every art museum in Denver, including the Kirkland Museum.
Q: As you probably know, Vance Kirkland has a strong University of Denver connection.
A: I just found that out today. Denver has wonderful museums: The contemporary art museum is very cool, and of course, the Denver Art Museum is stunning, from the building to its collections to its special exhibitions.
I’m also a fitness buff. I relax by watching a wide range of movies such as “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Frozen.” I don’t currently have a dog, but I have three grand-dogs — Chewy, Ripley and Orco. They live in Fort Collins. I have a son and daughter-in-law in Fort Collins, and our other two sons are in California.
Colorado has been my favorite vacation spot since I went on my first family vacation in Colorado when I was 5 years old, and we stayed in the Bugs Bunny Motel on Colfax, which, by the way, is still in business. My sister has a picture of us in front of the Bugs Bunny sign when we were very young children.
But overall my favorite thing is hiking in the mountains, and my favorite mountains are the Rockies. But I also enjoy hiking in the Cascades, the Whites, the Greens and the Adirondacks. If I can be around mountains, I am happy. My favorite city, outside of the United States, is Prague, though it’s pretty easy to state a long list of wonderful cities to explore.
One other favorite: Many in my family have a real interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement, so I’m very excited about living in Denver because of the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Q: What about personal heroes?
A: Probably the first and foremost is my father, who was a Kansas farm kid and worked his way up the economic ladder, becoming an entrepreneur, a contractor and a farmer in Kansas. He was a very moral and very kind person, both professionally and personally. He is still an ever-present role model for me.
And some of my students have been heroes for me. I can think of two kinds of examples: First, students who have overcome great adversity. I’ve had several students who attended college after surviving periods of homelessness in high school. Because of generous financial aid, they were able to enter college, receive the support they needed and go on to live meaningful lives. Another group of heroes for me are the students who think they are going down one academic or professional track and then discover a hidden talent or an overwhelming passion. They have had to change the way they think about themselves and how they imagine their future. That takes courage and imagination.
Two other heroes or heroines are both women. One is Lucretia Mott; she was an early Quaker suffragist, abolitionist and preacher and public speaker. She happened to be one of the founders of Swarthmore. I’ve always admired her strength, her intelligence, her ethics and her optimism.
Maya Angelou has always been a real inspiration to me.
Q: I’ve read that you love books, that you love reading.
A: When I was a small child, my father worked on the road a lot. My mother, my older sister and I would go to the bookmobile every time it came to the neighborhood. We would all carry back armfuls of books. I became an avid reader at an early age.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: I usually have three or four books going at any given time. Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, has just written a book called “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.” He’s an intellectual historian, and uses thinkers such as Emerson, Jane Addams and W. E. B. Du Bois to interpret the history of education in this country. And I always have a novel going on, or a collection of short stories. Right now I’m reading Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life,” though I often have a mystery going on and I just received a book by [University of Denver alumnus] C.J. Box I am eager to start. And I am always reading books to help me in leadership, so right now I am reading “Strategic Intuition” by William Dugan.
Q: If a student or staff member or professor runs into you at, say, a hockey game or in the Academic Commons, how would you like to be addressed?
A: I’m really fine with what people are comfortable with in terms of addressing me. I’m a very down-to-earth person, so I’m very comfortable if people call me Rebecca or Chancellor Chopp, Chancellor Rebecca or anything in between.