Focused on the Future

With a new decade bringing fresh challenges, Chancellor Jeremy Haefner reimagines a great private university

On any given day of the week, Jeremy Haefner, the University of Denver’s 19th chancellor, finds that every nanosecond is double booked.

With COVID-19 (the 19 is pure coincidence) still upending operations and expectations, with headlines heralding everything from social unrest to shrinking GDP, every 24-hour cycle brings 1,440 minutes of pressing developments—all with ramifications for DU. 

But even though he’s managing the day-to-day present, Haefner still makes catalyzing the University’s future a top priority. 

“Everyone I’ve spoken with,” he says, citing students, alumni, trustees, faculty members and staff, “believes in the principle that we have to come out of [the pandemic] stronger than we came into it.” 

Fortunately, the University’s solid footing means it can build on assets: a deep talent pool, robust infrastructure and solid academic programs. Nonetheless, ensuring that DU reaches its potential will require all the know-how Haefner brings to the job. 

As it happens, that’s a fair amount of know-how, amassed over more than three decades in higher education. A mathematician expert in integral representation and module theory, Haefner arrived at DU in summer 2018 from the Rochester Institute of Technology. There, he served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, and there, among other accomplishments, he spearheaded efforts to open RIT campuses in faraway Dubai, China and Croatia. 

In July 2019, a year after becoming DU’s provost and executive vice chancellor, the Board of Trustees appointed him to the University’s top leadership post when Rebecca Chopp resigned the chancellorship because of health reasons. Since then, he has deployed a down-to-earth leadership style he characterizes as inclusive, rooted in principles, supportive and, he’s quick to add, aspirational. “How I perceive it and what it is may be two different things,” he says.     

On campus, he’s regarded as friendly, optimistic, accessible. Perhaps nowhere is his accessibility more apparent than in his collection of jaunty Converse sneakers, worn with suits, jeans and everything in between. “They reflect my personality, especially when I have enough pairs and colors and so forth,” he told The Clarion student newspaper in October 2019. “I’m not a person to put on big airs, and so for me to wear Converse is a way for me to tell people that you can come up to me and you can approach me.”

For students like Ryan Hyde, president of Undergraduate Student Government (USG), that accessibility signals genuine concern for student welfare. Last year, when Hyde served as USG’s president pro tempore, he was struck by Haefner’s unprompted outreach to student leaders. “He invited all of the campus leaders to his home. He had only been chancellor for a [few] weeks at the time. It was very telling about his leadership.”  Some months later, when Hyde ran into Haefner and his wife, Maurin, at a hockey game, the chancellor shared one of his pressing concerns. “He asked me, ‘Ryan, how do I get in front of students?’” 

The resulting conversation has continued into fall 2020. On a recent Friday night, the chancellor joined Hyde and a Campus Safety officer on a golf-cart ride to various residence halls and student hangouts. The impromptu appearances, Hyde recalls, led to discussions about everything from DU’s mask policy to the first days of class. 

Haefner’s accessibility and responsiveness to differing constituencies were, in part, what made him the natural choice for DU’s top leadership post. At the time he was named to the chancellorship, Denise O’Leary, chair of DU’s Board of Trustees, called him the right leader at the right time to move DU forward.

“Our community has, in Jeremy, a national thought leader in student and faculty success, a great communicator, and an individual personally committed to advancing the University and further expanding our diverse and inclusive community and shared values,” O’Leary said. 

As Haefner sees it, moving DU forward means mobilizing to implement DU IMPACT 2025, the 10-year strategic plan that positions the University for distinction in an increasingly competitive landscape. With its strategic priorities, the plan seeks to optimize DU’s mission and vision, the latter of which initially attracted Haefner to DU.

“Our vision, to become a great private university dedicated to the public good, is such a north star for this institution. It’s not a top-down vision; it’s [a vision] that has been deeply embraced at the grass-roots level,” he says.  

If DU’s vision beguiles him, its mission—to promote learning by engaging with students in advancing scholarly inquiry, cultivating critical and creative thought, and generating knowledge—keeps him focused on students. Service to the public good may be the institution’s north star, but DU’s greatest contribution to the public good, he says, remains its students and graduates. 

Certainly they are central to DU IMPACT 2025, which Haefner credits for five years of steady innovation in everything from student-affairs programming to community engagement and collaborative research.

Innovation in these areas may account for one of the early triumphs of Haefner’s administration: a dramatic rise in DU’s U.S. News & World Report ranking. In September 2020, the University learned that it had jumped 17 points in the listing of top national universities, rising to No. 80 from No. 97. 

For alumni, that’s promising news, and not just because it makes their degrees more valuable in the marketplace. It also reflects the authentic DU they love and consider undervalued in the national conversation. 

What’s more, adds Valerie Otten, senior vice chancellor for Advancement, “Chancellor Haefner has invited the diverse voices of our alumni into the life of the institution in important ways. [He] has spent quite a bit of time, even during the pandemic, engaging virtually with donors and alumni. He has kept communication lines open and championed creative approaches to ensure the community remains a vital part of the life of DU.” 

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