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Focused on the Future

Photo by Wayne Armstrong

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.” 

Priorities for the Future

Going forward, Haefner intends to focus on a handful of strategic priorities. In addition to ensuring a sustainable business model, he plans to create and support a holistic student experience, solidify DU’s portfolio of academic programs, cultivate a diverse, equitable and welcoming community, and empower a collaborative research enterprise. 

Beefing up the business model 

Even before COVID-19, private universities faced daunting challenges. “We already knew that there were vast changes [underway] that are going to deeply impact higher education,” Haefner says, listing a clutch of trends that confront college leaders everywhere: “the declining number of high school students, the changing demographics of our students, the affordability of higher education, the perceived value of higher education.”

Given these, Haefner says, putting DU in a stronger position “boils down to the value proposition that we offer our students, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels.” Put another way: “At a total cost of over $70,000, are we doing enough for [students]?” 

Robust demand for the DU experience would suggest that the University is doing many things right, Haefner says. Its residential model for undergraduates remains compelling, and its graduate and professional programs offer degrees that support ambitious career goals. But in a competitive marketplace, DU simply must distinguish its educational model. 

“There are over 4,000 universities in the United States,” Haefner says. “They are all in this space, trying to recruit students. For what we offer, which is a highly experiential-based education, is the cost of education in line with [the experience]? Is the value that we give them in line with the cost?” 

Keep in mind, he adds, that DU remains tuition-dependent. Although its endowment—which lags behind the endowments supporting the University’s top competitors—will undoubtedly benefit from aggressive fundraising, DU is likely to rely significantly on tuition revenue for the foreseeable future. Like most private institutions, DU will need to attract applicants able to pay the full cost of tuition, even as it seeks to remain financially accessible to students from varied backgrounds. All of this means DU will need to refine its educational experience and make sure prospective students and families understand just what DU offers. 

“As competition gets more intense, other universities are differentiating themselves in that regard. And the University of Denver can be no different,” he says. “We have to emphasize what makes us unique, not only what we offer today but what we offer in the future.” 

Adding dimension to the student experience 

What does and will make the University of Denver unique? 

Haefner boils it down, in part, to a quartet of characteristics he calls the four-dimensional, or 4D, student experience. This provides for intellectual growth, professional development, physical and mental well-being and character exploration. It treats individual students holistically, recognizing that career success, productive citizenship and personal happiness will demand resiliency, capacity for reflection and respect for the perspectives of others. 

As Haefner envisions it, the 4D experience will be nurtured at three facilities debuting this fall: the Dimond Family Residential Village, where first-year students will live in community; the Burwell Center for Career Achievement, where everyone from incoming students to graduating seniors will work with career counselors and alumni mentors to formulate life and career plans; and the Community Commons, which Haefner describes this way: “It’s where everyone is going to come and break bread. Everyone. Faculty. Staff. Students. Community members. Trustees.”

Each building will be complemented by programs supporting what Haefner calls “a nexus of intellectual collisions, social collisions, emotional collisions.” Together, the buildings and their programming “are the beginning of the reinvention of the student experience here at the University of Denver.”

“The idea is to be more intentional and use reflection. When a student comes on campus, they have courses, they have a degree program, and then they have these [extracurricular] experiences, but [today], these are ad hoc. They pick and choose. ‘Oh, study abroad; I always wanted to do that. But I didn’t know about undergraduate research opportunities. Let’s do that, too.’ That’s not intentional. Imagine if we were to provide an intentional methodology for students, undergraduate or graduate, to design a pathway through their time here, where they are intentional in these experiences and driven in [these] four dimensions.” 

With intentionality in mind, the University launched a number of pilot programs in September, including, on the curricular side, seven first-year 4D-focused seminars, enrolling a total of 100 students. These courses will be evaluated with an eye toward incorporating their most successful attributes into other offerings. On the co-curricular side, the student-affairs, athletics and career-planning staffs have developed initiatives to help students make outside-the-classroom choices that complement their life goals. 

“Students learn outside the classroom almost as much as they learn inside the classroom. They learn from each other, formally, when they’re working in groups, but they learn from each other informally by their engagements. The [combination] of co-curricular and curricular experiences make up the teaching to the whole person,” Haefner says.

Optimizing this combination demands a methodology for helping students process their learning. “The key here is to get the student to reflect,” Haefner says, illustrating his point with a study option central to the DU experience. “A student who goes on study abroad is benefiting from the experience, but as [philosopher and educational reformer] John Dewey said, ‘We don’t really learn from the experience; we learn from the reflection on the experience.’ So when [students] come back, it is absolutely critical that they put [their experience] into perspective. It is a complex opportunity, but it is an opportunity that very few universities have taken advantage of.”

Can DU maximize this opportunity? Haefner thinks so. 

“I believe that the professionalism of our faculty, when combined with the professionalism of our student-affairs staff, creates a momentum and an outcome that far exceeds the sum of the parts. If we do this intentionally and we really activate the curricular and the co-curricular [opportunities], [if we get] students to reflect, and if we actually certify in some way that they have done this reflecting and benefited in these dimensions, think of the story students will be able to tell when they graduate. Think of the life skills they’ll have with them the rest of their lives.” 

Fostering academic excellence and an equitable community

When it comes to cultivating student success, Haefner puts DU’s academic programs and their faculty at center stage. One of his primary objectives when he served as provost was to create and fill a position, vice provost for faculty affairs, to directly assist professors. With a new provost, Mary Clark, filling his former job, he expects to see added emphasis on supporting creativity and collaboration within and across disciplines. 

“Faculty are really in charge of the curriculum, so I want to see DU empower them to make sure that what we teach is relevant and impactful,” he says. “More than anything, I want to nurture an environment that is truly intellectually stimulating and welcoming. I want visitors to come to campus and immediately sense that DU is a place of academic excellence and vibrancy—a place where the mind finds it irresistible.”

What’s more, Haefner says, “I want for our staff and faculty what I want for our students: for DU to be a place where they can connect and use the gifts of their whole experience, all their dimensions, to engage in work and build a career that provides them with a sense of meaning and purpose.” 

Haefner also pictures an institution where every community member—no matter their religious background, political persuasion, ethnicity or economic standing—can feel at home.  

On this issue, he acknowledges, DU still has much to do. “The University has to make a real investment in diversifying its students, faculty and staff. As soon as we get a critical mass, all other things are going to change. I think you’re going to see a different culture,” Haefner says. For one thing, students of color won’t feel so alone or isolated. For another, conversations inside and outside the classroom are bound to raise different questions and lead to different insights. 

It may take a while to achieve “critical mass,” but in the meantime, DU is finalizing a plan to address the issues and policies that perpetuate inequities across the system. And over the summer, the University, at Haefner’s recommendation, declared Juneteenth an official DU holiday and urged the community to use the time off to reflect on slavery’s legacy.

As a member of the chancellor’s cabinet, alumnus Tom Romero, interim vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, was privy to the behind-the-scenes conversations about the new DU holiday. What he heard convinced him that Haefner’s concern about equity is heartfelt, rooted in empathy and serious.

“Jeremy has challenged his leadership team to look at our commitments as a university and make sure we are substantively meeting those commitments– whether it’s public good or diversity, equity and inclusion,” he says. “He’s very committed to not just saying things but doing and acting.” 

The Juneteenth holiday goes well beyond the symbolic, Romero explains. True, the decision was “made in the moment” in response to protests in the street. But it was also made with future programming in mind. “Moving forward,” he adds, “what I’m really looking forward to is the way that Jeremy will be working with my office and other units across campus to make that day and our programming around it much more substantive.”     

While Haefner is committed to making changes, he’s also eager to remind the community that DU has made significant strides in becoming a more welcoming place. “In all of the conversations about inequities, [it’s easy to] forget the progress we’ve made over time.” 

Even so, he adds, “We cannot ever take our eyes off of equity.” 

Research to solve problems

The University’s already robust research enterprise addresses problems and adds to our knowledge base, informing everything from how educators teach math to youngsters to how immigration policies affect communities. DU research enhances understanding of how chronic diseases behave, how political parties work, how the arts benefit the incarcerated, how domestic actions enhance or undermine national security goals, how protests and activists shape democracies.

“This university has created a research enterprise that is so impactful. Think about what we could do if we were to really combine forces and cross silos,” Haefner says. “How can the University help our faculty to solve the global challenges we face? There is no question that no single discipline has these answers and so interdisciplinary research is critical.”  

Haefner pictures it this way: Professors in social work and law might partner on immigration studies, while faculty from psychology and the arts could examine the positive effects of creative endeavors on at-risk populations. Collaboration, Haefner says, “can result in new applications that benefit the welfare of all of us.” 

In the coming months and years, Haefner hopes to direct resources into initiatives that share University expertise. That work began some months ago thanks to DU IMPACT 2025’s emphasis on “knowledge bridges.” These channel DU expertise beyond peer-reviewed journals and monographs toward efforts addressing specific problems. Already, a knowledge bridges incubator is helping multidisciplinary teams define and tackle three-year problem-based projects. 

Haefner also envisions research partnerships with other universities and organizations or public entities seeking solutions to global and local problems. Think field-tested curricula for rural or disadvantaged school districts, therapies for chronic diseases or improved practices for child welfare workers contending with troubled families.  

As Michele Hanna, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Social Work, sees it, Haefner’s research vision appeals to both current and prospective faculty. In job interviews, she says, applicants consistently ask about the University’s investment in collaborative research. 

“It’s always a conversation with new faculty recruits. They always want to know, ‘Do we support it? Do we do it? Are there opportunities?’ A lot of our new faculty come in with innovative ideas that cross disciplines,” she says, noting that they want to address issues that require expertise from psychologists, educators, communicators and countless other specialists.

“As researchers, we recognize that these problems are not going to be solved in silos,” Hanna says.   

Exactly, Haefner says. Community-engaged research that draws on expertise from all over campus will embody DU’s vision, serve its education mission and, in offering students the opportunity to contribute, improve DU’s value proposition. 

“We can’t reach our full potential as a great university,” Haefner says, “without great research that is impactful in our world today.” 

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