Leaving a Legacy

Chancellor Chopp reflects on five years at the helm of the University

FALL 2019

It’s the last official day of spring, and Denver’s Washington Park is in full bloom, flowers and trees creating splashes of vibrant color across the lush green grass and the park’s dotted lakes reflecting an azure sky streaked with white clouds.

Among the park’s usual mix of stroller-joggers, spandex-covered cyclists, fledgling kickboxers and skateboarding teenagers strides Rebecca Chopp, DU’s chancellor for the past five years. Away from her office, clad in sneakers and sunglasses and immersed in the Colorado outdoors she loves so much, she’s ready for a wide-ranging discussion about her road to DU, her time at the institution and her feelings about the future of higher education. 

Chopp also opens up about the difficult announcement she made just weeks earlier: In April, a recently diagnosed neurological disorder required her to step down as chancellor. Jeremy Haefner, who was hired as DU’s provost in 2018, was selected by the DU Board of Trustees to succeed her. 

It was a job for which Chopp had so much enthusiasm that leaving it—although she will remain on campus in an advisory role—is one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do.

“I will never leave DU behind,” says Chopp, as she rounds a corner and steps into the respite provided by a shade tree. “I’m so sad to have to end my chancellorship what I feel is prematurely, but I have to do it for health reasons. I’ll be as involved as I can, and I definitely will be DU’s No. 1 cheerleader.”

Chancellor Emerita Chopp shares a laugh with Frédérique “Sister Fred” Chevillot, a professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures.

Chopp has her cheerleaders as well. In the five years she’s been in DU’s top post, she’s won fans among alumni, faculty, students, staff and the Denver community for her warm personality, folksy charm and clear passion and vision for the University. 

“The University has been so fortunate to have Rebecca at this point in time in American history, where there are so many unanswered questions about how we relate to one another and how we have productive conversations about the future of education in this country,” says alumnus Anthony Graves (MBA ’05), now director of external affairs, Denver economic development and opportunity, at the city and county of Denver. “She’s always been able to lend an ear and to listen and engage and ask questions. I think that that really is a special gift for the University, and that gift has allowed us to really position DU as one of the best in the country.”

Champion of change

What can you do in five years with an abundance of passion, a boatload of drive and a campus community hungry for change? Ask Chopp, who, in her half-decade as DU’s chancellor, transformed the University and its culture. DU today bustles with innovative and traditional academics, new engagement on campus and more connections to Denver and the surrounding community than ever before. That’s thanks to Chopp and DU IMPACT 2025, the strategic plan she unveiled in 2016. 

Using as her inspiration “Unsettling Times: Higher Education in an Era of Change,” a comprehensive report commissioned in 2014 by DU’s Board of Trustees, Chopp spent 18 months talking to thousands of faculty members, students, alumni, donors and community members about the stars by which the University should navigate its craft. 

“I think the way to look at Rebecca’s legacy is to look at it holistically, in terms of what the University of Denver was in the past and what it has become now, which is a University with a much greater sense of community,” says Billy Stratton, associate professor in the department of English. “Rebecca cares deeply about the public good, but she’s also an intellectual and a scholar. And the example that she creates for faculty is something that’s inspiring to all of us and makes us want to be better.”

That sentiment extends to all of the DU community, including alumni, students, parents and staff members, says Board of Trustees Chair Denise O’Leary. 

“Chancellor Chopp has been DU’s greatest champion and a true force of nature since she arrived five years ago,” O’Leary says. “Her vision for the University, her meticulous and broad consultation throughout our strategic planning process and her genuinely collaborative and down-to-earth Midwestern style have all made her deeply respected and highly regarded at DU and in the greater Denver region. Beyond that, our community absolutely treasures her. We are so fortunate that she will be able to continue on in service to DU and to help bring to reality some of the projects about which she has been most passionate.”

That passion beats at the heart of DU IMPACT 2025. The plan’s four major pillars—student success; impactful faculty research and scholarship; engagement with the city of Denver and the state of Colorado; strengthening efforts around diversity, sustainability and campus community—represent not just the direction DU needs to take, Chopp says, but the direction all of higher education needs to consider. After all, with dwindling enrollments and persistent questions about the value proposition, it’s clear that colleges and universities need to make fundamental shifts in the way they operate.  

“It was timely [when we launched it], but even more timely now,” Chopp says of DU IMPACT 2025. “It was the direction we set—focusing on very, very strong academics but also helping students learn the kind of emotional intelligence, navigation skills and career achievement skills that come from those academic capacities. I think it was important also that we focused on supporting our capacity as a research university, both in terms of basic and more traditional forms of research and in research that directly works to solve the big problems of the day.

“And I think it was timely then that we decided to become very engaged in our local community, as well as around the world,” she continues. “I think those trends that few were paying attention to five years ago are now the trends that higher education will have to follow in one way or another.”

With the plan as its guide, the University is extending its reach into Denver and Colorado in a variety of ways: new public good initiatives that send students and faculty into the city to work with nonprofits; Project X-ITE, an interdisciplinary endeavor that connects students with Denver’s thriving entrepreneurial community; a scholarship for local community college students who want to transfer to DU; increased funding for veterans; a master plan that aims to make DU more welcoming to Denver residents.

On campus, the plan already is creating progress in areas ranging from access and the graduate student experience to faculty visibility and inclusive excellence. It resonates with faculty and staff members, as well as students and alumni.

“The way that she approached solving the institution’s problems—seeing them as very interconnected with the community’s problems and the city’s problems and the country’s problems and the world’s problems—is exactly the kind of leadership that has been necessary to help get DU to the next level,” says Jess Davidson (BA ’16), a former Undergraduate Student Government vice president. “She really looked to the bigger challenges and was not afraid to embrace them. She took the Pioneer spirit to heart, and I think that’s exactly the kind of leadership that DU needs to continue to transform over the next 10, 15, 20, 25 years so that across the country, it continues to be regarded as the amazing institution that it is.”

The plan is manifesting in tangible, physical ways as well—the new home for the Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science, which opened in fall 2016, features $1 million in new equipment and provides facilities for the engineering school’s growing focus on entrepreneurship and collaboration. That same year saw the debut of the Anna and John J. Sie International Relations Complex, which provides 46,000 square feet of tech-enabled new space for the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

The construction boom continues with three new campus buildings scheduled for completion next year: the Community Commons, an update of the Driscoll Student Center that emphasizes a plethora of food options and space for students, faculty and staff to intersect; the Burwell Center for Career Achievement, a centralized hub for student career development, employer engagement and alumni activities; and the Dimond Family Residential Village, which will feature spaces and programming designed specifically for first-year students.

The new buildings are part of the Denver Advantage Framework Plan, a long-term, flexible roadmap that explores ways DU can evolve over the years and decades ahead. Longer term, the plan calls for more restaurants, more retail—and possibly even a hotel and welcome center—on campus. It also includes a “DU District” component that looks for ways DU can partner with and work to improve the neighborhoods surrounding campus and promote sustainable transportation. In short, the initiative aims to blur the boundaries between campus and the outside community, allowing DU to share its resources with everyone from sports and arts lovers to visitors eager to enjoy its grounds.

“The needs of our campus and neighboring communities continue to evolve,” Chopp says. “We thought long and hard about what it means to plan for the future while keeping our core University values at the forefront. Education, the student experience and financial access remain our top priorities. To fulfill that promise, we’re creating spaces where people can establish a sense of belonging and build community.”

The naming gifts aiding in the construction of the three new buildings are testament to the DU community’s confidence in Chopp and its belief in her vision. However, they are far from the only significant funds raised during her tenure. Under Chopp’s leadership, DU saw annual philanthropic support increase by more than 80% and engagement increase by more than 30%.

The great communicator

“I think it has strengthened my optimism about the future, both in terms of how I’ve seen the institution operate and tackle big issues, and also in terms of our students,” Chopp says of her time at DU.

But there’s more to Chopp than strategic plans and visionary leadership. She is a fan of poetry and music. She was thrilled in July when the Library of Congress named one of her favorite poets, Jo Harjo, as the country’s 23rd poet laureate. Chopp gave her senior staff members copies of Harjo’s latest collection, “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings,” as a going-away present.

She’s not a frequent moviegoer—she claims to have a short attention span—but she loved “Amazing Grace,” the Aretha Franklin gospel concert documentary that was filmed in 1972 and finally saw a theatrical release earlier this year. 

Her favorite musical genre used to be classical, but now it’s jazz, primarily because of the mood it sets and the way the musicians communicate with one another. That’s not a surprise, given that communication is such a key part of Chopp’s leadership style.

“She brings a great ability to work with lots of different kinds of people,” says Jill Tiefenthaler, who was a professor at Colgate University when Chopp was president there and is now president of Colorado College in Colorado Springs. “I always felt like Rebecca was one of those leaders who’s as comfortable in the room if she’s with supporters or politicians as she is with students or people who work at the institution. She has a great ability to connect with lots of different kinds of people and get them excited about the vision and mission.”

Indeed, asked what she’ll miss most about being chancellor, Chopp answers quickly: “The people. Even the most challenging times were rewarding because people were so committed. Even though there are issues and problems everyone wants addressed, and sometimes frustrations and challenges, the beautiful thing about DU is there’s this deep abiding commitment and a belief that we can do it.”

An activated institution

Chopp also can add to her list of accomplishments a campus that has become much more lively. Students today can spend their free time studying and drinking lattes at the Front Porch Café in the Anderson Academic Commons or lounging on the red Adirondack chairs clustered around campus. Faculty and staff members join together regularly in community-building events at the Ritchie Center for Sports & Wellness, the Tuscan ballroom in the Joy Burns Center, and Maglione Hall, which offers soaring views in every direction from atop the Sie International Relations Complex. When it’s completed next year, the Community Commons will only add to the hustle and bustle.

“I’m very proud of that,” Chopp says. “Students, faculty, parents, lots and lots of alumni, people who know the campus well—they all tell me it feels more vibrant and strong. I think education, which used to be seen as individualistic and insular, is really fundamentally about building community. It’s about preparing people for organizations and communities in the future; it’s about helping communities and society and the world address its needs. It’s about helping everyone learn how to build community in a far more diverse and complex world.”

The DU DNA 

What’s next for Chopp, now that the long workdays, demanding board meetings and grueling travel schedule are no more? Doctors have prescribed lots of exercise and not much stress, but Chopp has her own remedies in mind as well. She wants to nurture a spiritual side that has lain dormant for a few years. She wants to read fiction. She wants to hang out in the Colorado mountains. And she wants to indulge her creativity. Already she has journeyed to Crested Butte with paints and canvas to see what she might capture.

“I’m really fascinated by how our society has professionalized art too much—if you’re not brilliant at it, too often people think you shouldn’t engage in art or creative expression,” she says. “There’s now a big movement for people to get in touch with their creative side. I’m hoping to do that myself. I think I’ve been creative in terms of writing and thinking—and, I hope, leading—but I’d like to do that in terms of more expressive sides.”

On campus, she plans to attend the events she rarely had time for as chancellor: art exhibits, Newman Center performances, gymnastics meets, basketball and lacrosse games.

“I’m really looking forward, especially, to attending faculty lectures across the University,” she says. “It’s so exciting to hear what our faculty are doing.”

Chopp always knew she would retire after her time at DU was done, but she didn’t know it would be this soon. Has her time in Denver changed her? Chopp thinks so.

“I think it has strengthened my optimism about the future, both in terms of how I’ve seen the institution operate and tackle big issues, and also in terms of our students,” she says. “When I stood at Commencement [in June] and shook thousands of hands, hundreds of our students took the time to stop and tell me that they were thinking of me, that they wished me well, to thank me for my service. I’d never seen that before, but I think it’s the DU DNA. I think there’s a passion about building and serving the world that is combined with a kind of deep connection with people and compassion toward those who are suffering or are in need. I think my time as chancellor has pulled that out in me and expanded and developed it in all sorts of new ways.”    

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