Elevating the DU Experience

“The mountains are calling,” the late conservationist John Muir once wrote. “And I must go.” 

For University of Denver students—past, present and prospective—the Rocky Mountains beckon from sunup to sundown. Tantalizing views of Front Range fourteeners are as much a part of the campus backdrop as copper roofs and stately trees. But access to the mountains hasn’t typically been feasible for every student.  

That changed Oct. 5, when Chancellor Jeremy Haefner announced DU’s acquisition of 724 acres of mountain real estate in Colorado’s Larimer County. Bordering the Roosevelt National Forest and perched at 8,000 feet, the pine-dotted spread makes up the new James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus, named, by DU’s Board of Trustees, in honor of a prominent alumnus, dedicated conservationist, former trustee and longtime supporter of the University’s academic enterprise.  

The new campus will, Haefner says, distinguish DU as the only U.S. university that integrates an urban and mountain experience for all its students. It also will complement DU’s signature 4D Experience.

“With the establishment of the Kennedy Mountain Campus, the University will be able to fully realize its vision for a transformative four-dimensional student experience—one that emphasizes advancing intellectual growth, exploring character, promoting well-being, and pursuing careers and lives of purpose,” Haefner says. “By the time they graduate, every DU undergraduate and graduate student will have had the opportunity to learn and grow at this remarkable place.”

Harnessing the educational powers of nature  

Remarkable just begins to capture it.  

The Kennedy Mountain Campus sits roughly two hours northwest of Denver in terrain that encompasses everything from tranquil meadows to craggy rock formations. Pine trees and aspen groves shelter wild turkeys, deer, raptors and the occasional meandering moose. A serene body of water summons to mind Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond.  

Formerly known as the Magic Sky Ranch, the new campus was purchased for $11.25 million from the Girl Scouts of Colorado, which, since the 1960s, used the property as a summer camp. The property—with a cafeteria and full kitchen, facilities for outdoor leadership training and a gymnasium complete with climbing wall—encompasses a contiguous 600 acres, as well as a 124-acre parcel enveloped by national forest and accessible only by trail.  

Purchase of the campus was made possible by a substantial gift from Kennedy (BSBA ’70). His gift also will fund upgrades to the property’s buildings and infrastructure, as well as the launch of a full complement of programs for students. Going forward, the University expects to fund all additional programming and operation costs through philanthropy at no extra cost to students or their families. 

“The partnership and visionary leadership Mr. Kennedy provided are transformational,” says Valerie Otten, senior vice chancellor for University Advancement. “Gifts like this will touch the lives and shape the futures of countless students, both now and long into the future.” 

In his two-year hunt for a site hospitable to 4D education, Brandon Buzbee, a senior associate vice chancellor for University Advancement, was looking for someplace where “nature could serve as a medium for education.” In consultation with a subcommittee of DU’s Board of Trustees, as well as Haefner and other senior administrators, Buzbee toured 40 properties, some of them too near happening ski resorts, some of them no more than a sprint from java joints and pizza parlors. Other properties were too small, too inaccessible, too unsuitable for year-round use.

“We were trying to find a little bit of a unicorn,” says Allan Wilson, who, as DU’s director of real estate, helped negotiate the mountain campus purchase. Only Magic Sky Ranch offered just the right contrast to Denver’s hustle and bustle: a combination of harmonious scenery, well-maintained infrastructure, space for a vast range of outdoor and indoor activities, and splendid seclusion.

Emphasis on seclusion. It’s nearly 7 miles from the nearest town, Red Feather Lakes, population 385. And because the property’s immediate neighbor is a national forest, it’s not at risk of encroaching development. Better still, Wilson says, the campus came with better-than-adequate water rights, which are essential for accommodating large numbers of visitors.   

Todd Adams, vice chancellor for student affairs, considers the remote location a respite from urban life, one that provides students the chance to take stock of their day-to-day challenges, cultivate perspective on their studies and invest in their well-being.  

“We’re in an urban setting—and a fairly vibrant one at that. We’re on a quarter calendar, and we move at that pace. So the opportunity to be on another campus, to give more time for reflection, for experiential kinds of learning, really does complement what we’re doing on [the Denver] campus,” he explains.  

Just as important, the mountain campus will align with the scholarly work of DU’s faculty. Mary Clark, provost and executive vice chancellor, expects that vital research in everything from the natural sciences to anthropology will find a home on the campus. (Already, faculty experts in anthropology have begun to examine the site’s history and, in consultation with Indigenous partners, will conduct an archaeological study, all in the interest of ensuring an honest engagement with history.)  

Clark and Adams also envision co-curricular opportunities such as Wellness Weekends, where students escape the city to decompress before final exams or to balance intellectual exertion with physical challenges. Also on the drawing board: retreats for graduate students needing a quiet place to write theses and dissertations; immersive classes in plein air painting for visual artists; intensive executive education for business students wanting to hone leadership skills or ponder ethical dilemmas.   

Away from urban distractions, Clark says, students can also engage in individual and group activities that promote what she calls “reflection on self and relations to others,” which complements the 4D emphasis on character development. Any such activity—a group challenge perhaps—can be followed by quiet time to assess and evaluate.  

Chad King, executive director of sustainability, hopes that time at the campus will cultivate a conservation mindset in students. “It’s been documented that when people have experiences in nature, they often are more connected to it and see more reason to conserve it,” he says, adding that the campus will likely afford opportunities to study such sustainability concepts as carbon sequestration in forests and off-the-grid energy use.

Karlton Creech, vice chancellor for athletics, recreation and Ritchie Center operations, considers the mountain campus a welcome addition to the outdoor recreation programming his division supports. What’s more, varsity and club teams can stage retreats and trainings at the campus, while individual students can sample something new, whether rock climbing or a miles-long hike. “You can choose your level of difficulty, and there’s something there for everybody. I think every student who goes out there can carve out their own experience,” he says.  

That’s exactly what Denise O’Leary, chair of DU’s Board of Trustees, wants to see happen. “Our vision is to have this be a unique and transformative experience for every student at DU: to develop a better appreciation for and understanding of the natural world, their fellow classmates and, perhaps more importantly, a better sense
of themselves.”

Students put the new campus to the test  

In early October, several undergraduate and graduate students visited the mountain campus to size up its potential.  

Anthony Crosby (BS ’21) was among them. Amidst the quaking aspen and long meadow grasses, he spotted the opportunity for the kind of learning that DU champions.  

“It means so much for students to be hands-on in an environment that not only allows [them] to grow, but also thrive,” he says. “The endless activities and endless adventures to be had will give all DU students the Colorado experience that they will take with them for the rest of their lives.”

An awestruck Katie O’Connor, meanwhile, found herself energized by the “absolutely beautiful” landscape. A senior studying marketing, she appreciated the chance to join others in activities—some invigorating, some relaxing—conducive to making connections.  

“Playing catch with a softball and scaling the ropes course both made me feel a strong sense of community. Sometimes the simplest activities bring the most joy when bonding with peers in a completely new environment. Sitting at the lake, I just took in the beauty and all these ideas came to me. We could canoe, climb, stretch, picnic,
or listen to a speaker while fully connected to nature.”  

For Qingyu Zhou, a graduate student in University College’s communication management program, the trip to the campus provided the chance to try something she otherwise might not attempt: rock climbing. 

 “I was willing to get out of my comfort zone,” she says, “I had no idea how to do rock climbing, but the instructors [were] patient and helpful. I almost gave up when I saw how high the cliff was. However, I was able to convince myself that this is not hard and started slowly going down. The height was scary at first, but it got easier once I found my balance up there. Even though it took me 20 minutes to get down when other people usually take five minutes,
I still made it.”  

More students will begin enjoying short opportunities at the mountain campus as early as this fall. Longer stays involving structured programming for every first-year and transfer student will begin next fall, and in time, programming is expected to span the seasons. By 2025, the University anticipates the campus will be in full swing, with an ever-evolving range of options for the entire DU community.   

DU’s 19th chancellor can’t wait. “If there is one word that captures what this campus means to this university, it’s transformative,” Haefner says. “The James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus has the potential to touch hearts and minds and to build lifetime bonds.”  

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