A conversation with Brad Baca
There’s no denying change is in the rare, high-altitude air surrounding Western State Colorado University in Gunnison. A nationwide search for a new president, new programs, and a host of initiatives are under way, all aimed toward a strong, competitive, sustainable future for the university.
Five candidates remain in the running for the position of WSCU president. They’ll be interviewed in Denver on January 10 by members of the hiring committee, who were selected by the board of trustees. Interim president Brad Baca expects the committee to chose two or three candidates from that group, who will then be invited to another interview on campus sometime in late January or early February.
“They hired a search firm to help guide the process, then constituted a search committee,” says Baca, describing a group of 18 that includes board members, faculty, alumni and members of the community. “They were the ones who took the original 20 candidates and vetted them down to five. I think three of those five come from higher ed and two come from other industries.”
Western is a unique institution, and the search criteria is structured with the mission and culture of this campus in mind.
“I think what they’re looking for is transformational leadership,” says Baca, “for somebody who can come in and craft a strong vision for the institution and a strategic plan to implement that.”
Baca believes the trustees are looking for a president who can work within the framework of values recently established by the board, “someone who can come in here and elevate our academics and generate sustainable growth.” The new president will also address student retention, diversity and the attainment gap in recruiting under-served communities.
Competition for students has never been keener between institutions of higher education in Colorado. This is a concern at Western, given its isolated location, a fact that presents both challenges and opportunities. Colorado Mountain College, which touts similar attractions as mountain life and adventure for prospective students, recently received permission from the state to offer bachelors degrees, as have several traditionally two-year colleges along the Front Range. “Most of those are applied sciences degrees,” says Baca. “These are degrees we have not traditionally offered, so there’s no direct competition there.”
Still, with a widening plethora of higher education options for students to choose from, Western is looking to establish a competitive position. Proposals for new, well-suited programs to WSCU have never been so plentiful, nor presented with such enthusiasm by inspired faculty.
A dozen new proposals are, as Baca describes, “in the parking lot,” somewhere within the approval process. Pathways to Innovation and Prioritization is a board of trustees initiative to incentivize development of new programs, and to streamline an efficient means by which those are proposed, evaluated and implemented.
The university has already approved several. “One in nutrition, wildlife biology and resource management, actuarial science/data analytics (math), international business, and one in pre-engineering, something that might involve agreement with another school that offers a full engineering bachelor’s, like Colorado School of Mines or CU Boulder,” Baca says.
There’s also a new program in international resort management and one in geospatial analysis. “We also are providing re-assign time to develop non-curricular programming around entrepreneurship, becoming locally known as the ICE Program,” Baca says. New master’s programs include the few-years-old Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing, a Master of Arts (MA) in Creative Writing, and Master of Environmental Management.
“We’ve got this curricular innovation going on, which I think is exciting,” says Baca. Referring to the Pathways project, he says, “Right now, we’ve got a lot of great ideas out there, but we don’t have a good process for us to take those that best support our role and mission, that best support the board values, that are consistent with the strategic plan, so it’s really about creating that framework.
“We’ve never had a true marketing department on campus,” says Baca. “We’ve had people assigned to do marketing functions and write press releases.” Now that’s changed, with the hiring of marketing director Brian Barker. “They’re doing things like developing the new website and marketing campaigns.”
The marketing plan is part of the overall enrollment plan. “Right now, [Barker] has around $80,000 for marketing, and we also added two positions, a web developer and an enrollment communications strategist,” says Baca.
Floods in Boulder delayed the unveiling of the new site, which was originally expected to go live in October. It went live Friday, December 27.
The website, new programs and a bona fide marketing department are all useful tools in the university’s blitz to determine and achieve optimal student enrollment at Western. Enrollment has long been a topic of discussion at the university, it’s fluctuation, decline, and what that means to the overall viability of the institution. Donning his mathematician’s hat, Baca says WSCU now has supported, rather than arbitrary, enrollment goals.
“Our strategy comes from work I did last year when I was working as chief operating officer, a marginal cost analysis,” Baca says. “The numbers take into account things like desired student-faculty ratios, what percentage of our faculty should be adjunct, and what percent of our student population should be resident vs. non-resident.
“Considering those, we wanted to know, at what point do we hit a point of diminishing returns, meaning, our growth starts to cost us more than we’re gaining? It came out to roughly 2,600 [undergraduates]. That corresponds nicely with work done around our facilities plan. Right now we have capacity for growth based on our current infrastructure of roughly the same.”
Beyond 2,600 undergraduates, Baca says, “You’re starting to talk about the need to add a new classroom building, and costs of tens of millions of dollars.” That’s not to say Western shouldn’t or won’t consider additional growth beyond those numbers in the future, but doing so will require the added consideration of facilities costs. “We’ll have to ask, ‘Do we want to get bigger? Or do we want to become more selective?’
“The target is, in the next five years, to get our head count to 2,900,” says Baca, with 300 graduate students included in the mix. “Right now we’re at about 2,400, with 200 of those being graduate students.” Besides growing the raw numbers, the challenge includes finding a good balance between graduate and undergraduate programs. “We currently have three,” says Baca. “We want to get to at least five, because once we do, we don’t have to submit to the accrediting body every time.
“We also want to make sure the programs not only provide good overhead to the institution, to cover their own administrative costs and support those of the institution, but that they also provide a source of income to the programs they’re in. And it’s important that we stay diligent that these programs enhance our undergraduate mission and don’t detract from that.”