NewsLocal News


1-on-1 with new CSU president Amy Parsons discussing affordability, diversity, and opportunity in higher ed

In December, Amy Parsons was named the 16th President of Colorado State University.
Posted: 1:01 PM, Feb 28, 2023
Updated: 2023-02-28 15:01:42-05

In December, Amy Parsons was named the 16th President of Colorado State University. Parsons is a CSU graduate and his worked in different roles at CSU. She sat down with Denver7 Morning Anchor Nicole Brady to talk about transitioning to the top leadership role.

1-on-1 with new CSU president Amy Parsons

Nicole Brady: You are coming into this job from a background in law and administration. Why did you want to be the President of CSU?

Amy Parsons: I did work for CSU in the CSU system for 17 years. And that's that's the bulk of my professional life, really dedicated to higher education and CSU specifically. In that time I did teach class but I was not a traditional academic. I'm not a tenure-track faculty member, I was on the side of administration, I was an attorney for the system. I was executive vice chancellor and helped to create the CSU Spur campus in downtown Denver. On either side of my time in higher ed and at CSU, I was in private industry, I was an attorney in private practice, and most recently a CEO of a private company. So I think that I bring not just deep knowledge of higher ed and of Colorado State University, but the perspective of industry as well, and being outside of higher ed as an employer, and a partner to higher ed and really understanding what that means. But as you said, an overlay to all of that is just my deep roots with CSU and with Colorado. CSU has been part of my life since I was a teenager when I first came to CSU as a student. I've been a fan, a donor, a partner to CSU all this time and now I'm really proud to say that I'm a parent of a CSU student. So now we're two generations of CSU. And it's really fascinating to see my daughter now have that amazing experience at CSU that I had. So for me, it's not about wanting to be a university president necessarily, it's about CSU. There's nowhere else that I would do this and dedicate myself to besides CSU. So I think I bring all those different elements to the table to bring a unique perspective on the University and I’m a true believer of CSU and its mission and I hope to bring that passion.

NB: The high cost of higher education is actually turning some people off from the idea of going to college. As president, how are you going to make sure that students can afford to get an education, especially as an in-state student?

AP: That's really the most important conversation I think that we can have as how we maintain that mission of access to all Colorado kids coming to CSU. CSU is Colorado's University, we’re the land grant university, so we have a unique mission when it comes to Colorado. First and foremost, it's about access. It’s about making sure that kids in rural Colorado, kids in urban Denver, all get the chance to come here, and a major aspect of that is keeping costs affordable. You know, we strive to be excellent in all that we do at CSU, but when it comes to the cost, we strive to be average to lower to really enable those people to come. I think one of our biggest hurdles is this public dialogue about how expensive it is and the stories about excessive debt and the impact that it has on students after graduation. I worry a lot that students at a very young age will hear that message – their families will hear that – and determine that college is not for them, that they don't have a path to go to college. And when it comes to CSU, that's just not the case. People are often surprised to learn that half of all of our graduates have no debt at all when they graduate because of the amount of financial aid, because of the jobs that they're able to have while they're in college. And of the half that do graduate with debt, it's on average about $25,000, which is lower than the national average. We have very low default rates because they're getting good jobs and they can pay that back. So our challenge is really getting that message out that especially for students at the lowest-end income bracket, because of Pell scholarships, because of Pell eligibility paired with financial aid that the university is able to give, they pay no tuition and fees, and they haven't for the last 10 years. We have scholarships for first-generation students, for example, the kids who are first in their families to go to college. And we were the first university to provide such a scholarship starting 20 years ago. So we're working really hard to both get the message out that we're there for them if they want a four year degree, if that's their path, and we're going to meet them where they are and make a plan to get them in.

NB: How do you make sure students graduate?

AP: There’s not much more important to us than student success, getting them in, making sure they complete in four years if they want to complete in four years. A few ways we do that is with really strong academic advising, working with them early in their freshman year to help them find their academic home. Not all students know what they want to major in when they come in. Some of them know what they want to do, some of them don't. So working with them one-on-one really early on to help determine their path so they're taking the courses that they need to graduate on time is really important. Also finding their home at the university outside of their academic space, whether that's a cultural center, or a team, a sport, a meaningful research project, an internship or campus employment, that really helps them thrive as a whole student. Supporting them in their mental health, their physical health, their community space at the university. That really keeps the students persisting and thriving year over year. The goal here is that when we have our incoming class of freshmen, that we do not want to be able to know who's going to graduate in four years and who's not based on where they start based on their socioeconomic background, or the high school from which they come, or whether they're first-generation. We want them to graduate in the exact proportion that they enter in. So we're always working on closing those gaps. We get better and better at that every year. And there's just nothing more important than student success. That's why we exist.

NB: You've previously said raising faculty pay is also a priority. Why is that?

AP: Faculty are the backbone of the university. They're the ones who are teaching our students, who are producing the new knowledge. And so we're in the business of recruiting and retaining the very best faculty across every discipline at the university. So to be able to do that, it does take competitive compensation. It takes competitive total compensation, not just salaries, but excellent benefits as well. And it really takes creating an environment for the faculty, where they're part of the shared governance of the university. They're part of the direction of the university. We have a culture of hearing the faculty voices, of making sure that they’re thriving in their own disciplines. And so it takes all of that in order to be a place where faculty really want to come and thrive and have successful careers. So when it comes to compensation, we're always looking at the national data of where we are compared to our peers. A lot of universities lost ground in the last few years during COVID. At the same time, now we have inflationary pressures, the cost of living is going up. So we're always trying to marry up those things and try to hit the mark as best we can because if we don't have excellent faculty, then we're not an excellent university. So that'll remain a high priority for us. We're not too far off on salaries, but we have a lot of different types of faculty. And so we're always looking by discipline and by rank and trying to make up ground in the places where we're the most off. And I'll say, too, it's not just faculty, it's all employees, you know, that we're really focused on, we need to be competitive across the board and make sure that people don't have to drive too far away, that they can have affordable housing, attainable housing, so that they're not commuting too far to get into work. It's really all about that total experience of our employees. And that has to be one of our top priorities to be the excellent university that we intend to be.

NB: You mentioned you're still learning a lot every day here. Do you sit in on a class every so often? Or how do you engage in what’s going on the University on a daily basis?

AP: I am in the habit of saying yes to everything right now. just this last weekend, I was with students who are part of the CSU agricultural program and the seed stock team. These are students who work with bulls all year long and then they put them up for auction. So I actually went with the students to the auction, walked around the pens, really understood what they were doing with the bulls. I am going to some classes with students this coming semester. I'm really engaging especially with students wherever I can and getting in the classroom with the faculty to understand as well. I’ve been around CSU for a very long time so I have a good sense for a lot of things, but I am learning something new every day. And the students are so impressive and what the faculty are doing, it's always changing.

NB: How does the new CSU Spur campus in Denver fit into CSU’s mission?

AP: We’re really proud of the CSU Spur campus. I'm really glad that you came today so you can see it firsthand. All of these buildings have just opened in the last year, but this is a long time coming. And as you know, CSU is the land grant university so our mission is not just to be in Fort Collins, but to be everywhere. And we're the only university that has a presence in every county across the state of Colorado. This is in line with our outreach mission of being everywhere in Colorado, and bringing people into CSU from wherever they are to really access it. In these buildings that you see today, there's a lot happening that you would expect from CSU – world-class research and agriculture and food systems and water sustainability and in health, human and animal health and biomedical science. We have researchers in the labs doing their work. We have undergraduate students in here taking classes, graduate programs at work here in these buildings as well. But what makes this so remarkable is that we've turned all that sort of inside-out and invited the general public in. So you can see here today, there are K-12 Students walking around. There are young kids here from all over the country experiencing this. We have families on the weekends who come in, we have conferences here, we're right in the heart of downtown Denver, right in the middle of the National Western Center. It’s open to the public, so kids can come in and see firsthand the researchers at work, see the horses, see the food system, see the scientists and what they do. And our hope is that inspires them to understand that they can be a part of this as well, that they can be part of of the big challenges. So this is really an extension of 150 years of our land grant mission, and I don't think there's anything like this in the country where we put it on display every day open to the public to come in and engage with it.

NB: How do you make CSU a place that is welcoming for students of color for first generation students ?

AP: That's a really important question. Our mission is to make sure that our student body reflects Colorado, first and foremost. So as the population grows and changes and shifts in Colorado, we want our incoming freshmen classes and our graduating classes to reflect that as well. Part of it is outreach, really intentional, dialed-in outreach into those high schools and even middle schools, because kids decide at a very early age, if college is for them. So we have to go beyond just focusing on high school students and get all the way back into you know, middle school, even elementary school to let them know that this is the pathway for them. Some things that we found really impactful in this way is to actually bring those kids to Fort Collins, bring them on to campus because for a lot of them, they think they have an image in their mind or it seems intimidating, or they feel like it's not for them. So the more we can get them all the way up there and they see kids who look like them who come from their same background whose families are similar to them and see them succeeding, then they know that it’s for them. We work on recruiting, we work on the messaging, we work on financial aid, so it's attainable. But once they're on campus, it's really about that environment, making sure that everyone is respected, every voice is heard, it's a safe place to be themselves and to express themselves. We do that through our cultural centers. We do that through the programming that we have on campus. And just really a relentless focus on that environment that is friendly, welcoming, a community that really cares about each other. And that's something that we always have to be vigilant about, and make sure that everybody feels really truly welcome.

NB: How do you make CSU a place for ideas and opinions of all kinds can thrive?

AP: I'm so glad you asked that. As you know, I'm a political science major and an attorney by training, so I spend a lot of time thinking about this. Of anywhere in the country, a public fou-year research university is the place to have that public dialogue. You know, one of our big missions at the university is to create future leaders. So bringing in students, as you said, the red and the blue people from all over the world, in one place, right in one location, we want to encourage as much dialogue and civil discourse as possible. We're a research university so that means that we're on the edge of new discovery, we're always pushing the boundary looking for new knowledge. And if we're not debating and having this dialogue about all these different issues, then we're not doing that job, we're not meeting our mission. The trick is to do it in a safe environment where people feel like they can be their whole selves, they can express their opinions, whether they're faculty or staff, or student or visitor. But being part of that thriving environment is something I think we need to encourage even more of, because if this democracy is going to progress and thrive in this country, it's going to take these students who understand how to listen to each other, how to think critically about issues, how to have civil dialogue with each other, and create solutions across very diverse groups. So that's our job to create that environment. It's messy, it can be very messy, it can be difficult to do. But it's a major part of why we exist. And if we can't do it in a public research university like CSU, then I don't know where else we can do it in the country. This is the place for students to hone those skills so they can take that out and be really meaningful contributors to our democracy.