Hail to the chief … Roadrunner
President Jordan announces June 2017 retirement, leaves legacy of transformational leadership and increased opportunities for nontraditional students.
By Dan Vaccaro
On a sunny day in September 2005, the newly appointed president of then-Metropolitan State College of Denver delivered his first Welcome Back address to the campus community.
The speech made one thing very clear – Stephen M. Jordan wasn’t afraid to dream big.
He laid out a plan to transform the institution into “the preeminent urban baccalaureate college in the nation.”
“Eyebrows were definitely raised,” recalls Chief of Staff Cathy Lucas, who was present in 9th Street Park that day. “The idea of growing what was then seen exclusively as a local commuter college into a nationally recognized university was not something people could imagine.”
Jordan spent the next 11 years turning raised eyebrows into raised expectations, and detractors into believers.
Under his watch, the humble local college grew into a full-fledged university – Metropolitan State University of Denver. Five master’s degrees were created and launched. New buildings seemed to spring up overnight. Innovative partnerships became the talk of the state and nation. And countless doors were opened for the nontraditional, scrappy students who have long called MSU Denver home.
Through it all, Jordan’s vision of preeminence remained the guiding light.
In his 2016 Welcome Back address last week, Jordan announced another unexpected plan – his decision to retire after 12 years at the helm of MSU Denver. He set his retirement date for June 2017, and emphasized that he would continue to work tirelessly on the major initiatives he’d set in motion.
“I truly believe that after a while, when you’ve made tremendous change in advancing the University, it’s time for someone else to come in with a new energy and an expanded vision,” he said in his Sept. 8 remarks. “It is time for a change.”
On a brisk winter morning, Stephen Jordan strides down the long walkway toward the Student Success Building. He always moves fast, but the chill seems to put even more bounce in his step.
He stops at the entryway to hold the door for a young woman. She smiles and thanks him as she passes.
Another student follows a few steps behind. Jordan holds the door for him as well.
It is a simple moment of common courtesy. But to anyone who has followed Jordan’s career, there is symbolic resonance in the gesture.
Jordan has opened the doors of higher education for innumerable students during his time at MSU Denver, especially those who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to attend college.
He might be best remembered for the courageous stand he took on behalf of undocumented students, working with the MSU Denver Board of Trustees to create a special tuition rate that provided easier access to education. That bold move is widely recognized as heralding the passage of Colorado’s ASSET bill.
“People don’t really know the tremendous public pressure we faced in making that decision,” said former Board Chair Robert Cohen. “There was hate mail and worse, but with Steve’s steady leadership and laser focus, we drew our line in the sand. We were committed to supporting underrepresented students and closing the attainment gap at any cost.”
Jordan and MSU Denver received national recognition for that stance. In 2014, Jordan was honored with the Latin American Educational Foundation’s Sol Trujillo National Lifetime Leadership Award and the Anti-Defamation League’s Civil Rights Award. This year, the board received the prestigious John W. Nason Award for Board Service. The University also was selected to host the White House Task Force on New Americans this past June.
Beyond that singular achievement, Jordan’s arrival on the Auraria Campus marked a new era at MSU Denver, one in which the University made major advances in student retention and graduation. In 2005, the first-time retention rate for students was a meager 55 percent. This past fall, that rate climbed to 72 percent.
Jordan also spearheaded initiatives developed specifically to recruit and support students of color, including the goal of achieving Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) status by 2018. To be considered an HSI, 25 percent of a university’s full-time equivalent enrollment needs to be from Hispanic backgrounds. Since 2007, the number of MSU Denver undergraduate students who identify as Hispanic jumped from 12.5 percent to 24.07 percent (including ASSET students).
Last year, students of color made up 37 percent of MSU Denver’s overall student population, and 31.6 percent of students were the first in their families to go to college.
But Jordan hasn’t just opened metaphoric doors. He’s opened literal doors as well. The last five years have seen ribbons cut on the Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center, Student Success Building and Regency Athletic Complex. The Aerospace and Engineering Sciences Building will open in summer 2017.
“We’ve invested $190 million in facilities in the last decade,” said Jordan. “That has not only helped reduce the projected space shortage on campus by 73 percent, but provided better amenities for our students and faculty. That is a significant impact.”
Jordan adds that these facilities have transformed MSU Denver’s corner of the Auraria Campus while also supporting the educational priorities of the University – training students for upwardly mobile careers in Colorado’s largest industries.
The economic crisis of 2008 forced colleges and universities across the country to rethink their long-term strategies. MSU Denver was no exception.
“We were at our board retreat,” recalled Jordan, “and we realized that things would never go back to the good old days when the state funded education at 75 percent. So, we started to talk about new models for funding and landed on public-private partnerships.”
Since that time, Jordan has forged several such partnerships, the most-high profile being the Aerospace and Engineering Sciences initiative.
In meetings with industry leaders, Jordan kept hearing how aerospace and advanced manufacturing companies in Colorado couldn’t find sufficient local talent to support their growth. Recognizing an opportunity, he spoke with faculty from six different disciplines, and continued talking with leaders in the field to understand industry needs.
Work soon began on a program to train the most skilled, workforce-ready aerospace and advanced manufacturing graduates in the nation. With support from industry leaders, the faculty developed a first-of-its-kind curriculum that fostered advantageous connections between aerospace sciences; civil, electrical and mechanical engineering technology; and computer information systems and computer science.
The AES initiative also included plans for the construction of a $60 million building, set to open in 2017, and the creation of Colorado’s only Institute for Advanced Manufacturing Sciences. The project cost was split evenly between state capital development funding, University allocation of carefully saved construction dollars and private donations.
“We were ahead of most colleges and universities in the state and the nation in that we weren’t thinking about public-private partnerships strictly in terms of housing,” said Jordan. “We wanted to use our partnerships to grow and sustain academic programs. That was a novel approach.”
The road ahead
Jordan isn’t done just yet. For the next year, he will focus on tying up some of the high-level projects he has put into place: achieving HSI status, opening the AES Building, ensuring re-accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission and updating the University’s approach to shared governance.
While he is proud of his accomplishments at MSU Denver, he is quick to point out that there is more work to be done, and that his success was never a solo venture.
“The real credit goes to the people on the front line,” he said. “Our faculty and staff are so committed to the mission of the University. They believe that we can do things that no other school can or will. They believe that our students, many of whom would not be accepted at other universities, can thrive if they just get the right opportunity.”
Jordan also credits his wife Ruthie for keeping him at the top of his game.
“Ruthie is my sounding board, my editor and my confidant. So many of her ideas and initiatives have made a lasting impact on this University.”
With its chief Roadrunner headed for retirement, MSU Denver faces the daunting prospect of finding a new leader.
But Board Chair Michelle Lucero sounds a note of optimism.
“We will miss Dr. Jordan dearly,” said Lucero, “but we also feel that with the foundation he put in place, and his leadership on so many successful projects, including the development of our strategic plan, we are ready to build on his work to move the University forward.”
Lucero adds that a process is already in place to find Jordan’s successor. AGB Search has been hired to lead the search, which will begin with an assessment of what qualities and characteristics the community hopes to find in its next president.
Jordan, too, is confident the board will find the right leader for MSU Denver. He says that candidates will be excited to be part of the work happening at the University. And when that new leader arrives she or he will find a community ready and willing to carry the mission forward.
“When I arrived and laid out the vision of preeminence, people didn’t think we were capable of making it happen. But there has been a huge culture shift since then. It took time, but today everyone understands the vision. Once that belief is built into a culture, it tends to remain there long beyond any one person or leader. Our people know who we are. They know what we are capable of achieving.”