Saying Goodbye to Dr. Stephen Jordan

Dr. Stephen Jordan has been the president of MSU Denver since 2005 and will be retiring on June 30, 2017. Photo by Carl Glenn Payne

After 12 years as MSU Denver’s President, Dr. Stephen Jordan announced his plans for retirement in June of 2017. Whether you have met him personally or not, if you are a part of the campus community he has likely been a part of your educational experience.

Christina Castaneda, an MSU Denver student, was moved by the efforts of Dr. Jordan during his time with the university, specifically his work with DACA/ASSET students. Dr. Jordan worked with Dr. Luis Torres and the Immigrant Service Program in getting DACA/ASSET students in-state tuition. Castaneda believed the diversity fostered through such initiatives led to the growth and enrichment of Auraria Campus. 

“I remember the first time I met President Jordan. It was when artist Alma Lopez, the 2013 Richard T. Castro visiting professor, had an art exhibit at the Su Teatro. He was humble and nice and I really wanted to thank him for all the behind the scenes (work) he was doing on campus. I think now I can thank him,” said Castaneda.

Although it is sad to see Dr. Jordan leave, it is fantastic that he was able to serve as president for as long as he has. He has accomplished a lot in his time at MSU Denver and has set the stage for many successful generations of students to come. He sat down to discuss what he feels is most important in creating quality faculty and staff, what led him to MSU Denver and his plans for the future.

Dr. Jordan plans to golf and bike wife his wife following retirement. Photo by Carl Glenn Payne

Metrosphere: What exactly does the president of a university do?

Dr. Jordan: I think the primary responsibility of the president is to create conditions to allow the faculty and student to do what it is that they do. To create an environment where faculty can thrive, as teachers and scholars, and to create an environment where students feel that they can excel and meet their goals and expectations for a collegiate experience. That really means that I get the opportunity to shape the institution. To help set a vision.  To help create a physical environment that is conducive to quality instruction.  

What have been some of the highlights and major accomplishments you have been a part of at MSU Denver?

I will be finishing my 12th year at the university. The average presidency in America today is about five years. I say I’m seven years past my useful life. Well, there are a few major accomplishments that I am particularly proud of.

The first one is I’m really proud of having a chance to rebuild the faculty. When I had arrived there had been a depletion in the full-time tenure faculty track. Only 38 percent of the classes were taught by full-time faculty. So we laid out a plan to hire 60 faculty (members) a year. 20 would replace the faculty that were leaving and 40 would be a net increase. We took that 38 percent to 60 percent and we brought them from fine universities around the country. I am very proud of that. They are very interested in interdisciplinary work. They’re interested in using the city as a platform, how to engage students in real world experiences. I think it’s made a real difference.

The second thing that I would like to bring up is as a community we really gained in retention of graduation rates. In the time that I have been here, we’ve taken our first-time freshmen retention rate from 58 percent the year I arrived to 75 percent this year.  And in that same time period, we have actually increased the number of degrees we have awarded by 1400. We went from 2100 to over 3500 degrees awarded this year. I think that’s a real tribute to the work that everyone has done here.  

The third thing is really around the facilities. We had worked very hard, both with the completion of this building (Student Success Building), and the hotel and the athletic complex and the ADS building. But then we’ve renovated many of the old classrooms that were more than 40 years old. We’ve renovated those classrooms and office spaces, so I think we’ve made a real difference in the quality of the environment that students and faculty are in.  

Finally, I am really proud that this university has stood up for undocumented students and led the way when no other university was willing to do that. We did that, and that many people would say that because of our leadership, that’s a real tribute to the trustees.

Is there anything you can tell us about yourself that we may not know, maybe a little bit about how you got to be where you are at right now?

I grew up as a military brat. My dad was a career army officer. I liked to joke that in my family there were three answers to every question. Yes, sir. No, sir. No excuse, sir. Other than that, my father didn’t want to hear it. But it was a great experience. We lived in 17 different places by the time I graduated high school. So you learned to make friends really fast, or you didn’t have any friends.  

It really helps me to realize that – I grew up, as a child, in the military of the 1950s. As we talk about diversity and inclusion today, and we work so hard at it, people don’t realize that it was the military that actually led the way, that after WWII they actually began the process of diversifying. I grew up in that environment. It informed some of my feelings. In fourth grade, we were in Japan and one of my best friends was a black boy. His father was a non-commissioned officer. I was allowed to play with this boy during the day. I wasn’t allowed to stay over or spend the night. As a child, I never quite understood that. Today I can sit back and say, ya know, I can get that his dad was an NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer), my dad was a Commanding Officer, that was a part of it. I also felt that there were some real issues of race in that, that had affected me. That was a very informative piece of my life.  

The second was when I was in high school. I went to Douglas County High School in Castle Rock when it was the only high school in the whole county. And there were 400 kids in the high school. My best friend was a guy named Phil. Phil’s mom was a short-order cook at the hotel in Castle Rock. His dad was in prison. He had three brothers and a sister. They lived in an apartment above a store in downtown Castle Rock; you had to go up some rickety stairs out of the alley to get to their apartment. I spent most of my senior year, almost every weekend, sleeping at Phil’s house. It was a real eye-opening experience about this woman who was doing everything she could to raise her kids the right way, but it just didn’t seem fair. That really informed me because she had the same values, the same aspirations that, I think, my parents did. The circumstances were clearly much different. Both of those things really informed where I was going to go, in the long run with this interest in public policy and how you change these kinds of conditions. So that’s what I ended up doing in college.  I was a political science major and then got a doctorate in Public Policy.  

What’s next?  What do you have planned for your next step in life?

I told the board, ‘I have been the head of the system 24 years. It’s time for someone else to do it.’ I promised my wife we would take six months off and not do anything. We do have a biking river trip in France planned in July. I’ve had a number of national higher education consulting firms ask me to join their firms. If I do something, it’s likely to be in that consulting arena on the national higher education level. I intend to play a lot of golf. It is my passion; I’m not very good at it. We live on a golf course in Lafayette. The most important thing to me was to have had the opportunity to be in a university that believes so strongly in its mission, that believes that we do things with students that no one else can do or that no one else is even willing to try to do and that the people here really embrace that mission. We don’t always agree on how we are going to do it but I think this belief in the importance of the work we do, that’s been an unbelievably rewarding experience.    

Is there anything else you would like to say about your experience here at MSU Denver?

My very first address here that I gave, I laid out the vision for us to become the preeminent public institution in the nation. People complained that we can’t do that. We don’t have students with the highest SAT scores. We don’t have research dollars. We don’t have the money other places have. I said, ‘It is not about the inputs coming in. It’s about when we’re recognized for taking the people of this community and transforming them and putting them back into the community and having them transform their own community.’ We’re recognized in the same way that the City University of New York is recognized by the people of New York, in transforming their city. We will have achieved that status.  

I think it was about two years ago there was an article in the Association of Governing Board Trustees magazine and it had a drawing of two profiles of cities. On top of one building it said Kooney and on top of the other, it said MSU Denver. I said, ‘You know what? People around the country are getting the notion of what we are doing, and when they start comparing us to Kooney, then I think we’re having a real impact.’ When you walk around this campus today and you ask people what’s our vision – they’ll say it’s to be the pre-eminent public urban institute. No one will say that we’re there yet. They’ll say, we believe that’s what we’re capable of doing.  And that’s pretty cool.

Author: Nicholas Thomas

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