When Colorado State University’s new president Amy Parsons steps foot on the Fort Collins campus’s iconic Oval or enters the Clark Building, she can’t keep her mind from wandering back to her undergraduate days at the institution she now oversees.
The good memories from Parsons’ college days motivate her to ensure the students, staff and faculty of the billion-dollar CSU system have just as pleasant memories associated with their time at the land grant university, she said.
As Parsons settles into the first couple weeks on the job as CSU’s 16th president, she named a few key priorities moving forward: growing the undergraduate population in both numbers and diversity; making sure once students are at CSU, they’re getting the skills they need in a timely fashion and at an affordable price; and investing in faculty in staff by making sure they’re well compensated and empowered in their positions.
“Like most employers, we lost some ground during the pandemic in terms of compensation, so we need to focus on making up the ground that’s lost and be known to invest in our people,” Parsons said. “Our faculty here are spectacular, and our job is to keep them.”
After Parsons’ time studying political science at CSU from 1992 to 1995, she practiced law at Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Schreck, specializing in commercial litigation. Around 2005, Parsons transitioned to CSU’s in-house legal counsel and then moved to the position of vice chancellor of the CSU system and executive vice president of university operations on the Fort Collins campus.
In 2020, Parsons left CSU to become CEO of Mozzafiato LLC, an Italian beauty supply brand.
“I think those experiences I had outside of higher education are really just as valuable to me now in being president of CSU as my higher education experience,” Parsons said. “It really trained me financially and creatively to think like an entrepreneur and apply all those skills to what I’m doing now.”
Kim Jordan, chair of the CSU System Board of Governors, said the board is confident in Parsons’ leadership.
“Amy is a leader with proven results who brings a deep appreciation and respect for the university and its academic mission, as well as the business expertise needed to manage the complexity of an organization this size,” Jordan said in a statement. “Amy will surround herself with a strong team and is equipped to take care of the details that will allow everyone at the university to be able to focus on their areas of expertise and impact.”
Faculty weren’t as sold on Parsons’ experience, said Mary Van Buren, CSU professor and president of the CSU Fort Collins branch of the American Association of University Professors.
For one, Van Buren said faculty members on the presidential search committee were hand-selected by university administration, meaning the faculty didn’t feel well-represented in selecting Parsons. Van Buren said faculty surveys about Parsons — the sole finalist announced — expressed concerns about Parsons’ lack of academic background and her penchant for flashy, expensive projects.
For example, Van Buren pointed to Parsons’ university biography in which she touts her hand in bringing a $220 million football stadium to the campus in 2017.
“The direction that we see the university taking in order to meet some of the challenges tend to be very capital-intensive and have not proven to bring in revenue or students, and some faculty think detract from the main educational goal of the university,” Van Buren said.
In order to bring in students and keep tuition affordable, Parsons said there needs to be more emphasis on procuring philanthropic funding and investing in the growth of the university through assets like student housing and academic facilities.
“There are several different tools we can use to keep it affordable,” Parsons said. “Keeping pressure on the federal government to continue to fund Pell grants and that combination of lobbying for state funding, growing our own revenues and philanthropic giving, with all those succeeding, we’re really able to keep it low for our students.”
Without financial aid, a college experience including factors like housing and books for an in-state, undergraduate student is calculated to cost about $30,000 per year and $50,000 per year for an out-of-state student.
Parsons stressed that financial aid, grants and on-campus work opportunities make college accessible for all, no matter one’s background, age, location or income status.
“I worry about a lot of the public dialogue around cost and student debt because I think that can be discouraging to people at a young age when they’re hearing that and determining college is not for them or that their families can’t afford it, so they count it out or they go somewhere else that might not meet their needs because they feel they can’t afford to come here,” Parsons said.
Half of CSU’s students graduated without student debt, Parsons said, and those who do have debt are saddled with around $25,000, she said.
“It’s our job to say, ‘You can afford it, and we’re here for you,’” Parsons said.
When it comes to innovation and the future of higher education, Parsons said partnering with industry is paramount to make sure students are trained properly for the workforce.
“Whether advising on curriculum or hiring our students as interns, my belief is that the intersection and partnership with industry is where innovation lies,” Parsons said. “Part of that is having that structure that allows for that innovation, benefits our students, benefits faculty and industry and the economy and democracy.”
Parsons said she hopes faculty know she wants to run the university side-by-side with them.
“I am dedicated to telling their stories and investing in their shared governance,” Parsons said. “I want them to feel supported.”
As for students, Parsons said she wants current students — including her daughter — to know they’re in the right place and prospective students to know she can’t wait for them to experience CSU.
“I believe CSU does the undergraduate residential experience better than any university in the country,” Parsons said. “It’s a welcoming community, a beautiful campus with all the programs they’re looking for and it’s a really special place with a unique mission.”
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