Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Departing Chancellor Robert Coombe reflects on his 33 years at the University

"I think it’s an incredibly exciting time, and I see DU entering an entirely new phase, where we have a real chance to become one of the truly extraordinary universities in the nation," says departing Chancellor Robert Coombe. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

“I think it’s an incredibly exciting time, and I see DU entering an entirely new phase, where we have a real chance to become one of the truly extraordinary universities in the nation,” says departing Chancellor Robert Coombe. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

In January 2014, Robert Coombe, the University’s 17th chancellor, announced he will retire at the end of June, along with his wife, Julanna Gilbert, executive director of the Office of Teaching and Learning and a member of the chemistry and biochemistry faculty.

Coombe assumed the chancellorship in 2005, after serving the institution as provost from 2001 to 2005, as dean of what was then the Division of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering from 1995 to 2001, and as chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry from 1988 to 1995.

During his 33 years at DU, Coombe witnessed the University’s financial crisis of the mid- to late 1980s, when the institution was often borrowing money to make payroll and when its deficit grew to as much as $8 million. As the institution plotted its return to solvency and launched efforts to transform the physical campus, as well as its academic, student life and athletics programs, Coombe served in key leadership roles.

Before leaving the University, Coombe agreed to share some of his parting insights with the University of Denver Magazine.


Q: In your time here, you have witnessed — and certainly spearheaded — many changes on campus. Of these, is there one that stands out as particularly significant?

A: Well, there certainly have been a lot of changes — probably the most obvious is the campus itself. But in my mind, the greatest difference has to do with the faculty and the students. When I came in 1981, we had a really broad distribution of students, some of whom were unbelievably bright, as capable as you might find anywhere. We had others who struggled. Over time, that changed. When we went through the terrible crisis in the mid- to later ’80s, we lost a lot of that top end of the distribution. Then it gradually came back in.

The big difference between now and when I first came is, when you think about that top end of most capable students, now that is the vast majority of all our students. We’ve been able to attract incredibly bright, talented people, who have had all kinds of life experiences and who bring all kinds of different backgrounds to the table. So in my mind, our intellectual life is deeper and broader because of the students who are here. That’s also true of the faculty. One of the things that drew me to DU in 1981 was the caliber of the faculty. Now we have great faculty, but we have many, many more of them. The faculty has grown tremendously, particularly over the last decade. When you couple those two things together — the students and the faculty — you have a very different kind of institution than we were 30 years ago.


Q: One probably influences the other.

A: Over the course of the last 20 years, that’s what’s really gained momentum. And for someone who has been a faculty member for more than three decades, it’s very pleasing.


Q: How would you compare the student experience of three decades ago to that of today?

A: Certainly, as I mentioned before, the intellectual culture here is far deeper. And students come expecting that, because it has become part of our reputation. The other thing I would say is that we are a good bit more diverse. Interestingly, one of the things I’ve found in the course of talking with students, particularly over the last decade or so, is that virtually all of them come to the University looking to find a culture and an environment that is more diverse than the one from which they came, no matter where they came from. There is some understanding that there is a world of difference out there and a lot of different people to meet.

DU has become more diverse in many dimensions — not just race and ethnicity or national origin, but in all different kinds of ways. We’ve gotten to this time now when, instead of having a few individuals here and there, we have substantial groups of students from different backgrounds. We’ve moved from a place where, years ago, we worried about building diversity. The growth of diversity has considerable momentum, and it will continue. The kinds of things we have to work on now have to do with inter-group relations — the boundaries between different clusters of students. How do we develop a campus environment that is much more thoroughly integrated, so that all of the students can experience a really blended, vibrant, diverse culture? Those are the kind of issues we face, and they’re hard, but in a way that makes us understand where we came from. Long way to go, but still, I feel good about it.


Q: This issue was important to you nine years ago. What made you realize that inclusive excellence was so important to the intellectual community of the University?

A: I have always been a believer in the notion that diversity is a driver in building the depth of the intellectual culture we want. The two are related, and if we really want to ramp up the bar, we want a much more diverse population. And we want to develop the mechanisms for extracting the benefit of that diversity. Those are two different things. An institution could be very diverse and not realize the benefits if it doesn’t have inclusivity.

We can also look at this in a very pragmatic sense. We know that now and in the years to follow, the population of 18- to 24-year-olds will become more and more socioeconomically diverse all the time. Its growth is largely among people who are far less able to afford a university education. That sets a big agenda for us. We’ve got to find a way to keep the doors open as wide as possible to a very broad socioeconomic distribution. We really do. It’s part of our job. Part of my thinking is about the institution itself and the benefits to it from growing diversity, but part of it is also about what a university is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be an engine of socioeconomic mobility, and I’ve always thought it’s our obligation to make certain that it works that way.


Q: Higher education faces many challenges in the coming years — related to everything from affordability to changing demographics. How does DU compare to its private counterparts in its preparedness for these challenges?

A: I feel good about where we are. We’ve been working hard for 25 years or more in developing, with a laser focus, the absolute quality of the academic enterprise, and that has prepared us for this particular moment. If you look at the teaching and learning environment here, the scholarship environment, if you look at the financial environment, how we do operations, all of those things, we’re absolutely at the top of our game. That means we have a platform from which we can launch into what I view as a time of extraordinary opportunity. So yes, there are lots and lots of forces pushing on change in higher education. One of them is the demographic issue. Another is the emergence of potentially disruptive technologies; another is cost and affordability. All of those kinds of things require the institution to be flexible and embracing of change. But if you think about these past decades, for the past 25 years we’ve been doing exactly that. Right? We’ve been developing new ideas, thinking about the best way to evolve the teaching and learning environment, thinking about the whole notion of serving the public good, thinking about the research and scholarship environment and what it really does and who its beneficiaries really are. We’ve been positioning ourselves as a different sort of institution that can help to resolve some of the core issues facing the city and the region. Those kinds of things are exactly the sort of traits that are going to be necessary for institutions to navigate the next 10 or 12 years. So I feel good that we’ve developed a set of attributes that will serve us well.

The other part of this is that all of these pressures and forces are creating much more fluidity in the higher education establishment. If you think about higher ed 10, 15 years ago, the pecking order was well-established. That’s why the US News rankings don’t change much from one year to the next, no matter what institutions do. What’s happening now is that a lot of that is dissolving. There are going to be lots of different ways of doing business in the years to come. The meaning of quality is going to be developing in ways that are much more real than just longstanding reputation. That spells opportunity for institutions like ours.

So I am an optimist. I think it’s an incredibly exciting time, and I see DU entering an entirely new phase, where we have a real chance to become one of the truly extraordinary universities in the nation.


Q: As a scientist, the University’s STEM initiative must give you particular delight. Why are the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) so important for the future of the University, and what makes this initiative distinctive?

A: STEM is important to the University because it’s so important to so many different disciplines. It’s not just a thing unto itself. We shouldn’t think of the University as a collection of different schools — Daniels, the Sturm College of Law, the Korbel School, engineering, the natural sciences, the social sciences. The boundaries between those boxes started dissolving years ago. To the extent that one of the elements is weaker than it ought to be, then the entire University suffers. For example, the strategy in the Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science is not just to grow engineering and computer science. It also involves a hard, hard push toward business and entrepreneurship, which is a wonderful niche for us to occupy. We can do better there than any institution in the region. To the extent we don’t evolve in STEM, Daniels misses an opportunity. And other units on campus miss an opportunity as well.

The collection of things we have at DU, the core disciplines, together have enormous strength. We need STEM to be bigger and stronger than it is. There are many new students interested in those disciplines, and for the institution broadly, a stronger STEM enterprise provides new opportunities for all of the other units in the University as well.

If you look beyond engineering and computer science, if you look at the Knoebel Center for the Study of Aging, you can see exactly the same thing. The physical sciences are central to the center, but its strength results from direct relationships with the Graduate School of Social Work, the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, the Morgridge College of Education and elements of Daniels, which together can relate to a rapidly growing population of older Americans. Those Americans need more than science. They need legal advice, counseling, education, financial services and a host of other things. We are uniquely positioned to do that.


Q: As busy as you’ve been over the last nine years, have you had time to continue your study of the cello? Is it still a passion?

A: Very much. I started playing the cello when I was 50 or 51. Nine years ago I wasn’t very far along, but I loved it. I must tell you, that 1), I’m a lot better than I was nine years ago, and 2), it’s become a very important part of life. I just absolutely love to play.


Q: What will you do next? Can we count on seeing you for periodic visits?

A: Most immediately, Julanna and I are going to move down to our place in Santa Fe. We started going down to northern New Mexico to go hiking [several years ago]. It reminded us of Colorado in the ’60s, and so we ended up buying a place down there about three years ago. But we have lots of family in Denver, so we’ll be back. We both love the University, so we’ll certainly be back here, too.


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