Chancellor Emeritus Dan Ritchie leads the crop of 2015 Founders Day honorees

Dan Ritchie looked back on his days as DU chancellor during a “fireside chat” with Chancellor Rebecca Chopp at the Founders Day gala Thursday.

Dan Ritchie looked back on his days as DU chancellor during a “fireside chat” with Chancellor Rebecca Chopp at the Founders Day gala Thursday.

The 2015 Founders Day Gala in March celebrated the accomplishments of notable alumni, donors, faculty, staff and students. The John Evans Award — the University’s highest honor — this year went to Chancellor Emeritus Dan Ritchie, who transformed the University during his time at the helm.

DU was struggling financially when Ritchie arrived in 1989, but during his 16-year chancellorship he oversaw a $274 million fundraising campaign that spurred numerous capital improvements on campus, including new buildings for student living, business, science, law and music education, as well as a performing arts center and an athletics and recreation center.

Ritchie stepped down as chancellor in 2005 and later became CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts; in December 2014 he was named to the board of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority, which oversees the 150-acre Fitzsimons Innovation Campus, north of the CU Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colo.

As part of the March 5 gala, Chancellor Rebecca Chopp conducted an on-stage “fireside chat” with Ritchie, discussing his time at DU, his thoughts on leadership and his role in the University’s 2002 move to Division I athletics.


Chancellor Chopp: I can’t imagine what it was like—and I’ve been at a number of colleges and schools as president and chancellor — to come into a situation where you really had to tackle everything at once. I know there were a lot of projects you had to do [when you started as chancellor], but what I’m curious about were the relationships you had to cultivate. What were the key relationships for you to get everything going?

Dan Ritchie: If you looked at the balance sheets or the income statements or the buildings, it was pretty scary, but what you couldn’t see was the faculty and their commitment to students. That, historically, is what DU has been all about, back to the very beginning. There are lots of wonderful stories about the faculty’s commitment. So what we had to do was build the relationships and the confidence in each other that we could do this. Because there was, understandably, a lot of skepticism and history there — recent history that made people doubtful about this “cowboy chancellor,” that he could do it, but we did it together, and you see the result.


Chopp: Many leaders who would have taken on what you took on would have just wanted to survive. But you and the faculty and the board made the choice for quality. The buildings themselves — everywhere I look, you went for incredible quality. I could name any building, but just take the Newman Center. The acoustics, the foundations, every aspect of that building is phenomenal, and that’s magnified all over campus. How did you decide to not just survive or go for sea level? You went for the very best.

Ritchie: The first thing is that just surviving is no fun. If you’re going to do these things, you need to enjoy it. But really what happened was we decided to tackle a strategic plan. At that time, in academia, nobody thought strategic plans were a good idea; it was a business import that they didn’t like or appreciate. But we finally agreed to do it, and it took us two and a half years. In the beginning, we discussed what we wanted to be and how we wanted to be: Did we want to be a Chevrolet or a Pontiac or a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce? We started out thinking we would be a Pontiac, but before the two and a half years was over, we decided we could be a Rolls Royce.


Chopp: I’ve had a little fun this year because DU has been ranked No. 1 in the country for study abroad. So I’ve kind of had fun calling my East Coast friends at Harvard and Yale and Swarthmore and saying, “Sorry. When are you going to catch up?” You really were visionary. You must have understood that the education of today had to be about creating world leaders. That was a tremendous vision. And it cost a lot of money to create the Cherrington Global Scholars program. How did you see that?

Ritchie: How I really got into it was a bicycle trip. I spent the summer of 1952 in Europe, and it changed my life and my views of many things, and that persuaded me that it was a life-changing thing. I think the students who come back are different than the students were when they went, and almost all of them would tell you that. So while that was one of the things I really believed in, honestly, it was the faculty who did it superbly. Ved Nanda, who is here tonight, led this thing with faculty, and you can’t imagine what it took to do that — building relationships with close to 100 universities, being sure that the courses worked together, that they met our standards.


Chopp: One of the other big changes is that you actually took the school to Division I athletics. Not too many chancellors invest in taking schools to D-I athletics, and I know athletics is important for you.

Ritchie: I really believe in the idea of the student-athlete. I think it’s a way to learn self-discipline, to learn teamwork, to learn how to think in challenging times. There are just so many wonderful benefits to it, and I believe that physical health helps mental health as well. I really feel strongly about this, and again it’s our folks who took this and really [ran with it]. There were two women in particular who have really done this. There was Dianne Murphy, who was our first female athletics director, who’s now at Columbia University and has been for 10 years, and then [athletics director] Peg Bradley-Doppes, whom I saw tonight. These two women have really taken us from a not-very-good Division II to the best Division I non-football school in the country.


Chopp: You have been such a leader in your corporate career — at DU, at DCPA, at Fitzsimons — you just continue to lead. And I think leadership is really important. My experience of our students is I can see them as future leaders. How do you define leadership, and what’s been so important for you about leadership?

Ritchie: I really believe that the two most important things are first to be trustworthy — you can be counted on to keep a secret, to do what you promise, in short, to be ethical — that you don’t compromise. The second thing is to put the organization, the mission and your colleagues ahead of yourself, not just most of the time but all of the time, no matter what. There are going to be times where you’re tested, but you’ve got to do it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *