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Maverick Momentum

President Emeritus Tim Foster passes vibrant culture and burgeoning university to new President John Marshall

Many organizations use the word culture like a buzzword. They think if they say it enough times it creates itself. But it takes a certain kind of person to build a true community with a strong culture. It takes a fighter, someone who goes to battle with everything they have for the very people that culture represents. For the past 17 years, that’s what Tim Foster did. He fought endlessly for Colorado Mesa University’s students and the community. He made people feel heard and included, and that they were a part of something bigger than themselves.

He used his time, talents, skills and energy to elevate campus and to make the world a better place. As president of a university where two-thirds of students are first-generation, lower-income or minority students, he built a campus where people had the freedom to make mistakes, fail, stand back up and try again.

 “You have to give people grace. We all want students to succeed, watch them get their degree. It’s what we’re here for,” said President Emeritus Tim Foster.

 When some think of Foster they see a man behind a podium — a former majority leader for the Colorado House of Representatives, executive director for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and a successful president of a state university. What they may not know is the man in the suit used to not own a tie, let alone know how to tie one.

At a private liberal arts school in Gambier, Ohio, a young Foster walked the halls in jeans while everyone else wore khakis. He remembered being surrounded by prep school guys and he was just Tim, a Colorado-raised kid who played college football and struggled to write his college essays, which eventually landed him on probation.

“They didn't know what to think,” remembers Foster. “I was just a rough-around-the-edges kid. I was from Grand Junction, Colorado.” 

While at Kenyon College, he threw some punches, learned some lessons and made some friends. 

“I got in a lot of trouble. If I got the lecture once I got it ten times. Thankfully, I had a lot of folks who gave me second chances.”

Foster’s life experiences prepared him to be the leader western Colorado needed — from passing legislation to advocating for access to higher education for all. 

“It would be 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon and other legislators would go home. So, I’d just sit on the floor and read bills late into the night,” said Foster on his time in the Colorado House of Representatives. He later had a six-year unofficial education learning about higher education while at the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

“I’d watch university presidents try things, watch what worked and what didn't work. I got to see what really good leaders of institutions did.”

When Foster was named president of then Mesa State College in March 2004, many questioned if he was the right person for the job. Almost two decades later, it’s clear he was. Under Foster’s presidency, more than 20,000 students have graduated. Those 20,000+ students received a total of 24,061 degrees and/ or certificates. During his tenure, CMU added more than 40 academic/technical fields of study and over a dozen NCAA DII varsity teams. Foster relentlessly advocated for students and by 2019, CMU awarded nearly $76 million in financial aid compared to the $28 million the school awarded in 2004. He helped add more than 2 million in total square footage of campus spaces, and from Fall 2004 to Fall 2019 enrollment increased by 63%.

 Foster remembers the early days on the job. “I could just look at this school, at least in my mind, and go wow. I think it’s just ready to go with the right changes.”

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get a humble Foster to acknowledge the role he’s played in making CMU and the community a better place for everyone, but he doesn't’t deny how much he loves this place. 

“I love this town,” Foster said. “You know, growing up in the area I saw so many people waste their talent. They didn't think they could go to college, so they didn't. So many kids just missed that opportunity.” 

So he got to work and made it so every student in the valley had access to a quality education. Along the way he also taught students to be empathetic and engaged members of society. He taught roommates, classmates and teammates to respect others with different points of view. He fought for free speech and believed in second chances. You can see his legacy everywhere you look, said newly-appointed CMU President John Marshall, who is the first CMU alumnus to hold this title. 

Foster remembers meeting Marshall for the first time at the governor’s office. “He was super talented, he was Johnny on the spot, everywhere.”

 After working in public policy, Marshall left politics and moved to the Grand Valley with his wife, Linde, who is from the area, and started a family. Foster recruited Marshall to lead the CMU Foundation. After a couple years, Marshall became interested in student services and that’s when opportunity knocked.

 “I said, ‘John, you can do anything you want. That’s how talented you are.’ And he is. John is really hardworking, super smart and quick on his feet. My theory is you hire smart, talented people and let them run.” 

Foster and Marshall have spent more than a decade on campus together, challenging and supporting one another while pursuing CMU’s mission. Their mutual respect for each other is an example of what happens when people come together for a common good.

 “Tim never doubted me. He always believed in me and I knew it; and I think that quiet confidence and that quiet encouragement made it so I never had to wonder whether he had my back,” said Marshall. “It’s hard to put words to that kind of a thing — to have someone’s absolute confidence allows you to try, risk, fail and succeed.”

 “What makes us successful comes back to culture,” said Foster. “John gets the culture — he gets the passion. But John is going to do his own thing. He is a really bright young man, and he has seen opportunities that I haven’t.”

 Marshall gets it because he’s a Maverick through and through. He lived in the residence halls, played football on the field and learned in these classrooms.

“My time as a student here can be defined by relationships,” said Marshall. “The key faculty that mentored me are still mentoring me today, my old roommates, teammates too.”

 And Tim Foster.

“He gave me that freedom, and instead of mentoring me into a likeness of him, he really mentored me to become me,” said Marshall. “He wasn't’t trying to mold me into some sort of preconceived idea of what he wanted me to be. He provided me with opportunities, gave me encouragement and challenged me every step of the way.” 

A good leader can change a campus, but a great leader builds a culture. Tim Foster did both. He helped thousands of people find their way, gave them direction and made them a part of something bigger.

“It’s been a privilege. It really has. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” said Foster. 

With his departure, the CMU community can rest easy knowing a Maverick carries the torch into the future.

 “For me the question is, ‘what is my duty to give back to others?‘ And I know for me it’s something like leading this university,” said Marshall. “Having seen the impact we can have in our students’ lives, that’s meaningful.” 

It’s Marshall’s humility, intellect and his sense of responsibility to give back that will keep the momentum of the university and its culture going strong.

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Written by Kelsey Coleman