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Leaning In

New President John Marshall is strengthening the responsibility a campus has to its students and community

An important aspect of higher education is that it’s one of the few places where people are given the time and resources to imagine their future and then build it. Colorado Mesa University understands that its responsibility to society spans far beyond books, exams and diplomas. With a bold strategic plan and the right leader, a healthy campus can elevate its city, its county, its country. Colorado Mesa University’s new president is doing just that by encouraging Mavericks, and the larger community, to lean in.


CMU President John Marshall has spent the first few months in his new role strengthening the way the campus serves the region. One of those ways has been by recognizing the intricacies in today’s world and talking earnestly about these nuanced differences. But creating a thriving, conscious community takes more than talk. It takes hard work and collaboration. Even more than that, Marshall says, humility and vulnerability have to make their way both in and out of the classroom.


“What we’re doing at Colorado Mesa University is we are seeing one another as individuals, not as groups. How we do that is we have to be in relationships with one another,” said Marshall. “We have to be willing to see the complexities and uniqueness and wonders of every individual on this campus.”


Conversations around important topics like COVID-19 vaccines and climate change are likely to make even the most optimistic person feel like the country is more divided than ever. But to Marshall’s point — put two college students with varying points of view in a room together and something magical happens. They learn to speak openly and honestly; they listen, discuss, question, disagree; and then go to a football game together. But it takes a certain type of environment, a certain kind of leader, to make that happen.


“When we talk about higher education, our aspirations have to be more than someone graduating and getting a job. Our aspirations have to be something around the fact that we are preparing the leaders that are going to take our community, our state, our country into the next generation,” said Marshall.


What is prominent in Marshall’s tenure as president thus far is his commitment to building a community that is a scaled model of the world we want to see — a world where the us vs. them mentally has an antidote, and that antidote is achieved through listening, humility, agency and meaningful relationships.


Creating meaningful relationships has been the foundation of this institution, and what makes CMU unique, and those meaningful relationships are what allow the university to operate at a human scale.


“We have to get to know each other, and a human-scale campus makes that much more attainable,” said Marshall.


Marshall is continuing the work of his predecessors by making strategic decisions that allow meaningful relationships to thrive in the classroom as well as across campus. Examples of this are numerous: Campus is walkable and residence halls are built for 200 hundred instead of 1,000. The faculty and students know each other by their first names.


“We have this amazing opportunity as a university to put people with diverse backgrounds in a space with one another where they get to learn and grow together. That's something,” Marshall said. “We physically create a space that is at a human scale where relationships can thrive.”


College campuses have the opportunity to nurture relationships at a unique time in students’ lives. But it’s not just about the relationships on campus. It is also about the relationships with the community.  


“One of our anchors that so many of my predecessors understood is the responsibility this institution has to our community and to our region,” added Marshall. “We have to own the fact that no one is going to fix our problems for us. In western Colorado, if we don’t have enough nurses, if we don’t have enough physician assistants, we better produce more. If we don’t have our own kids in our own backyard going to college, then we better do something about it.”


The idea of working hand-in-hand with the larger community is a guiding light for the new president. His goals for the university start with serving the area he lives in, the very place he and his wife, Linde, chose to raise a family in nearly two decades ago. His hope is to advance the livelihoods of the thousands of people in the community who have some college but no degree. To do that, the university provides options outside of the standard four-year degrees. These pathways exist so Coloradans can pursue specific skills and trades that will allow them to provide for their families while also adding to the region's economic growth.


“We need the electricians, the plumbers, the construction tradesman and welders and the light manufacturing experts — and not all of those require four-year degrees. We need to walk alongside our community to provide multiple pathways, and our economy demands it,” he said. “A young person who can see a path to being a proficient welder and opening a welding shop, that is a meaningful future for that person and this community.”


While we need skilled tradespeople, western Colorado also needs the arts. CMU is a cultural hub for western Colorado by providing theatre, music and dance performances as well as showcasing art exhibits and demonstrations.  


“The arts bring us together in a way few things do. If both of our kids are in a violin recital, I don’t care whether the person next to me voted for Trump or Biden. We are both enjoying the beauty of that music, and so it's this sort of social, cultural, political detente where we can come together to remember what unites us as humans,” said Marshall.


It’s only the beginning of his tenure but Marshall has already strengthened and built new relationships to make big things happen for students, the university and the broader community. Whether it is having the hard but necessary conversation, building up the arts or bringing a voice to vocational training, Marshall is leading with humility and working to sustain a thriving university at a human scale.


He has a long road ahead of him and a lot of work to do, but his commitment to the students and community is apparent. While Marshall is encouraging a community to lean in, he says he’s not at it alone.


“This university is so much bigger than any one person. Every day that I get to be a part of this campus is an honor. I truly don’t take it for granted that I get to come work alongside these amazing people on this campus. It’s not a responsibility I take lightly. ”


CMU is continuing to serve students and the larger community by sustaining a place that fosters continued growth where individuals can transform into the best versions of themselves, a place that helps mold young adults into capable, compassionate people with varying points of view.



Written by Kelsey Coleman