CU Boulder Chancellor DiStefano: Lessons learned from 50 years in higher ed

Even if you don’t plan to spend 50 years at your current institution, operate as though you do. Form relationships with community members, local government, state legislators—even your critics—as if this were your permanent community and your forever neighbors.
Philip P. DiStefano
Philip P. DiStefano
Phil DiStefano has served as chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder since 2009. Upon his retirement as chancellor, he will serve as senior executive director of the CU Boulder Center for Leadership.

As I prepare to step down after 15 years as chancellor at the University of Colorado Boulder, the higher education landscape looks much different than what I encountered as a new professor in 1974.

Public confidence in higher education is continuing its downward trend, according to recent polls. Universities face increasing scrutiny from politicians who would like to dictate what students may learn in the classroom. The length of time that chancellors and presidents are willing to serve has shrunk amid relentless expectations and hostile attitudes. Too often, justifiable criticism goes unaddressed or abandoned in deference to the status quo.

But I’ve learned over my 50-year career in higher education that there is value in taking the long view. Although academia has plenty of valid causes for concern, I also believe the next generation of university leaders has many reasons for optimism.

So how do we retain (or regain) our confidence in the face of so many challenges? Every university is different, but here are a few of the lessons that have guided me in my tenure at CU Boulder.

Prioritize student success above all

First, prioritize student success above all. Helping students achieve prosperity is how we prove the value of higher education to a skeptical public. At CU Boulder, a cross-departmental group has spent the last three years addressing barriers hindering students from completing their degrees through our Buff Undergraduate Success initiative.

We’ve used data points and student perspectives to tease out best practices for student success, achieving a second-fall retention rate of 89.1% in 2023 for students who entered in fall 2022—a new record. Among postsecondary institutions nationwide, the retention rate was 76.5% in fall 2022, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

More from UB: We need adult learners as much as they need us. Here’s how to help them.

Prioritizing student success also requires that we continually reject the attitude that college is merely a tool for career preparation. Successful graduates are not simply those with the highest employment levels or the biggest salaries; a truly successful graduate leaves college prepared to support and sustain a diverse democracy, participating in civic life in ways that positively impact humanity.

Even as bans on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are surging, I remain convinced of this truth: Where inequities exist, we must address them. A more inclusive academic experience is in every person’s best interest—and in the best interest of our nation. As leaders of our institutions, we must continue to advocate for the values that make higher education stronger, especially when they are under attack.

Build strong town-gown relationships

My wife and I have been residents of Boulder for more than 40 years, and I’ve spent my entire career at CU Boulder, a single university—a rarity in higher education. This path has been extremely beneficial for understanding the community’s needs and desires alongside the university’s and for forming lasting relationships built on trust and mutual respect.

Even if you don’t plan to spend 50 years at your current institution, operate as though you do. Form relationships with community members, local government, state legislators—even your critics—as if this were your permanent community and your forever neighbors.

Don’t ignore athletics

For those who step into leadership from an academic background, as I did, it may be tempting to delegate this responsibility—don’t. We are in the midst of a sea change in intercollegiate athletics, and the years ahead will require vigilance to preserve the university mission and student-athletes’ well-being. It is the university leader’s responsibility to hire good people, to emphasize transparency, to ask questions and to uphold university values during this complicated national conversation.

Plus, athletics are a prime way to build university pride and loyalty while introducing communities and prospective students to your university.

Invest in your team

Emphasize shared governance. Those outside academia (even those within higher ed, at times) don’t understand the value of shared governance, but it is among the unique and beautiful legacies that persist in higher education.

It’s also important to establish a diverse cabinet that will provide honest advice and guidance for the toughest decisions you’ll face. The voices of faculty, staff and students have been indispensable to me, even when they are voices of dissent.

Practice humble leadership

A recent study from CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business found that those who demonstrate humility in the workplace can enhance social dynamics, reduce conflict, engage as more effective mentors – and reap the benefits in terms of promotability.

As chancellor or president, you simply won’t know it all. But presenting yourself or the university as infallible is a mistake. You can model humility, integrity and course-correction in your own campus community. As the university goes, so goes society.

As I think about the future of higher education, I am reminded of a quote commonly attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t—you’re right.”

And when it comes to colleges and universities charting a strong path into the future, I think we can.


Most Popular