Could a Rocky Mountain Campus be in DU’s future?

Now is a suitable time to drill down on a community announcement by Chancellor Jeremy Haefner during his COVID-19 briefing on April 29th. Chancellor Haefner stated that DU’s planning efforts, led by his appointed team, will include, “an exploration into ‘property acquisition, mergers, and acquisitions’ of other universities and/or businesses.”

What does that mean? And who better than LetsGoDU to speculate about what an acquisition might look like and who/what it might be?

The DU Impact 2020 strategic plan identified the value of living and learning communities, enhancing and expanding our learning environment along with engagement and empowerment in Denver and the Rocky Mountain West. The current Denver campus seems to be large enough to accommodate the University’s current needs. So, a Denver metropolitan acquisition seems highly unlikely. However, all we have to do is look directly west to see an asset closely associated with the University of Denver – the beautiful Rocky Mountains.

This is not a unique idea. Colorado College has a CC Cabin 30 miles west of their Colorado Springs campus and 160 miles west is their 7,000 square foot Baca conference center and lodge near Crestone, Colorado at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The University of Denver, with its largest student organization being the Alpine Club, a student body that flees to the mountains to hike and ski and a ski team that competes annually for national championships would seem to benefit from just such an acquisition. A Rocky Mountain Campus and retreat would be an ideal addition to provide unique learning and living opportunities for students, support academic and staff conferences, and align with the interests of the student body. Plus, this would be an alternative (and less costly option) for students who, for whatever reason, cannot study abroad.

One target might be an existing hotel/convention center/lodge that could accommodate Denver students and perhaps even be run in part by DU’s School of Hospitality. That would resemble a ‘start-up’ in many ways and require additional capital and resources that are in short supply in a pandemic. So acquiring, merging, or partnering with an existing academic institution that already has the infrastructure in place would be an ideal play.

That takes us to Colorado Mountain College (CMC). Offering 2 and 4-year degrees, CMC is mostly fashioned as a community college and does not align closely with DU’s academic model. The state-backed, county-supported institutions operate in eight mountain counties – Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Lake, Garfield, Pitkin, Summit, and Routt. They operate out of 11 campuses, three of which are residential. CMC’s current residential campuses are located in Leadville (near Copper Mountain), Spring Valley (Aspen/Vail), and Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Their current financials appear tight and enrollment has been declining since 2009 but they are sustained by 67% of their operating revenue from municipal and state tax authorities.  Of the residential campuses, several could be of interest to the University of Denver. But, ‘partnering’ with government-backed and operated entities with a private entity like DU makes a partnership complicated and an acquisition nearly impossible. But with current local and state budgets racked by the COVID-19 pandemic, government entities and educational institutions may be desperately seeking revenue solutions, so who knows?

CMC’s Steamboat Springs Residential facilities (above) include 110 rooms/220 occupancy and the Leadville campus (below) provides 55 rooms/110 occupancy.

photo - class held outside on the CMC in Leadville campus

CMC’s Spring Valley campus offers the largest residential facility in its network and is within minutes of Glenwood Springs. The former ranch accommodates 1,500 students and is CMC’s largest residential facility with 220 rooms/440 occupancy. Just like CMC’s other campuses, they are located near skiing, hiking, and other mountain amenities. The campus has a leadership center and a field house. The Spring Valley campus has the size to, perhaps, accommodate shared assets and/or expansion. Or, maybe CMC wants to upgrade the academic profile via a merger with DU at one of their residential campuses?

Again, CMC is just one example of many options that could be explored by Haefner and his team. At this point, we have no evidence that they are looking at CMC or any other facilities in the Rockies. But if DU is serious about adding a mountain campus/facility, they should explore this option.

There are a number of corporate retreats in the Rockies as well with housing, meeting space, and access to winter and summer amenities as well. But few have the appropriate scale and design to manage student housing and lecture/instruction facilities. The most expensive option would be a ground-up campus in the Rockies – the most unlikely option of all.

Finally, the optics of a Rocky Mountain acquisition, ‘merger’ or partnership are important to consider as well. Will an acquisition be seen as a ‘resort’ or “country club” by many people and send the wrong message, especially with the current turmoil in higher education, a shrinking pool of college-age candidates, and the added cost of operation? Or, is now the ideal time to strike by building on DU’s current brand, enriching DU’s current offerings and cementing a foothold in the Rocky Mountains?

Why not explore the possibilities? As Warren Buffet once said, “Opportunities come infrequently. When it rains gold, put out the bucket, not the thimble.”

What do you think about a DU Rocky Mountain conference center/campus?

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Photos credit: Colorado Mountain College

6 thoughts on “Could a Rocky Mountain Campus be in DU’s future?”

  1. A wealthy donor gifted DU with a huge horse farm in the Rockies back around 2008-2009. I worked there and we made a big announcement, then shortly after were told not to talk about it anymore. Does DU still own that? Could be one option.

      1. As I recall, it was up near Evergreen. It was a horse ranch … not the ranch land St. Ritchie donated 20 years ago … this was around 2008-09, it was worth as I recall about $13 million. I’ll try to find something on the web about it. But the Denver Post never covered DU donations no matter how big, so it may not be out there. It was a huge deal until we were told to stop talking about it. I don’t know if DU still owns it or what happened.

  2. I would imagine that DU’s mountain-based ambitions are fueled by a large donation that is in the preparation stages. It’s certainly a major strategic advantage to DU to have the mountains so proximate vs other great private universities in the USA.

    To have the ability to better leverage the opportunities there to broaden experiential education, challenge students’ grit and resiliency, and give a shared student experience/sense of place is important. It could be a somewhat missing dimension to help bring the school together, as most mountain activity today is done by students on their own time.

    Whatever is done with students and the mountains, I hope that it is done in such a way as it doesn’t interfere with varsity sports. I don’t want to see our home crowds suffer because the students are all in the mountains – this happens enough as it is now.

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