In 2018, The University of Denver created a strategic plan. Denver Impact 2025 to position the University of Denver for the future. How well is Denver following on those plans? Has the change of chancellors (Rebecca Chopp to Jeremy Haefner), COVID-19, and the many other challenges faced by higher education stifled the strategic plan?
By and large, the University of Denver has done quite well with a number of notable achievements within its strategic plan as well as some obvious shortfalls. This review focuses on capital projects but it is clear that there are a number of ongoing efforts to make the student experience as rich and meaningful as possible on the DU campus – and off campus with the addition of a mountain campus.
Denver Impact 2025 was envisioned as more than just a capital plan. It was a strategic document designed to position the university for the future during a turbulent time for higher education. The plan envisions the alignment of DU with the dynamic growth of Denver and the growing Rocky Mountain West while maintaining the core values of the university – small classes, ethical values-based leadership, high-impact learning experiences, global citizenship, and an international and diverse community.
Great progress has been made on the capital side with the stated goal to create greater collaboration by developing a community commons (i.e., student union), a first-year residence hall, and a career achievement center. All three projects have been completed and provide for greater interaction and engagement for students, parents, and guests on campus.
Additional crosswalks and lights on Evans have helped as have signals to ease pedestrian traffic along Iliff and Asbury. Streetscape improvements along several boulevards have been made as well. Solar rooftop panels have been added to the campus and a new open space has been added between J-Mac and the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies. Seating clusters and meeting areas have been created along with several coffee shops in the middle of campus.
The results get more mixed with several of the other design elements. The plan called for clear entry points into the campus (gateway) for visitors and to bring a “college town environment to the campus edges. Sections along Evans Avenue and University Boulevard provide opportunities for redevelopment to grow into a vibrant mixed-use district.” Progress in this area has been much less clear and observable. On-campus signage has changed little and parking remains difficult to find for new visitors. Little visual identification remains except for a peeling ‘Denver’ decal mid-block, posted on the sky-bridge at the middle of campus on Evans.
The 6-acre site along Buchtel and University was identified as the last piece of significant developable land on campus. Denver Impact 2025 calls for a “vibrant mix of retail, hotel, office, innovation, and both affordable and market-rate housing are seen as part of the planned college town developments” on the location. Nothing has been done as of this writing but time still remains on the 2025 plan. Clearly, this will be an important project to optimize the relatively tight space requirements of the urban campus and the logical fit with DU’s School of Hospitality.
The greatest unfinished business is with the Denver District idea. The plan called for a move away from an inward-focused campus layout to “a more welcoming, defined, and porous campus”. We can point to one local example, the Pearl Street retail area. Located to the west of DU, a formal gateway greets visitors to the Pearl Street retail area. Unfortunately, in the case of DU, there is little to no identification to show travelers along the primary arterials of University and Evans Avenues or the secondary arterials of Buchtel, Illiff, Franklin, Downing, or High Street that they are entering a campus area.
Additional work in the surrounding neighborhoods of University and University Park could be made to better transition and connect the surrounding neighborhoods with the university. Other universities have achieved this transition with street-level monuments, street signs, paint schemes and unique lighting which would clearly show the transition into a university ‘District’.
For example, a local Denver artist created Flags of Denver to identify symbols with neighborhoods. Similar icons could be developed and added to street signs in the University and University Park neighborhoods to generate a ‘transition zone’. This would require coordination with Denver local government.
DU has little control over surrounding retail on University Boulevard and Evans Avenue as of this writing and remains at the whim of local developers and retailers. Also, with only thirty weeks of regular campus quarters each year, almost half the year local retail traffic drops significantly. Add limited public parking space and the retail businesses along University and Evans appear to be in constant flux. The desire outlined in the strategic plan to influence and lead local retail appears to be an overly ambitious goal of the Denver Impact 2025 plan.
Outside the stated plans of Denver Impact 2025, Chancellor Jeremy Haefner has acquired the James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus near Feather Lakes in Northern Colorado. This acquisition clearly supports the concept of student collaboration and centers on his vision of providing students with a holistic 4D experience – character growth, lives of purpose, intellectual growth, and well-being are all aligned with the student promise made in Denver Impact 2025.
Significant progress has been made so far but there is much more to do to achieve the lofty goals outlined in DU Impact 2025.
Top photo: DU Impact 2025