Earlier this week, University of Denver Chancellor Jeremy Haefner announced in an email to faculty and students that Renea Morris, Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications (MarComm), is leaving her position at DU to pursue other opportunities. In the announcement, Chancellor Jeremy Haefner indicated that he will lead a national search to fill the position.
Morris arrived at DU at the end of the 2018-19 school year and DU touted her “25 years of marketing and communications experience.” Prior to her Denver tenure, she served as the Chief Marketing Officer at Ohio University, after 14 years in public relations with a private company. According to her LinkedIn profile, Morris attended the University of Illinois – Chicago as an undergraduate, received a professional designation in public relations from UCLA, and then finally earned her master of education degree from Ohio. A successful, distinguished resume, no doubt. But from the very beginning, a number of DU stakeholders, including some at this site, noticed an alarming lack of ‘University of Denver’ or anything remotely related to Denver on it. This isn’t new – DU often overlooks candidates with DU degrees or deep DU staff experience for senior positions.
This is certainly not to say that Morris didn’t earn her position. She likely had a sterling reputation within public relations and higher education circles. But her tenure-defining action at Evans and University, you’ll remember, was the 2022 DU rebrand. Our understanding was in the years leading up to the announcement, her office did not substantively reach out to DU alumni or sports fans for input or feedback on the rebrand. Instead, in 2022, the new logo was foisted on the school (and, most notably, grafted onto DU athletics, which already had established marks of its own). As a result, the rest of the recent brand effort has, at least in the views of many sports fans and alumni we know, been largely a dud – a waste of time and resources.
In his announcement, Chancellor Haefner underscored the importance of this position for the University and we completely agree that finding the right person to fill this role is critical to properly position DU both locally and nationally. Morris’ replacement will be tasked with showing stakeholders what DU is today and how DU aspires to its future. In the ever-competitive arena of higher education, there are few more critical roles at a university, especially one like DU, than this one. If athletics is the ‘front porch’ of a university, the office of marketing and communications is the paint and finish.
As such, the ‘national search’ that Chancellor Haefner may be the wrong way to go about this hire. While Denver has hired many key employees and directors outside of DU in the past – Chancellor Haefner himself was originally an outside hire from RIT before becoming DU’s provost in 2018 – now is a critical time to focus on internal candidates (as well as DU alumni) to fill this role. We believe the person who takes over for Morris must understand the DU community and alumni base. There is no better time to select a Vice Chancellor that not only understands DU’s mission, vision, and values but actively engages stakeholders, embraces DU’s traditions, and knows how to unite our community beyond campus borders.
DU, like many educational institutions, has struggled with managing different points of view, providing transparency, and stopping debates when decisions have already been made. Donors, alumni, staff, and students are often given conflicting messages to ensure their buy-in. The next MarComm Vice-Chancellor must work effectively with administration – north and south of Asbury Ave – to send a clear, unambiguous message to stakeholders so less energy is expended on dead-end issues.
Finally, MarComm plays a critical role in presenting DU to the outside world. Someone who knows and understands the DU ethos can more clearly articulate DU’s role in the neighborhood, city, state, country, and world. DU has much to be proud of but it is still somewhat a mystery, even in its own neighborhood. MarComm needs to tell the DU story in a compelling, passionate, and expanded way.
Added to all this are the challenges facing all of higher education – escalating costs, declining enrollment – especially among the male demographic – higher operating costs, and a host of other challenges which demand a steady hand and someone who needs a smaller learning curve and can get up to speed quickly.
The best way to communicate to people’s heads and hearts is a message crafted by someone who has lived in that world and can speak with passion and precision and provide technical communication leadership when it is sorely needed.
While a new, unknown external candidate may present a catchy curriculum vitae, we believe the best solution should come from someone who has already walked the halls of DU as a student or staffer.