A few months after Tony Frank became chancellor of the Colorado State University System, COVID-19 grabbed the wheel of higher education and made a sharp turn into unknown territory. Despite the challenges, Frank is excited and optimistic about the future of CSU in Fort Collins, CSU Pueblo and CSU Global, as well as the new CSU Spur campus at the National Western Center in Denver, scheduled to open in 2022. Frank became president of CSU in 2008, and in 2015, added the role of chancellor. Previously, he served CSU in a variety of academic and administrative roles. In July 2019, he became full-time chancellor. He answered questions about the challenges and opportunities facing the university system.
Much of your current tenure as chancellor has been tumultuous thanks to COVID-19. How has CSU adapted?
I don’t think anybody could possibly have anticipated what was going to manifest itself through a global pandemic, especially the tremendous economic challenges that followed.
Both in Fort Collins and Pueblo, CSU is one of, if not the largest, employer in the region. In the private sector, when revenues are down, you cut expenses. It’s not that simple for a public entity like CSU. For every job we lose at the university, about three-and-a-half jobs are lost within the community, creating a negative economic spiral.
Our primary goal economically was to protect payroll and keep these institutions going. Through a combination of actions, we were able to balance budgets against sharply lower revenues without furloughs or layoffs. I think that was a great contribution to local and state economies.
The second goal was to open for face-to-face classes. At CSU Pueblo, just under half the courses were face-to-face, while CSU Fort Collins started the semester at about two-thirds. Nationally, a lot of universities “opened” with 20 to 25 percent of their classes face-to-face. Knock on wood, our testing and prevention strategies seem to be working. We haven’t had some of the struggles that other places have seen. A certain amount of that is luck, and we rely on students to demonstrate good behavior in the face of a public health crisis.
How troublesome was the switch to teaching/learning remotely?
I don’t think any of us is as afraid of the remote learning switch now as we were in spring. Across the nation, we did an unprecedented experiment where we took everybody enrolled in college and switched them to an online environment. We were incredibly impressed about how CSU faculty and students got through that semester. What really impressed me was how faculty members, as soon as that semester was over, asked how they could get better at it.
Will increased online learning become permanent or will classroom learning dominate again?
Before the pandemic, there was a narrative that higher ed is being technologically disrupted and that face-to-face education is an overpriced and overvalued dinosaur. We’ve had face-to-face education that has worked well for some students but hasn’t adapted to deal with the needs of others because it didn’t have to. Now we have a second, different type of education system that is meeting the needs of other students effectively, and there are tremendous selection pressures on both of these systems, and both are adapting. I think both are going to be dramatically improved because of that.
CSU Global was designed to be online for working adults. About 20,000 students are enrolled, with one-third of them in Colorado. Others come from 60 countries across the world. The old narrative would have said online serves a purpose but can’t be as good as face-to-face, certainly not in some disciplines such as anatomy or pathology or surgery.
However, the things that anatomists at CSU Fort Collins are doing in conjunction with engineers around virtual reality are absolutely staggering. You can access a whole-body MRI of a patient and walk around inside the patient. You can look at anything an MRI shows from any angle—inside a blood vessel or the heart or brain. I think technology is opening possibilities that rival traditional face-to-face education.
Additionally, there are some experimental online courses where the laptop or tablet camera is watching my eyes. If I’m going too slow, the artificial intelligence behind the teaching assumes I’m struggling and up pops supplementary materials. If I’m going too fast, it asks, “Really Tony? You think you are getting it that quick?” and up pops a quiz for me to see how I am doing. That is closer to one-on-one education than I ever got with even a small class of veterinary medical students.
With face-to-face education, we all got together in lecture halls because it was the most efficient way to transfer facts. That’s no longer the case; there is a push to do more. We’ve known for ages that people learn better while doing. We are seeing this explosion in the ability to evaluate higher-order learning skills, whereas before, we tested and evaluated primarily fact transfer.
I think face-to-face and online education are getting better as they take the best of each other and adapt to the pressures.
What are some facets of CSU Spur?
CSU represents a year-round anchor tenant with three buildings. One is Vida (meaning life) and will focus on the interface of human and animal health. It will include a large animal and equine clinic; a small-animal clinic where CSU students will train in partnership with the Denver Dumb Friends League and provide veterinary care to the local community; and the Temple Grandin Equine Center, where we will do therapeutic work with patients and also do equine rehabilitation activities.
The second building is Terra (translating to earth) and will primarily deal with food. This building will have greenhouses,
test kitchens and a variety of other things focused on food. A third building, Hydro, is where Denver Water will do water-quality testing, and we’ll be doing water-conservation research. We’ll also work with former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack around the critical intersection of food and water. We’ll also invest in education professionals whose responsibility will be to work closely with public schools to make sure every K-12 child—on the Front Range and virtually throughout the state—will have opportunities to interact with these facilities, which will include rotating educational exhibits like a kind of living museum. We think we can make a difference in the number of students interested in STEM disciplines and improve college readiness and college admission rates.
You’re excited about CSU Spur. Is developing these types of initiatives a favorite part of your job?
I’ve been lucky; I’ve loved everything I’ve done in my career. The part I like most is watching the next generation of leaders—whether faculty or administrators—come in with great ideas and energy. My goal is to create an environment that encourages them to think big and take risks and gives them the opportunities to try out their ideas.
The virtual reality stuff, the experimental approaches to watching how someone is learning, the National Western programs, all of those were ideas that other people came up with and developed because there was an atmosphere that empowered them to think about what was possible and got them excited. That’s fun and what I enjoy about my job now.
Cynthia Pasquale is a writer living in Denver.
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