‘A critical asset’: University of Colorado President Todd Saliman discusses future goals to strengthen four-campus system
Whether Todd Saliman knew it before now or not, his career path helped guide him to exactly where he sits today — as the president of the University of Colorado’s four-campus system.
Even after he was named interim president of CU in June 2021, Saliman wasn’t always sure he wanted to apply for the permanent position. But those who have worked with Saliman throughout the course of his evolving career recognized the connection between his experience and what was needed in CU’s next president.
“(Saliman) knows how to do the work and the vision,” said Tanya Mares Kelly-Bowry, CU’s former vice president for government relations. “Usually when you have a numbers guy, they’re not visionary. I think that’s the great leadership he will bring to CU. I am excited to see where we are going in the next few years.”
Saliman, 55, who graduated from CU Boulder in 1989, did eventually change his mind and tossed his hat in the ring to run for the president position and was unanimously selected by the University of Colorado Board of Regents to be the next leader earlier this year.
Now everything has come full circle, said Kelly-Bowry, who has worked with Saliman in various capacities for about 30 years.
“When I became the youngest Hispanic vice president in the history of CU, Todd Saliman was one of the guys who helped convince my higher-ups that they could promote me as both a woman and a woman of color,” Kelly-Bowry said. “He has always had a long track record of working on diversity issues and supporting women in powerful positions.”
Kelly-Bowry said she has worked with seven CU presidents, but not one has had the financial knowledge that Saliman has.
“He knows the ins and out, and he knows the money, and I think that makes him a critical asset in his role,” Kelly-Bowry said.
Before Saliman took the reins as interim president and now president, CU and the Board of Regents created a strategic plan with former President Mark Kennedy who left the position July 1, 2021, after he failed to demonstrate leadership in diversity, equity and inclusion and shared governance.
Now that Saliman has taken over as president, Lesley Smith, chair of the CU Board of Regents, said she looks forward to picking up that work again and tackling strategic plan goals with Saliman.
“As interim president, (Saliman) had some ideas, and now we can move forward full throttle with those ideas,” she said. “I feel like that the board is in agreement on these goals, and we are ready to move forward with Todd.”
CU’s strategic plan is built on four pillars: affordability and student success; discovery and impact; diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) and access; and fiscal strength.
Saliman has used those four pillars as a guide for the work he wants to do. So far, he’s created five priority “buckets” that will guide him with his work. They are student success, teaching and education; reflecting the diversity of Colorado; research and creative work; serving the community of Colorado and connecting to the community of Colorado; and meeting the health care needs of Colorado while also addressing the state’s health care workforce needs.
Saliman has already made headway on some of his top priorities such as work to improve student retention and graduation rates, he said.
He approved funds for CU Boulder’s new residential program that will house all first-year incoming engineering students at Williams Village starting in fall 2023. It cost $5.5 million to renovate Williams Village for future engineering students. The funds are being pulled from the university’s investment earnings, said Ken McConnellogue, spokesperson for the CU System.
In addition, Saliman also worked with the system to allocate about $37 million toward supporting CU Boulder with its work to expand scholarships for first-generation students and increase scholarships for transfer students.
“We are trying to implement very real things to help improve retention and graduation rates,” Saliman said. “The retention and graduation rate at CU Boulder is improving because of things like that.”
Putting his skills to work
Saliman joined CU in 2011 as the university’s senior vice president for strategy, government relations and chief financial officer.
During that time, CU Boulder Chief Operating Officer Pat O’Rourke said he saw how Saliman was able to use his understanding and knowledge of fiscal policy from his higher education background and his work in politics to bolster the university.
“I don’t think that there’s anyone in Colorado who has a better understanding of fiscal policy,” O’Rourke said of Saliman. “He’s really wonderful at being able to identify opportunities, and you really saw that come together when Todd worked with all higher education institutions across the state to be able to come up with a funding formula.”
Saliman’s effort to work with other higher education institutions in Colorado resulted in lawmakers approving about a 11.4% increase in funding for higher education this year. That increase, coupled with tuition increases and a projected enrollment increase, allowed the Board of Regents to approve raises for nonclassified staff and faculty merit-based increases beginning in January.
“He’s always going to be thinking about collaborations and partnerships that will not just make us better, but hopefully will make the state stronger,” O’Rourke said.
Working together with not just other higher education institutions but state lawmakers has been one of Saliman’s longtime priorities, he said. While working with the Legislature, Saliman has made it a point to discuss CU’s total largest expense: compensation.
“We know that we live in a competitive environment where people have options,” Saliman said. “We want to retain our faculty and staff. They’re the ones that do the work. They’re the ones that educate our students and provide our students services every day.”
O’Rourke said Saliman also understands how to work with the campuses both individually and collectively in an effort to help the university accomplish its goals while also meeting the state’s needs.
“Todd will be really great at being able to work with the campuses and the Board of Regents without trying to jam us into ‘his vision.’” O’Rourke said. “I think he wants to be able to unlock the tools that will allow each campus to be successful, but they’re going to chart their own path.”
Answering the call
A recent diversity, equity and inclusion survey produced a lot of data and is now leading the way for work at each of CU’s campuses.
With the Campus and Workplace Culture survey in hand, each campus now has a roadmap to begin addressing its shortfalls, Saliman said. Although the individual campuses will meet with groups or departments to implement changes, he said he also recognizes the importance of hearing from the individuals on the ground.
“This spring I visited each campus, and I met with a student group, a faculty group and a DEI group,” he said. “I talked to them exactly about these things — about what is going well and what they thought needed to change, and I am going to go back this spring to do that again.”
Saliman has also dedicated himself to outreach and engagement work, which he will use to help attract people from rural parts of the state to CU, he said.
“Our campuses are big and can be pretty different from a rural community, but we have a lot to offer to every person in this state and to every community in this state,” he said.
Over the past few years, the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization had been widely criticized for its affiliation with John Eastman, who served as its visiting professor while making unproven claims of widespread election fraud at former President Donald Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021, rally in Washington.
Since then, Denver organization New Era Colorado has created a petition calling for the center’s dissolution, saying it promotes a “white supremacy culture.”
But Saliman said Eastman needs to be separated from the center and its work.
“I think it’s important to separate his appalling behavior from the work that the Benson Center does every day to foster an environment where we can hear different opinions on the campus,” he said.
Saliman said maintaining conservative thought on campus is another way CU Boulder can continue to fulfill its DEI goals.
“I think the Benson Center has an important role in being a part of that forum for diverse communication on the campus where we hear from all perspectives,” he said. “There is no way we as a society can move forward during difficult times if we can’t find a way to listen and hear each other, and I think they are part of that.”
Although Saliman acknowledges each campus has a ways to go to fulfill its DEI goals, one faculty member has taken notice of his efforts thus far to adhere to his promise.
When CU released its strategic plan, Jennifer Ho, director for CU Boulder’s Center for the Humanities and Arts, read through it. With a background in diversity, equity, inclusion and access — she focused on the third pillar — DEI.
Ho realized the only racial group missing from almost every campus report was Asian Americans.
“Only Colorado Springs listed Asian Americans,” Ho said. “Denver listed Pacific Islanders. I think Anschutz does the same thing — they leave out Asian Americans — but they list Pacific Islanders.”
If all Asian Americans are lumped together, the group is overrepresented at higher education institutions in the U.S., but what the strategic plan failed to do was desegregate the racial group, Ho said.
“It leaves out really significant groups of Asian Americans that are very much underrepresented in higher education,” Ho said. “It leaves southeast Asians from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos –, and it doesn’t include the number of Pakistani Americans.”
Rather than turn to Twitter — her usual medium to share her thoughts — Ho decided to send then-interim President Saliman an email. She also included CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano, CU Boulder Provost Russell Moore and CU Boulder COO O’Rourke.
Ho sent the email on a Friday and by Tuesday, O’Rourke had replied, assuring her that Saliman would get the email. That following Thursday, Ho was on a virtual meeting with Saliman, she said.
“I fully expected (Saliman) to say, ‘This didn’t happen under my watch, but there is nothing we can do about it now,’” Ho said. “Within like two or three minutes, he was like, ‘We are going to change the strategic plan.’ I was at UNC (University of North Carolina) Chapel Hill for years — this would never have happened.”
Ho said she gives credit to Saliman for taking the time to meet with her and for making the changes.
“He is not running on his own ego,” Ho said. “He is actually open to feedback. He said, ‘I am totally embarrassed and really sorry.’”
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