Chancellor Don Elliman and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock talk at the CU Denver 40th anniversary gala

The University of Colorado Denver, an economic powerhouse in a vibrant city, is providing quality education and building bonds that will fuel the region’s growth for decades to come. And, in the 21st century, CU Denver’s impact will be more global than ever.

Those were key messages delivered in a panel discussion of the university’s significant role in shaping the city, and vice versa, over the past four decades. The panel — featuring Chancellor Don Elliman, Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock and urban affairs scholar Robert E. Lang, Ph.D. — also took a long view into the future, including a look at the challenges posed by fast-changing technologies.

More than 200 people attended “Building on 40 Years of Progress” at the Seawell Grand Ballroom in the Denver Performing Arts Complex on Wednesday evening. The gathering marked the latest in a series of events to celebrate CU Denver’s 40th anniversary.

Paul Teske, Ph.D., dean of the School of Public Affairs, moderated the discussion. Robert Damrauer, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for research and professor of chemistry, kicked things off by giving a nod of appreciation to faculty who have served the university as long as he has — 40-plus years. “None of us could have predicted what would be here 40 years hence, and it’s really quite remarkable,” said Damrauer, who last March spoke on “Becoming a Research University” at another 40th anniversary event. “The effect these people have had on the lives of our students is really remarkable.”

A lively panel discussion ensued on how CU Denver has emerged from humble beginnings to become a diverse campus of 14,000 students, a powerful intellectual center as the city’s only urban research university, and a generator of $600 million in annual economic impact.

“I would hypothesize that if you look 15 or 20 years down the road that the urban campus will in fact have turned out to be an enormous advantage for our university,” Elliman said. “We have to figure out ways to expand on the roles that we’ve already begun to play.”

Hancock, who earned a Master’s in Public Administration from the CU Denver School of Public Affairs in 1995, said Denver ranks second in the nation (behind Washington, D.C.) as most-attractive city to 25-to-35-year-olds. The city gets calls “from people all over the world” interested in relocating here, he said. “This is an exciting ride we’re on and our goal is to help keep it going, and we want to thank the university and the entire campus for what you’ve done to help make it happen. … CU Denver has had an unbelievable, very measurable impact on our downtown.”

Lang, professor of the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs and executive director of the Lincy Institute at the University of Nevada Las Vegas as well as Brookings Mountain West, said Denver was doing things 40 years ago that Phoenix started doing 10 years ago. “I would say that Denver, in almost any major category, is, to be blunt, frightfully ahead of the rest of the Mountain West,” he said.

Big changes are coming, however. Elliman said higher education will see profound change — much on the order of what he saw in 32 years working in the media industry — exponential, unprecedented change, courtesy of technology. “We are much more used to linear change,” Elliman said. “I think our challenge is to try and figure out how we can essentially be the pilots of that plane and not be sitting in row 29B and being dragged along by others. That’s a fascinating challenge and one that I look forward to having a part in.”

Hancock said intellectual capital is a powerful asset of CU Denver. The City and County of Denver wants to engage it through as many student internships and practicums as possible. “We need to bring that intellectual capital into the city and it will be of benefit for all of us,” the mayor said. “Where I’ve seen urban universities be exponentially impactful is when those kinds of formal opportunities exist, and they create a kind of seamless transition between a university and city operations.”

The mayor said CU Denver is key to the city’s goal of creating more cross-global education opportunities for students. “We want to create employment opportunities for these young people that are beyond the boundaries of just this nation … that are part of the 21st century marketplace,” he said. “If we’re going to keep them here, those opportunities must be here.”

Elliman said CU Denver’s No. 1 goal — in concert with the Anschutz Medical Campus, creating an ‘eds and meds’ combination that delivers major economic benefits — is to produce citizens who are productive in a global society. “As we look at CU Denver in relation to Denver we need to figure out ways that we can partner with other aspects of this community to be a very direct benefit to this community,” he said. “And we have a huge advantage in our ability to do that.”

A CU Denver alumnus in the audience asked what’s being done to raise the university’s national profile. Elliman said CU Denver has launched its first serious marketing campaign — “Learn with Purpose” — and is recruiting students “much further afield than we ever have before.” He noted that our university produces more students with master’s degrees than any public institution in the state.

“We’ve got a story to tell and we’re bound and determined to go ahead and do that,” the chancellor said.

Lang said there are many hidden educational assets in the United States. He pointed out that almost every U.S. university that’s on track to the top tier of the Carnegie classification — very high research activity — is located in an urban center. “The schools that are urban based in big cities … are the sort of places poised to make that next move,” he said.

(Photo at top: Chancellor Don Elliman and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock share a laugh during the CU Denver 40th Anniversary celebration.)

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