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Interview with Brad Baca, President of Western Colorado University – Kooler Lifestyle Podcast Ep 25

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00:00:01 Matthew Kuehlhorn
I love the the language. I’m hearing a lot of word around collaboration and certainly opportunity. Is that? Mindset of yours. Derived from your upbringing. Have you always been the opter opportunist and has there been a part of Brad?

00:00:24 Brad Baca
Yeah, I I like to think so. I I hope that I have a reputation on this campus and being collaborative. I I certainly respect and admire all the faculty and staff and the great work they do and and and recognize the fact that they’re they’re experts in their fields and so I I like to come into meetings knowing that I’m not the smartest in the room and I like that because I because I don’t feel like I’m not smart so having people that I can rely on to help generate and refine ideas. I really enjoy that kind of energy of the back and forth and so, um, and I’ve, you know, I’ve, I’ve seen it time and time again that. The most successful projects on this campus in this community? My work within the state higher education system.

00:01:19 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Welcome to the Cooler Lifestyle podcast. I’m your host, Matt Kalhorn, and I’m excited to have you join me as I interview community members and business leaders from the communities in which I live, work, and serve through my business cooler garage doors. We’re going to bring you highlights on characters in our communities. Why? Because Community matters, and I want to know more about. Who is behind our business and leadership in order to understand and support the Community fabric that our relationships make up. And collectively, we can build stronger communities that support our lifestyles, our youth, and our health. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Cooler Lifestyle Podcast. I’m your host, Matt Kielhorn, and today I have Brad Baca, Western Colorado University’s president. How are you doing, Brad?

00:02:11 Brad Baca
I’m doing great today, Matthew. How are you?

00:02:13 Matthew Kuehlhorn
I’m doing so good. Where is your office located on campus?

00:02:18 Brad Baca
I’m in Taylor Hall, kind of the old main building that was first constructed, I think in 1911, so I’m on the third floor.

00:02:26 Matthew Kuehlhorn

00:02:26 Brad Baca
Have a great view out to the. Rail jam sighed. If you all had a chance to view that, last week was pretty, pretty amazing. So.

00:02:35 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, it sounded like a great event, a lot of energy in that one.

00:02:40 Brad Baca
For sheriff.

00:02:41 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Brad, I’m curious, where did you grow up?

00:02:45 Brad Baca
I grew up in Trinidad, Co, so I’m probably a rare Colorado native. I was born in Greeley, but I grew up mainly in Trinidad. It was a it’s a wonderful place, much, much like Gunnison, kind of small, rural, tight knit community and, you know, really. I developed a love for smaller towns, smaller communities and kind of what they can provide terms of lifestyle.

00:03:14 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, I love that. And what’s the kind of short, concise story of how this valley find found you and how’d you end Up in Gunnison?

00:03:25 Brad Baca
Yeah. Well, so Bob and my grandparents lived in Poncha Springs and we’d visit them frequently and we had relatives over in guns. And so as a kid it wasn’t uncommon for us to hop in the car and drive over the hill and visit relatives here. So I knew of Gunnison and really liked kind of the character of the community growing up and so. My first, one of my first jobs as a professional was working for the Community College System Office. And so that really allowed me to have exposure to a number of higher Ed institutions. And so I got to know a little bit more about Western. And I was fortunate that a job opened up here in 2002 as a Vice President and I applied and I was fortunate enough to get the job. And so I guess the rest is history. But it was very intentional. I I was like but this is a place where I wanna be. My first son was about to be born didn’t wanna raise him in Denver and said let’s let’s let’s make the move. So it’s great.

00:04:34 Luke
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00:05:16 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Has higher Ed always been on your? Kind of aims your targets.

00:05:22 Brad Baca
Yeah, well, I kind of stumbled on it by accident, to be honest. I had first, my first job was working in the governor’s office, Governor Roy Romer and. My boss at the time, it was kind of in the midst of a an administrative transition. He moved to the Community College System office and I had actually went and started working for K12 education and then he called me up one day and he said, hey, I’ve got a budget director job over here. You interested? And I was like, ohh yes, I’d love to get into higher education and. And so, yeah. The passion, though. Particularly for um. For accessibility and serving student populations that have traditionally been underrepresented has always been something I’ve cared deeply about. And myself, I’m I’m a first generation college graduate of Hispanic descent, and so. So it means a lot for me to be able to serve in this role and to be able to hopefully affect the ability for students across the state of Colorado to know that Western is a place that is achievable for them financially and also academically.

00:06:38 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Wonderful. That’s the thread that I always enjoy hitting on in conversations is seeing, you know, where people’s context kind of drives. What they have going on today and so that first generation. Graduate. Is is meaning something and now that you said in the role today I can see where where that plays and that’s. And I love seeing those. Love seeing that context.

00:07:08 Brad Baca
Or they expand. And yeah, it’s important. We’re developing a new strategic plan here on campus and one of our fundamental goals is improving affordability and access and. Couple of things that we’re working on on that we’ll be working on in that realm is, is you know one is certainly just growing scholarship support through through donor engagement and and one of the programs I’m actually really excited about is a concept called the Gunnison Valley Promise in which any High School graduate and the Gunnison Ballet can attend Western tuition free. I think it’s. Not just something that I think can open up doors or students who may not see higher education as a part of their pathway, but I also think it’s a, it’s an important economic development tool for us because as you know, Matt, it’s harder and harder to live in this valley. And if we could take one of those financial burdens off families in terms of saying, hey, what we got, we got here, higher education covered or at least. That was a significant chunk of that. I think that might hopefully give them the confidence to be able to say, yeah, I can make this work in this valley and so, so yeah, that’s a project I really hope to. Really energize and get going here in the next year or so.

00:08:36 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Awesome. So you’re kind of leading me, which is wonderful because one of my questions is what are you excited about as we go forward? So I’m hearing work on a strategic plan, you’ve been in your role now. I believe over 100 days and I’ve already gotten wind of of you know people enjoying the energy and and the the new leadership that’s in there. So kudos to you. We’re working on the strategic plan. I’m hearing a lot of brown affordability, economic development. I think, you know, having the university in Gunnison is an amazing resource that may still sometimes be under. You know, underrated a little bit. I’m interested from your perspective, how might the community, businesses and Western collaborate even more?

00:09:27 Brad Baca
Oh, I really want to spend a lot of time engaging in that conversation because, well, as you said, I think people. Really appreciate the role that we play as kind of an economic anchor, as a cultural anchor in this valley. I think there’s still a lot more that we can do as a community and having been here for 20 years, I’ve seen. Opportunities that we probably missed as a community in terms of partnership that might have worked. So, so I’m as I as I think about things, we’re already starting to have conversations with some other key entities within the ballet and a good example of that is kind of some valley health. They’ve been a tremendous partner of ours for the last five years or so and we’re looking to partner further. We just submitted a a grant. Application to the state of Colorado to have to receive some planning dollars to develop a nursing program, which you know has as you may know, nursing storages across the nation, across the state are are substantive and in this valley it’s probably even more. Elevated in terms of the need and so looking to to work closely with that with the Gunnison Valley Health to develop a program that really fits their needs. And and so that’s one program housing. I think there’s a ton of opportunity for us to work closely as a community on addressing some of the housing issues because it affects all of us and so you know we’re looking at again some more partnerships with Gunnison Valley Health about perhaps building some. Faculty, staff and some of their professional staff housing on our campus have engaged with the county commissioners on some discussion about, you know, deeding some of Western’s land over to them to do some more affordable or workforce housing on our on our property. And so I’m excited about the opportunities of Gunnison rising and and how that might help kind of expand our footprint and give us as a community and give us more space. Be able to do that. So, so housing and I think just just the opportunity for kind of more in depth engaged academic programming that extends out into community whether that’s behavioral health. Had a calm, great conversation just a couple days ago with Sonia Chavez, who is the general manager of the Gunnison Upper Gunnison Water Conservation District, and about how, you know, we should convene a group of public land agencies and Western to talk about issues of of sustainability, about forestry. I type. It just shifts. There’s so many opportunities and I want to try to turn over as many as I can to make sure that. We’re not just serving our students, which is critical, and their their desires and their needs, but also the community and how we can make this community stronger, more resilient and. Better off economically.

00:12:51 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah. I love the the language. I’m hearing a lot of word around collaboration and certainly opportunity. Is that? Mindset of yours. Derived from your upbringing. Have you always been the opter opportunist and as they’ve been a part of Brad?

00:13:16 Brad Baca
Yeah, I I like to think so. I I hope that I have a reputation on this campus and being collaborative. I I certainly respect and admire all the faculty and staff and the great work they do and and and recognize the fact that they’re they’re experts in their fields and so I I like to come into meetings knowing that I’m not the smartest in the room and I like that because I because I don’t feel like I’m not smart so having people that I can rely on to help generate and refine ideas. I really enjoy that kind of energy of the back and forth and so, um, and I’ve, you know, I’ve, I’ve seen it time and time again that. The most successful projects on this campus in this community, my work within the state higher education system, the most successful projects are those that are done through collaboration. I think it just it energizes people to want to support projects that they feel impact a broader community, a broader set of institutions around. And so, so yeah it’s, I think it’s. Out of my DNA.

00:14:34 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, I think that collaboration and and reducing oneself to not being the smartest person in the room, which is one of my life lessons. This is where possibility, you know, opens up candles.

00:14:48 Brad Baca
And absolutely.

00:14:48 Matthew Kuehlhorn
The realm that. You know, things get creative that one hasn’t even thought about is is that possibility? And yeah, it’s beautiful. Cell did I read recently that there is going to be some motion in the Ohio St. Project this is. Like a project that I’ve heard about for a number of years and maybe a way to further connect Western and the campus to the city of Gunnison and and its own main artery is that. Getting some legs and having some motion done on it.

00:15:24 Brad Baca
You know, Matt, I’m I haven’t checked in on that in a while, so I don’t know. But I will say it, I do believe that some connectivity to downtown Gunnison from the institution is a critical feature and to be able to make an easy. Ability for students to kind of move back and forth I think is. Will be important to you know enhance that connectivity and enhance their involvement and and and the businesses and the activities of downtown down and and so I. That I hope it’s moving forward I but I haven’t I haven’t heard and so would love to continue to explore. I know there’s some leadership transition right now in the city and so hopefully we’ll get a new city manager soon and and look forward to kind of digging in and working with that individual to to really develop that town gown relationship.

00:16:24 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, yeah, degree having that connection would add just. More. Connectivity, more collaboration. I mean, you know, I’ve heard it in the past where we’re a town with a university in it, not necessarily university town. And finding some balance and fine line there would would make a lot of sense. Yes. Brad, what would you like to people to know about Western that? We may not already know.

00:16:56 Brad Baca
Wow, that’s sad. That’s a bit of a hard question, Matt, because I mean we we’ve been such a fundamental piece of this community for what has it been now 110 years. It’s hard for me to to imagine that people don’t know. As much about the university as as I would hope they would. But you know, one, the one thing that I do find fascinating is, and I was just talking to some legislative committees about this. Is just the sheer proportionality that Western represents in terms of population within this city. I think that’s the last time I looked at the numbers. When you look at our students, our faculty and staff, we represent over 30% of Gunnison’s population. Wow. And that is I think quite unique. And I think it’s a, it’s a good reminder for all of us that as the institution, as much as Western goes, the community goes and so kind of gets back to that. That I think that point you made earlier that, you know sometimes we have to be mindful about and think about. How can we support Western to be better, to do better? Because if we can, it’s going to help our community in general. And so. So I think that’s an interesting factoid that perhaps not everybody fully understands or appreciates. And but other than that, I hope people are. Know all the things that we offer in terms of activities to engage with the campus, but I look forward to having more conversations with community members to see, you know, where we’re perhaps not hitting where we should be and if there’s opportunities for us to to better engage, to better serve our Community, I’d love to hear.

00:18:58 Matthew Kuehlhorn
That, yeah, that’s a significant stat 30% that is really. I did not know that. Yeah, it’s pretty impressive.

00:19:09 Brad Baca

00:19:11 Matthew Kuehlhorn
What gets you in the morning?

00:19:15 Brad Baca
You know, about what I tell people, and my first. Our seven months or so that I’ve been on the job, um. The one of the couple things that has really energized me and really made me that I have never done before like I’m doing now, is the engagement with students and building relationships with them, hearing their stories, how they got here, hearing their stories about how things are going, what’s going well, what’s going not so well. And it’s just been, it’s been wonderful to to kind of have that level of interaction with students that I you know, I should have done more when I was in other roles. But but yeah I really believe it’s incumbent on me in this role to get out there and and meet with with the students. So one of my mentors told me once that. Once I got this job, he told me. Hey. And he was a a university president that, you know, you need to get out, you need to talk to the people that you’re serving because you can’t lead an organization. You can’t lead a university if you don’t know what’s on their hearts and minds. And so getting out and engaging with the student population has been a really fulfilling part of this job that I’ve really enjoyed. And it helps get me up in the morning for sure. I love that now that I might have an opportunity to interact and maybe make a difference or let somebody know. That we appreciate them being here and that we’re here to support them and their growth.

00:20:54 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, I love that. For folks that are listening, you know, this goes into Grand Junction. So there’s Mesa down there which can be a fun rival and sporting events. And you know throughout our own community you alluded to, you know, folks knowing how to engage and interact with, with campus and events. Is that through athletics? I mean somebody listening that wants to engage. Maybe further, what are some of those opportunities top of mind? Is it athletic events and certainly those are fun and maybe some recitals and that kind of stuff and.

00:21:32 Brad Baca
Well, yeah, I think it, it spans the gamut from, yes, athletic events, for sure. A good way to engage. Yeah, all the cultural activities that we offer to, whether it’s concerts and and music and and choir, it’s or. For our theater company, I just went last Friday to wonderful. Production of Hamlet by our our our theatre faculty and students and. And I think also like like the rail jam that was a great community event and it brought up a lot of people from the high schools. I I noticed my own kids brought their friends down from CB or from Gunnison and they all kind of went to watch that. And so and then I think that the the academic programming through our center of learning and innovation which is kind of our extended studies branch, you know there’s we’re we’re still kind of developing. How that program can really provide some opportunities for our community to engage academically either in o’brady of ways and so that’s another great way to to engage with us is to to look into that as well.

00:22:53 Matthew Kuehlhorn
I love that and I would imagine the best place to track advances through the website and and maybe social media.

00:23:01 Brad Baca
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. We’re pretty active on social media. We do have a a calendar on our website and we work makes try to work to make sure it’s as populated as as we can make it.

00:23:15 Matthew Kuehlhorn
So yeah. Beautiful. As we wrap up this short conversation, Brad, I’m curious. I know it’s. A number of months in and to what is set U to hopefully be a long and steady tenure? Do you have a hope or a vision for legacy and kind of what you intend to build an archetype and and potentially leave as? They’re the fingerprints of Brad Baca and Western.

00:23:45 Brad Baca
Yeah, been thinking a lot about that. One of the things I conveyed to the campus community this fall as we started off the academic year, is that. Through what I really want to achieve, when when the time is over, I want us to be able to look back as a Community and and and know that that the students were educating today are going to be our storytellers of tomorrow. They’re going to be our ambassadors out wider world. And I want them to be able to say three things consistently. Number one, that Western prepared them for a successful career. The second thing that Western equipped them to make choices based off of their values and to really serve beyond. So it’s not just about. Successful careers, but it’s about um. Fulfilling livelihoods, right. So they’re making impacts in their, their communities and the world. And then the third thing is just generally that without, you know, if it wasn’t for Western, I wouldn’t be here today or where I want to be where I’m at today. If students. Feel that way about their experience at Western. There’s nothing that can can stop us. And so that’s you know, generally right now that’s that’s kind of what I’m hoping we achieve as a campus is that we can build that type of culture, that type of. Programming and and service to our students that that they have that to say when they’re done.

00:25:30 Matthew Kuehlhorn
What I love about that is that is what I can say is a past student and an alumni and. As a as a storyteller, like that’s very true for me. I would not have completed college. If it wasn’t for my experience at Western back in late 19, you know, 1990s and 2000s and beautiful, beautiful.

00:25:55 Brad Baca
Well, great. And I hear that a lot when I’m out there talking to alums is that, you know, Western made the difference and they tend to zero in on a particular person, whether it’s a professor or a staff member who said that person changed my life and made this whole experience transformational. So on that.

00:26:18 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Tradition. Yeah. I’ll shout out to Doctor Barbara Klingman. She was she was my one person that brought me into experiential education. My life was changed. Ever since.

00:26:28 Brad Baca

00:26:29 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, beautiful. And I know there’s a lot of capital improvements. Moneyball is is undergoing a facelift and a reconstruction and it just seems like each year there’s there’s improvements to the campus and and just some. I mean, I think it’s a gorgeous campus and um, you know, kudos. I know that’s a full team work and another collaborative effort to continue improving.

00:26:55 Brad Baca
Yeah. Well, thanks. Yeah. Now we, we do have some more projects on their horizon and got some positive news out of the legislature this this week to hopefully be able to get a couple projects funded for next year, so.

00:27:10 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Awesome, awesome. Brad, I really appreciate your time. I appreciate your your new leadership role in closing the you have any final thoughts?

00:27:21 Brad Baca
You know, I I appreciate you spending time with me, Matt and I you know for all the community that’s listening out there, I I want them to know that, you know, I’m here. I’m available and looking forward to to having conversations about how we can work Better Together to make Western the best we can be. So don’t hesitate to reach out and set up a time. I’d love to have a coffee or a, you know, a chat about kind of your thoughts. O.

00:27:53 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Wonderful. Let’s.

00:27:54 Brad Baca
Let’s do this.

00:27:55 Matthew Kuehlhorn
Yeah, sounds great. Brad, thank you so much for your time today.

00:27:59 Brad Baca
Hey, thank you, Matt.