Published: June 30, 2021

Last week, CU Boulder wished three of its longtime leaders––Katherine Erwin (Human Resources), Larry Levine (Information Technology) and Gwen Pomper (Enrollment Management)––a wonderful retirement after years of service to the campus. Together, they contributed 58 years of skill and expertise to CU Boulder, and I’m tremendously grateful for all they did to lead their organizations.

So, the question arises: What are their legacies?

For each of them, I could provide a list of things that occurred in their organizations during their watch. Katherine established the HR Service Center and created a dedicated diversity, equity and inclusion unit. Gwen created the Chancellor’s Achievement Scholarship and the CU Promise program. Larry developed a dedicated research computing group and helped us develop learning management systems. All of those things are great and helped propel the campus in the right direction.

But that’s not what I will think about as their legacies. Organizations change and evolve over time. Some programs morph into something else. In 10 years, Human Resources, Information Technology and Enrollment Management may look very different than they do today. In fact, I’ll be very disappointed if their units haven’t changed because lack of change means we’re not doing what’s necessary to serve CU Boulder’s students, faculty, and staff.

Their legacies are not in the programs they created, but instead lie in the type of leadership they provided. Each day, Katherine, Gwen, and Larry brought care, compassion and integrity to their work. They mentored people in their units, listened to their concerns, and focused on making CU Boulder a better place.

Since I joined CU Boulder’s campus, we’ve had to make some challenging decisions. How do we support remote learning? Should we issue housing refunds? How do we make sure employees can work remotely when they need to? Which employees are essential workers who need to be on campus? Do we need to reduce our budget? How do we distribute federal funds to students? Do we need to require furloughs or pay cuts? Do we require employees to participate in COVID testing? Can we require employees to be vaccinated? What exemptions to the vaccine requirement will we recognize?

Every decision was hard.

In these conversations, without fail, Katherine, Gwen and Larry asked the right questions. How will this decision affect employees who have children at home during the pandemic? Will we be able to support students who don’t have good internet access at home? How can students most quickly receive emergency grants? What personal protective equipment do employees need? Their questions focused on the people on our campus, and they looked for solutions to help students, faculty and staff be successful.

Those are legacies to be proud of.

I hope we can build upon those legacies in the weeks, months, and years to come. Not every decision we made in the past year was perfect––far from it. Not every decision we’ll make this year will be perfect, but we’ll be well served if we follow Katherine, Gwen and Larry, ground our discussions and our work in promoting the success of our community, and never lose sight of the fact that every important decision affects people in our organizations.

Putting people at the center of decisions takes conscious effort. I hope it’s an organizational muscle we can learn how to exercise and make stronger. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited that Kristen Alipit, director of organizational effectiveness and engagement in Finance and Business Strategy, is going to be leading a series of workshops through the Innovation Buffs program focused upon the principles of human-centered design. These workshops are based upon bringing human-centered design to our diversity, equity and inclusion work, and you’ll be reading more about Innovation Buffs in CU Boulder Today later this week. I’m hopeful that we’ll use this program to make the campus more inclusive, while also learning how to give a stronger voice to our community, better understanding human needs, and allowing experience to guide our actions.

Why do I like human-centered design principles? The short answer is because I’m a human, and I believe that understanding the problems people face in their lives and in their work is the key to solving them. We do better when we listen, when we ask people to bring their creativity to bear in overcoming challenges, when we recognize opportunities, and when we adapt to changing needs.

Sometimes, we talk about “CU Boulder” or “the campus” or “the university.” It’s a special place with decades of history. Each piece of that history had its foundation because someone cared about a student, wanted to conduct research that would make someone’s life better, or wanted to make sure that someone had a good job.

I’m very grateful to all of you who help us be better people––and I’m grateful to Katherine, Gwen and Larry for sharing their legacies with us.

Have a great July,