'Honored and lucky' to take the helm at Western
New president 'stunned' more people don't know about this place
Originally published 2014-02-20
Last Wednesday, Dr. Gregory Salsbury was officially announced as the new president of Western State Colorado University — the 14th in the institution's 100-plus year history.
Since then, Dr. Salsbury has been busy traveling in Canada and was unavailable for an interview. However, he did take the time to respond to a few questions from the Times via email. Below are his answers.
It appears you've had a very successful career in private business. What made you interested in getting into academia, and why the interest in Western in particular?
I started in academia and I have always felt a pull, if not an obligation, to return. I owe a lot of the business success I enjoyed to the education and mentorship I received at a host of institutions, and I am at a point in my life where I can return some of the favor. My family has grown to love Colorado since moving here in 2003 and this opportunity allows us to continue enjoying its splendor.
With regard to the institution itself, I am intrigued with the truly tremendous strengths and opportunities Western offers – great faculty, new and beautiful facilities, a phenomenally supportive community and alumni base, an experienced and supportive board and foundation, and, oh yes, all wrapped in one of the most gorgeous physical settings on the planet. I feel honored and very lucky to be given the opportunity to take the helm.
Since becoming aware of this position, researching, applying and interviewing for it, what have been some of the key take-home lessons you've learned about Western?
There are probably too many to count. But some of the most important lessons have been with regard to the issues facing higher education in general – and Western is not immune to many of these. Most importantly, states are essentially getting out of higher education. Nationwide they now provide about half of what public colleges spend on education – compared to three quarters in 1987. Net tuition revenue (what’s left after subtracting grant aid) has been flat or falling at the majority of schools – while operating costs continue to rise.
Here’s a stat that grabbed my attention: In 1970, Colorado ranked sixth nationally in per person spending on higher education. Today we rank 48th. Fortunately, I believe Western is going to be able to deal with this challenge better than most, but the trend provides constant pressure on the school to continue improving and growing, and manage its funds wisely.
With regard to Western specifically, my biggest lessons were in the area of our quality. I was certainly aware of some the attributes related to our unique location – such as the only nationally certified collegiate Mountain Rescue Team program in the country, and curricula that complement our surroundings, from programs in the natural sciences, environmental studies, and professional land and resource management, to those in outdoor leadership and recreation. And I knew about our business program. But I was not aware that some 90 percent of the faculty holds the highest degrees possible in their fields, or that Western had received the accolades from the likes of Forbes (Top 100 colleges in the West), Washington Monthly, Business Insider (America’s Smartest Colleges), and US News & World Report.
Also, not having examined the campus previously to any extent, I had no idea that the facilities were as stunning as they are – not only beautiful, but technologically, environmentally and functionally advanced. I think a simple campus tour is probably one of Western’s best recruiting tools.
A general consensus around here seems to be that one of Western's biggest advantages, if not its biggest asset, is its location in this mountainous, recreation paradise. Do you agree with this?
Clearly, Western’s location is an asset most universities would love to have. Indeed my sense is that many of our signature programs derive their strengths from a “place-based” characteristic.
However, I have a great deal of learning to do, and the degree to which our location becomes a focal point of our value proposition is too early to tell. But I do see it playing a role.
What do you perceive to be Western's biggest strengths and how will you accentuate those?
I have already touched on many of them here, but if I were summarizing for prospective students and/or their parents, I would probably address quality, affordability and future preparedness (whether that is employment or further education). Western has quality faculty, facilities and academic programs – offering eight of the 10 most popular majors in the country. And that instruction is more like a private school experience with a 17-to-one student to teacher ratio.
Western is affordable. Just since 2000, average tuition costs have increased nationally by an inflation-adjusted 45 percent. And this is while many families are still dealing with the effects of the biggest financial meltdown since The Great Depression. So they are rethinking the wisdom of spending $20K, $30K, $40K and more per year for tuition — and leaving school with student loans so big they look like mortgages on nice homes. We offer a very affordable alternative to all that; and more than 70 percent of our students receive some sort of financial aid.
Western also gives students the skills that employers find hard to come by. I learned, as one example, that we are one of only 10 programs in the whole country to offer a degree in petroleum geology. (By the way, the average starting salary for a graduate in petroleum geology is currently about $74K per year. Western’s professional degree programs are a great complement to our liberal arts core. Students come out well prepared to enter the workforce, or pursue graduate education whether here at Western or anywhere else in the world. And I look forward to helping the university enhance and promote this value proposition.
I could go into much more detail on some of these, but I think that would be my quick elevator speech.
If you could point to one main weakness of the institution today, what would it be and how would you go about correcting it?
Without question, the greatest challenge for Western as well as one of its virtues is that it’s a “best kept secret.” I am absolutely stunned that more people don’t know about this fabulous place. When I was discussing this with the students, they were fairly unanimous in their response to me – “Shhhhhhh!” But I think we can grow enrollment while still maintaining the intimate feel and personal attention that students cherish.
Higher education is an intensely competitive marketplace. What changes do you envision that could strengthen Western's competitive position?
It’s too soon to form opinions or specifics for that one as I have many, many interviews and meetings to conduct with all of the stakeholders. But I think everyone is enthused about a couple of things. Firstly, that Western is not in need of some major transformation; and secondly, that some fairly minor tweaks in a few areas can yield some swift and dramatic improvements.
What's your first priority as President of Western? What do you aim to accomplish in your first, say, three months on the job?
Listen and learn. By the end of three months I would hope to have established solid working relationships with all of the key stakeholders — the faculty, staff, students, community leaders, the board, the foundation and alumni. And I would hope to have a much clearer understanding of Western’s strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities.
In however many years, after your tenure as Western's president is over, what would you hope or expect your legacy to be?
That I left the institution in better shape than I found it — that I moved the ball down the field.
On a personal level, what are a few things about you that you'd like to share with the Gunnison Valley community?
My wife, my son (16), my twin daughters (13), and I are thrilled to be part of the fabric of this great community. We love the mountains, sports and outdoor activities. The kids are leaving all of their friends behind and hoping to make new ones fast, so we look forward to meeting everyone.