By cvlopez |

IT was a conversation Michele Lueck started at the October meeting of the Adams State Board of Trustees. The board chair told her fellow Trustees to begin thinking about the type of campus and university they want Adams State to be.

She was reflecting on the latest fall enrollment figures that showed 1,313 students pursuing an undergraduate degree at Adams State versus the 1,268 graduate students who are earning a master’s degree or higher.

Is Adams State an undergraduate university with a graduate student population that it also serves? Or has Adams State, because of the challenges of finding enough traditional 18- to 23-year-olds to pursue a bachelor’s degree, morphed into more of a university for graduate students?

In essence, what is the future of Adams State? That’s what the chair of the Board seemed to want to open up for conversation with her fellow board members during the meeting on Homecoming weekend, only to be pressed for time to move the meeting along.

We later ran into her at Safeway on the Saturday of Homecoming and picked up the conversation of Adams State and what she was saying at the board meeting. She’s a friendly sort and through her years coming into Alamosa as an Adams State trustee has found her own comfort with the San Luis Valley.

Lueck is executive director of Partners for Children’s Mental Health at Children’s Hospital Colorado, and through her experience in public health she has found other opportunities to embed with the health and wellness community that serves the San Luis Valley.

As chair of the Adams State Board of Trustees, she carries clout in the decisions the Trustees make and have made in regard to the operations of the university and who leads it as president. Her term as Adams State trustee expires December 2023. 

We agreed to set up a phone interview to follow up and had that conversation this week. What follows is an edited transcript of the Zoom call. 

We got into the enrollment figures and outlook; her follow-up thoughts on undergraduate and graduate student populations; and her impressions of interim President David Tandberg and an exchange on whether or not he’s now a candidate for the permanent appointment.

Alamosa Citizen: I’m just going by recollection, but I think you said ‘We need to think about what type of university is Adams State? Is it an undergraduate university with a graduate population or are we now turning into a graduate school that also has undergraduates?’ And I’m assuming you were going off the latest enrollment numbers that show graduate students and undergrads pretty close in terms of numbers. 

Michele Lueck: Yeah. It’s interesting to see what people pick up on and what is left for another day, right?

Alamosa Citizen: What were you thinking of? What seed you were planting?

Michele Lueck: Sure. So, let me see if I can pull this up (she works to pull up an attachment on her computer) because one of the things is that with David’s (Tandberg) leadership, there’s been a lot of transparency about enrollment and I think that’s been really clarifying for the Board in terms of looking at not only the year-to-year, semester-to-semester kinds of changes, but trend over time. 

And I really applaud David and Kent Buchanan for surfacing these issues with the Board. So that’s what we want to be, effective partners and strategists and advisors to the Adams State administration as we really sort of delve in and tackle this issue of enrollment.

‘What does it mean when we have almost as many online graduate students as we do undergrad students? Do we think of ourselves differently? Do we position ourselves differently? I don’t know if we have an answer to that, but I do think it’s worth asking the question.’

– Michele Lueck

Michele Lueck: There’s a lot of things on the public record that indicate that we have a sort of laser focus on both recruitment and retention. That’s an area of deep, ongoing concern for us. And the October board meeting provided us with a lot of optimism, changes in strategies or the articulation of really concrete strategies. We saw some mapping work and we’ve seen some investment in recruitment efforts.

But I also, and at the same time, I think that Adams is a very complex higher ed institution and it’s worth the board thinking through all the different aspects and all the different facets of what it means to be Adams State University. And where we have unfortunately seen declines year over year and the trend line is definitely trending in a way that we don’t want it to trend. I think that we have some really good strategies in place to fend that off in future semesters and years.

I think this year we’re holding steady (undergraduate). But at the same 10-year period, year-over-year in the last decade, we’ve seen this very steady increase on the graduate side of the house. And so I think the visibility of the campus and the football games, the homecoming parade, and the convocation and all of the activities that the theater and the athletic fields bring a lot of visibility and attention rightly so to the undergraduate program.

But we also have, one of the secrets of our success is this amazing graduate program, particularly in Counselor Ed. They’re at record levels this year. We have wait lists and I think that it’s . . . the Board needs to be attentive to not only who’s on campus but who’s joining the Adams State community through online programs and degrees.

Who’s tapping into Adams State through our Prison Education Program, which is important to us in a variety of ways, including serving the mission of the university. It’s important to think about concurrent enrollment and how we’re trying to sort of ease transition from high school into Adams State.

So my point was for us to just take a moment and think deeply about what that means. What does it mean when we have almost as many online graduate students as we do undergrad students? Do we think of ourselves differently? Do we position ourselves differently? I don’t know if we have an answer to that, but I do think it’s worth asking the question.

Alamosa Citizen: You’ve been through this more than once. You’ve been through new presidents, you’ve felt the optimism of new presidents, you’ve felt the optimism of enrollment strategies. You’ve articulated a lot of what you’ve said just now. You’ve articulated that in the past with other administrations because you’ve been in there. So I guess the question is, what are you feeling, yourself, that’s different this time that you didn’t feel when Cheryl Lovell started? And you were very bullish and very optimistic with her and her strategies of enrollment and all the same things, right? What are you seeing or what is different this time? Time will tell, right?

Michele Lueck: Yeah, time will tell. We’re facing some very daunting demographics writ large as a country. The age group that we typically think of as being undergraduate students, that 18-to-24 group, is declining across the country. President Tandberg points out appropriately it’s declining across the country, but it’s not declining in the San Luis Valley. And he cited some demographic trends that should let us be more optimistic.

I don’t know the answer to your question. I think the most important job of the board is to hire a president and support that president to the best degree possible. What I do see in the current administration under President Tandberg’s leadership is a forthrightness and a level of transparency with the data. If you look at that enrollment report, it’s very different than enrollment reports that have been delivered to the Board in the past. I think that the dynamics of the Board meeting, there’s much more dialogue between the senior administrative team, not just President Tandberg, but the senior administrative team and the Board. And I have not seen that kind of conversation and collaboration in my experience at Adams. I think that’s fair to say.

So we have not changed our minds about anything, currently. The terms of President Tandberg’s agreement with the board is to serve as interim. We have not publicly done anything differently than that. And that’s probably what I want to share right now.’

– Michele Lueck

Alamosa Citizen: Do you have any thoughts on why you think you have not seen that same type of conversation and collaboration that you’re witnessing or experiencing now? Were there things with Cheryl Lovell or Beverly McClure before?

Michele Lueck: Well, everyone brings their own style of leadership to this, right? And boards are in the position of supporting the president and also supporting the kind of leadership that they provide. And I think stylistically, President Tandberg represents a departure from what I have experienced in the past at Adams.

Alamosa Citizen: Does this concern you then, that you seem to find someone now that you maybe trust more than you did the last people? And are you concerned that this is a temporary situation and you are going to be starting anew when you make a selection on a permanent president? Or have you changed your mind on whether he can stay as president?

Michele Lueck: So we have not changed our minds about anything, currently. The terms of President Tandberg’s agreement with the board is to serve as interim. We have not publicly done anything differently than that. And that’s probably what I want to share right now.

Alamosa Citizen: There are people in the community who think that David will remain as president even though the terms were for him to be interim and he wouldn’t be a candidate for the permanent appointment, and that’s why I ask the question. Are you going to change directions here? And what does that open you up to because you didn’t really go through a process in the search for an interim. You appointed him from the Trustees Board.

Michele Lueck: You don’t have to go far to have that conversation. There’s a lot of excitement about having President Tandberg in his current position. As a Board we have not changed our position, nor have we struck any other agreement with David about this. We have a commitment to the community and when I mean community, I mean the campus, the students, the faculty, the administrators, the classified, the non-classified, the entire community. And that extends to Main Street, the businesses, local leadership, that we will have an open and transparent process and we will do nothing that isn’t open and transparent.

So we have a search committee of over 20 people represented on that search committee. We were pleased by the number of proposals we received from search firms to help us with the search and we are reviewing those proposals right now, but anticipate having a decision at the end of next week about the search firm that we’re going to use to make sure that the process is open and transparent. And that we’re attentively listening to all people in the community, all the stakeholders of Adams State because it plays such a vital role, not only in Alamosa but the whole Valley.

Alamosa Citizen: So it sounds like the door is open for David to potentially be an applicant for the permanent job?

Michele Lueck: Your words.

Alamosa Citizen: Fair enough.

Alamosa Citizen: One last thing here because again, you’ve been very influential on Adams State. You personally, as chair of the Trustees, as a board member, and honestly by all accounts, you influenced the selection of Cheryl Lovell. So let me ask you what went wrong there with you and her? What went wrong? Because in her first year you were both singing each other’s praises and I think she got to the point where she felt very confident in what she was doing based on her conversations with you. And then things went south at some point. And honestly the buzz was the two of you stopped talking and stopped communicating. So what went wrong?

Michele Lueck: I can’t share that with you.

Alamosa Citizen: Okay. That’s fair enough.

Michele Lueck: I wish I could, but I can’t.

Alamosa Citizen: So are you feeling any particular pressure on yourself on making this next decision?

Michele Lueck: For sure. For sure. I’ve spent my entire career in health care, aside from the stint at Adams State. And this is not my day job, but my nights and weekends and fitting it in where I can. It’s interesting to me to come to the realization that the most important thing we can do if we really want to affect and impact the health outcomes of our entire population in our entire state is to invest in education. That’s how much I feel like … And so I feel enormous pressure to get it right. I feel enormous pressure to make sure that we’re responding in attentive ways to the students, to the faculty, to the community, to the families of Adams State. And this is an enormous task. We’re at a critical juncture. Our finances are very strong right now, but they’re fragile and we need to pick the right leader so that we’re not thinking about a semester or a year of success, but a decade of success or another century of success. So the pressure is palpable. I feel it every day.

Alamosa Citizen: Is it any different than last time when you made the selection to replace Beverly McClure and you went with Cheryl Lovell? Is it any different in terms of the weight of the decision?

Michele Lueck: Yeah, personally, I just feel a different sense of gravitas about it. We’re just at a really critical juncture and I think that the Board and I feel the importance and the magnitude of this decision. That’s why we’ve done things much differently than the searches in the past that I’ve been involved in.

We named an interim so that we afford ourselves the luxury of time to do a full search, to do that with transparency, to do it with community input, to have listening sessions, to have an open and broad search. My sense of the history of Adams is that frequently in presidential searches, the urgency of making a decision sort of trumped the sort of latitude of time. You just need time, we have all these state procurement rules that we have to go through to get to even pick a search firm, let alone a slate of candidates, let alone bringing them to campus. And so we want to give this full airing and we want people to have a voice in that. And we don’t want to sidestep the process and we don’t want to circumvent any of it. And I think that that is based on life experience. You bet it is. Right?

Alamosa Citizen: Well, honestly you named an interim last time with the commitment that you’d do a full search and name a permanent. And you took the interim and made the interim permanent. And honestly, I’m going to say it again, it sounds like you’re headed down the same road.

Michele Lueck: Yeah, we are not headed down the same road.

Alamosa Citizen: And if David Tandberg ends up in the position, then we can come back to the conversation and figure out why it wasn’t the same road.

Michele Lueck: Yeah, it’s an entirely different road, Mr. Lopez, that’s for sure.

Alamosa Citizen: Okay. Well I really am interested in your insights on the university because again, you have been in that chair for a bit and not all board members are equal. And I think anyone that’s ever served on a board understands that there are some board members who end up playing heavier roles than other board members, more active roles. And you’ll play a very active role and have throughout your time, in my observations of the Trustees. And that’s why I think you have unique insights from someone who doesn’t live here and someone who only hears things mostly from a distance. And so I find that a fascinating position for you to be in. And you know, no doubt have had an influence on Adams State.

Michele Lueck: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. I can’t speak for other board members. I feel just such a deep commitment to the mission, to the people, to the community. And I take it seriously when the governor, when two governors ask you to do something. And this is an important charge, Chris. And so that’s how it shows up for me.

This story has been updated to include Lueck’s current job title.

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