If Venkat Reddy viewed his year-old job as chancellor of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs as work, he says he'd be stressed out every minute of every day.
Instead, he reminds himself that doing something good for students is his passion.
"I look forward to coming to work," he said in his office, a few weeks after 1,100 graduates walked across the stage at spring commencement. "Every day is different, and I ask myself how can we make a difference to help someone today."
That motivation gives him the stamina to oversee the state's second-fastest growing university or college, with about 12,550 students and 3,459 employees.
"I draw my energy from the people around me, and when you have the right people on the bus, it's very critical."
Reddy was appointed chancellor in May 2017, after serving as interim chancellor for three months following the retirement of Pam Shockley-Zalabak.
Reddy has worked on the campus for more than 25 years, including 13 as the dean of the College of Business. He also played a key role in developing online education and initiatives locally and throughout the four-campus CU system.
"People think I know everything about UCCS, but I started to discover I really wanted to know UCCS, so I started doing town halls and small-group meetings," he said.
In addition to listening to faculty, staff and students, he's talked to numerous groups in the community, to share his vision and set the course for the future. He also sat down to share his experiences with The Gazette.
Q: Have there been any surprises?
A: The number of stakeholders. There are the students, the faculty and staff, the alumni, the community leaders, the community in general, nonprofit organizations, for-profit businesses, the regents, the legislators. People love this campus and want to see it succeed. One of the things UCCS has done is build collaborations, and I am continuing that.
Q: What are the challenges?
A: Resources. Less than 8 percent of our funding comes from the state. One-third of our students are low-income, and many are first-generation. There's a $7 million gap of what students want in assistance and what we can provide them every year.
We need to step up fundraising, diversify revenues (and) find new financial models. These are challenges but also opportunities. We need to look for creative solutions.
Free speech is a local and national issue. I'm all for free speech; I believe we should teach our students how to think and not what to think. Students come to college to learn, and it's our job to expose them to all kinds of ideas. The challenge is how do we embrace that and still provide a safe environment. When it starts getting violent, you start to have problems. It becomes a question of can we afford the security for the speakers that come here?
The one thing that bothers me the most right now is student mental health issues. Anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of students entering universities today are coming in with mental health issues.
We've hired more counselors over the years, but we're not able to keep up with the demand. The top three issues are anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
This is not just a higher education problem. It spans K-12 from where the students come, and the community, where they go after college. We need to find a solution together.
Q: What will the passage of Senate Bill 18-086, "Cyber Coding Cryptology for State Records" mean?
A: Gov. Hickenlooper signed the bill Wednesday, and we were there. It provides $1.8 million to UCCS to fund student scholarships, hire expert staff and conduct research in cybersecurity and related technologies. Fifteen percent will go to scholarships for students. Another $1 million will go to the National Cybersecurity Center, located on UCCS property, to help build programming for the state center that will work with federal and state agencies on cyber-based criminal and national security threats.
Money also is being provided to Pikes Peak Community College, Metro State University, Colorado Mesa University and Colorado State University.
More than a half a million jobs are going begging in the cybersecurity area. We have started a consortium of 22 schools in four states that are training in cybersecurity. This money should help us start to put out the workforce that's needed. We'll be training executives and workers and will work closely with national and local military installations.
Q: What's the status of the National Cybersecurity Center building, which was formed 10 years ago as an office of the United States Department of Homeland Security and now is housed in UCCS property at 3650 N. Nevada Ave.?
A: The center is in place and trains people already working in professions. We have started capital construction fundraising to build classrooms, labs and offices and provide a state-of-the-art environment for training. We estimate it will cost $12 million to complete the renovations.
Something unique we will do is build expertise in both the technical and the behavioral side of the industry. When people think of cybersecurity, they think of firewalling themselves. What about when the threat comes from inside the company? We need to build that ethical culture, with risk management and good processes.
Q: What is your new program to address the nursing shortage?
A: We worked closely with UCHealth Memorial to try a program in which Memorial selects 24 registered nurses to do two years of school at our Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences, to complete their bachelor of science in nursing degree. Another 24 will be added each year. The first class will graduate in the spring of 2020, and they are providing significant scholarship money to make sure out-of-pocket expenses are minimal. Once the need was so highly put out there - a bill passed in Colorado this year for community colleges to do four-year nursing degree completions - we said let's find some focused solutions that really addresses the need in our community.
Q: Where does the new sports medicine center stand?
A: Later this year or early next year we hope to put a hole in the ground for the William J. Hybl Sports Medicine Center. We are still partnering with Centura Health on this center, which will have the potential for 1,000 exercise science majors with doctors and faculty working together to serve high-performance athletes, first responders and others.
Q: The new baseball field just opened. What's up next?
A: An indoor practice field will open in June or July, with a track and field and turf for interior practicing. The renovation of the College of Engineering will require another fundraising effort, which we are in the middle of. That college is growing rapidly and is in an old building.
Q: After experiencing years of explosive growth, what are enrollment projections for the coming academic year?
A: There are fewer numbers of students coming out of high schools, and with continued changes in demographics and good economic times when fewer people go to college, we will not have such rapid growth. We are planning for steady 2 percent growth per year.
We also are planning for a strategic focus on improving retention and graduation rates. Students are coming in, and we don't want to leave them without a degree. They leave for many reasons - financial, they can't cope.
We've built a partnership with Pikes Peak Community College for dual enrollment and dual admission, meaning students can do classes at PPCC to get up to speed to come to UCCS. We need to increase access for all students, increase internships and study abroad opportunities, and provide campus employment for students.
Q: What are your retention and graduation rates?
A: We have a 47 percent six-year graduation rate, which is the one to look at since many of our students work and go to school. Our retention rate of freshmen students is 65 to 68 percent, which is where our peers are at but which we'd like to see go up as well.
Q: What's your overall vision?
A: It's not sophisticated. Helping students succeed is our goal. We do that in everything we do - by hiring the best and brightest faculty and staff, by increasing diversity, by helping affordability with scholarships, by providing internships, by helping kids stay healthy with fresh food, by collaborating with other organizations.
I challenge the community to find their spot. We already have a $500 million economic impact, and we need the community to align with us. A strong university means a strong community with strong future leaders.