Published: July 1, 2013
Raised on her family's popcorn farm in Iowa, Jill Tiefenthaler fell in love with the academic world and college lifestyle two weeks after she became a student at St. Mary's College, an all-women's liberal arts college in South Bend, Ind.
"I decided I never wanted to leave. So far, so good," she joked recently, during the first Pearls of Wit & Wisdom community lecture series, presented by the PILLAR Institute for Lifelong Learning.
On the heels of serving for four years as the first female provost of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., Tiefenthaler became the president of Colorado College on July 1, 2011.
She wanted the job here so she could return to what she says transformed her life - a small, liberal arts college environment. Two years into her tenure as the 13th president since CC's founding in 1874, Tiefenthaler says she's excited to lead a strategic planning process to carry the institution into the future.
Q: What's been your biggest accomplishment so far?
A: "Having the patience to spend a year getting to know the college and the community before we decide where we're going. We collected input from the students, faculty, staff, trustees and the community, and traveled around the country to meet with alumni, to allow the voices to come through."
Q: What's the status of the strategic plan, which will be implemented this academic year?
A: "After one year of listening and a second year of planning, it was sent to the printer last week. The board will review the plan in a month. One of the big focuses is more support for doing everything, from faculty and finance and student sides. Growing our summer programs, and looking at our relationship with the community, our effectiveness as a workplace and our students in the changing world also are included."
Q: CC's relationship with the community has been a point of debate for decades. What do you plan to do differently?
A: "My predecessor, Dick Celeste, did a lot to connect CC with the community. I'd like to do programs in collaboration, using the intellectual resources we have in service to the community. Community-based research, whether grant writing or data gathering, could make a high impact. We were involved with the Waldo Canyon fire restoration using GIS (Geographic Information System), showing students and faculty can bring their 21st century skills to the community."
Q: CC has a draft transportation plan that proposes narrowing stretches of Cascade and Nevada avenues to one lane, which has raised concerns. What are your thoughts?
A: "We're working through community input. We feel it's really important to have a vibrant campus and community where students are safe and engaged. We want to work with our neighbors to make it safer and more pedestrian-friendly for the entire area. I'm looking forward to this collaborative effort."
Q: CC raised its tuition, room and board, known as the comprehensive fee, 5.95 percent for the 2013-2014 school year, for a total of $54,534, not including books, travel and other expenses. That's on top of a 4.5 percent increase in 2012-2013. What do you think about the cost?
A: "Our sticker price is very expensive, but it's very deceiving - 40 to 50 percent of our students receive need-based financial aid and qualify with up to about $200,000 in annual income. At state schools, the sticker price is what you pay because the subsidies for higher education come from the state. Our subsidies come after the sticker price.
We have a $600 million endowment, and 40 percent of the earnings support financial aid. The net price for any CC student on financial aid is a little over $20,000, which is more comparable to state schools. The average student debt at graduation is $26,000; we're at $19,000."
Q: What will students get for their money this year?
A: "The comprehensive fee will allow us to enrich academic programs, fund the operation of the new fitness center, continue to invest in technology and sustainability, upgrade student residences and better support career development and internships. In addition, we will increase financial aid and provide normal staff and faculty salary increases."
Q: What's your argument for the value of a liberal arts education, given our career-oriented society?
A: "A liberal arts education has never been more relevant. I've read statistics that say our students will hold 30 jobs over their lifetime. Critical thinking, writing, great public relations skills, being comfortable with people who have a different background - those skills are absolutely critical to learn.
We used to see higher education as a public good. We've moved away from that and now see higher education as a private benefit. We talk about how much money we're going to make, based on our degree, and how many students will get jobs, and for a liberal arts college, that's a struggle. Often, the most important things aren't measurable or quantifiable. It's about being fulfilled in life and having a life of learning."
Q: What's your leadership style?
A: "Servant leadership. The best leadership is not about being above others or barking orders or sitting in the corner office, but using that platform to inspire people. When I got this job, my dad asked me what it feels like to be the boss, and I said I'm the boss over no one. The only way to get things done in higher education is persuasion. It's not about power and authority. I often see my job as the really strong cheerleader at the bottom of the pyramid. It's about lifting up other people."
Q: What's the best advice you've ever gotten?
A: "It was from a venture capitalist, whose job was to find under-performing companies, buy them, turn them around and sell then. He told me the head of an organization should do three main things: Set the vision and strategy and communicate them to the stakeholders; recruit and retain the best talent for the organization, delegate and create accountability; and make sure there are enough resources to realize the vision. Overall, that rubric can be applied to any leadership position."
Q: You've been married for 23 years to Kevin Rask, whom you met while earning your master's degree and Ph.D. at Duke University. You have two children, Olivia, 14, and Owen, 12. How do you balance your life?
A: "The secret to balance is being present. When I'm at work, I'm focused on work. When I'm at home, my attention is on my family."