UCCS Chancellor works to address ongoing issues amid unexpected appointment

Chancellor Jennifer Sobanet was surprised when CU President Todd Saliman called to offer her the position of UCCS Chancellor in December 2023.

The unexpected decision came as a shock to the campus as Chancellor Sobanet had not been a finalist in the chancellor search process, prompting faculty members to host a forum with Saliman and demand answers and transparency.

At the forum, many faculty members were frustrated with Saliman because it felt like he had undermined the concept of shared governance. Some believed that he had set Sobanet up for failure because of this. Saliman explained that he made the decision because he believed Sobanet had the right skillset and experience to address the ongoing issues at UCCS.

For Sobanet, the surprise was an honor because she has grown to love UCCS and its community.

“UCCS is really, really, really special,” Sobanet said. “I was excited because I can see where we can take this university, and to be given the opportunity to get us through some of the challenges that we’re facing, and, at the same time, begin to look at ‘what are these huge opportunities just sitting there waiting for us?’ That was exciting to me.”

These challenges include the ongoing enrollment, budget and morale issues at UCCS.

Declining enrollment

Since 2018, UCCS has seen a continuous decline in enrollment. Last semester’s census date had 10,676 students enrolled at the campus, which was the lowest point in enrollment since 2013.

Sobanet is working alongside vice chancellor for enrollment management Jose Cantu to create a strategic plan that will address the full picture of enrollment by increasing recruitment, retention and persistence for both undergraduate and graduate students.

“This plan will allow us to make very strategic decisions about where we need to invest our time and our financial resources in both increasing the number of students who come here [while] increasing the number of students who persist and continue to graduation,” Sobanet said.

While that plan is being created, Sobanet is working on bringing in new students by bolstering the concurrent enrollment system through matching the community college rate for tuition, so students can attend UCCS while in high school.

Sobanet has also been working with Pikes Peak State College’s president Lance Bolton to make it easier for PPSC students to transfer to UCCS. Part of this means making credits easily transferable through articulation agreements, which is the formal process that authorizes credits to transfer and apply to a UCCS degree.

Back in early December, Sobanet signed a new agreement for the College of Engineering and Applied Science to make it easier for PPSC engineering students to transfer to UCCS in the spring.

The other part involves working with specific programs that serve as pipelines from PPSC to UCCS and allow students to enroll at both colleges, but Sobanet noted that this is a work in progress.

“The vision that [Bolton] and I are looking to achieve is really coming together as partners on this so that students have no problems at all with transferring over to us, and then [they] are already accessing our resources so they’re already comfortable on our campus. It just seems like that natural next step,” Sobanet said.

To increase enrollment even more, Sobanet recognizes the importance of assisting active-duty military members on campus by closing the gap of tuition costs and the federal aid they receive. She has started closing this gap through a tuition grant that eliminates the remaining tuition costs for active-duty undergraduates that their current military tuition assistance doesn’t cover.

While Sobanet said enrollment is slowly turning around, she noted it will take a long time for enrollment to start growing.

“Turning this around does take an enormous effort of everybody in their own roles,” she said. “I think overall, turning this around — that can take a couple of years. And that’s why it’s important that we get started now.”

One-time funding budget issues

Sobanet and her team learned that UCCS has about $14 to $17 million in ongoing activities and positions that are funded by one-time funds, which is money that comes from UCCS’ reserves and may not be funded in subsequent years.

She noted that the funds are going away over the next few years. “More than anything, this is about really strategic, smart [and] proactive financial management,” she said.

Shared governance bodies composed of faculty, staff and student representatives will consult with and recommend to Sobanet which one-time funds should be folded into the ongoing budget, which ones should find other types of funding and which ones should be sunset.

“I think it’s important to understand that we’re not in a crisis situation on this. Instead, this is recognizing that we have this to deal with, and we’re … going to deal with it,” she said.

Sobanet and her team are running budget scenarios for the next fiscal year and sharing it with the University Budget Advisory Committee to ensure that UCCS’ expenses are balanced with the revenue.

“In some scenarios, that creates a deficit, and in some scenarios, it does not. And so, it all depends on the choices that we make around expenses and the ways that revenue comes in or not, um, as time unfolds,” Sobanet said.

Low morale at UCCS

To address the ongoing issue of low morale for faculty and staff on campus, Sobanet has been focusing on improving the culture at UCCS.

Sobanet acknowledged that there have been a lot of issues — the pandemic, transitions in leadership, budget cuts and declining enrollment — that have led to low morale.

To help relieve some stress and burdens for faculty and staff, Sobanet is trying to change people’s daily work life at UCCS.

This involves providing additional days off during the holidays and changing meeting times so they are not held during the morning on Mondays or during the afternoon on Fridays. Additionally, Sobanet is looking at filling vacancies so people don’t have to work multiple roles.

Sobanet has also launched three sets of training intended to build mental wellbeing support for the campus that was introduced this spring:

  • The first set involves a 20-minute Skillsoft video that explores the available mental health resources on campus.
  • The second set is a mindfulness and positivity training that, according to Sobanet, has been effective in the K-12 system in helping students come into their education with less stress. Sobanet wants to use this for faculty and staff too.
  • The third set is a curriculum made by UCCS’ Lyda Hill Institute for Human Resilience, which involves peer support training.  

“So, it’s trying to find the ways that we can help ourselves kind of manage through these tough times, and what I hope is it begins to allow us to have a culture of care and compassion. And that it makes you want to come to work and then enjoy work, and then we can tackle the challenges that we have ahead but also that fun, great vision that we have for what we can be,” Sobanet said.  

Photo of Interim chancellor Jennifer Sobanet, from uccs.edu.