September 3, 2023

Shake up or break up?

Prof says FRCC’s Larimer campus should go its own way, but leaders back a new plan for togetherness

FORT COLLINS — It was once a separate entity. Should it be again?

What is now the Larimer campus of Front Range Community College had been the Larimer County Vocational-Technical Center until it was absorbed into FRCC’s system in 1988, but at least a few professors there now think it’s time the northern outpost declared its independence.

“The Larimer Campus could easily stand on its own,” wrote Jeff Borg in an April 28 op-ed column in the Loveland Reporter-Herald. “With our roughly 11,000 students, we would become the sixth largest of the 13 community colleges in Colorado.”

But as Neil Sedaka sang, “Breaking up is hard to do.”

FRCC president Colleen Simpson said that “whether the campus could stand on its own is very questionable. Instead of creating a whole new administration and support staff for a new college,” she said in an email to BizWest along with several other college officials, “it makes more sense to work together and share those costs so that we can focus our limited resources on our important work of teaching and learning.”

Toward that end, the college is launching a restructuring plan to further unite its three campuses instead of separating them. It includes the unification of deans and vice presidents, as well as reorganization of entire academic departments and chairs across the college. That last part, especially, sparked Borg’s call for secession.

The mission of any community college “is right in the name: to serve its community,” wrote Borg, who for 18 years has led FRCC’s political-science faculty in Fort Collins, The Larimer campus for years “has been held back in this mission by an unwieldy structure which yokes us to two very different campuses in very different communities,” he wrote. “It is time to change this.”

Borg’s view was echoed by Niroj Bhattarai, who was hired in 2008 as lead faculty member in FRCC’s economics department and became department chair of the department of social and behavioral sciences, encompassing 10 subjects and 60 to 70 adjunct professors. Although formal conversations about restructuring didn’t begin until fall 2022, Bhattarai left FRCC three years earlier, frustrated by reasons including increasing pressure to maneuver the processes through multiple administrators on different campuses. He now serves as an assistant professor of economics at Colorado State University and director of its online economics program.

“One of the reasons I decided to leave was seeing all the resources that were being wasted trying to be one college when these three campuses serve different geographies and different cultures,” Bhattarai told BizWest. “Trying to get along under one roof was wasteful in terms of both money and morale.

“We had to do a lot of politicking, and I hated that,” he said, especially “trying to go get a dean’s approval from other campuses. You had to massage the process, drive down there, set up meetings. A lot of times, I’d have ideas, or my faculty would, but it ended up being a waste of time.

“Some of these conversations are better done in the hallway if you run into someone,” he said. “It’s more organic.”

Citing the population growth in Northern Colorado, he said a Larimer campus should focus more on reaching out to communities such as Fort Collins, Estes Park, Timnath, Loveland and Windsor instead of having its resources divided with campuses in the Denver-Boulder area. “If they’re going to do that,” he said, “maybe they should join with other community colleges in the metro area instead.”

While still at FRCC, Bhattarai told panelists on the Higher Learning Commission, a regional accrediting body, that “We feel like a satellite campus. The faculty here are very innovative. There’s lots of benefit to be had with a direct connection with CSU, and all that was thwarted by trying to be one.

“I was told it was for economies of scale,” the economics professor said, “but the economies of scale at the college level are limited because most of the areas where this could be achieved (such as curriculum, IT networks and servers, and learning-management systems) are already provided by the central Colorado Community College System, where truly meaningful economies of scale are realized.” 

The college’s foundation also provides some funding, he said, “but  a lot of the fundraising events are taking place down at golf courses in the metro area.”

Bhattarai called the reorganization plan “horrible.”

“So a faculty member in Fort Collins is going to see some adjunct in Westminster that they’ve never met? No face-to-face conversations in an environment that’s supposed to be face to face? This is going to change it to something that’s more like a multinational corporation.”

The simple solution, Bhattarai said, is that “you just split, and this campus can chart its own course. Like Jeff wrote, that would put the community back into the community college.”

Along with its original campus in Westminster and a Boulder County campus in southwest Longmont, nearly 25,000 students are enrolled at FRCC, making it the largest institution in the Colorado Community College System.

The Larimer campus at 4616 S. Shields St. in Fort Collins is FRCC’s largest. For the school year from summer 2022 to fall 2023, it had 6,407 students taking classes on campus and 4,087 “concurrent enrollment” students who are taking some FRCC classes at their high schools. The Westminster campus at 3645 W. 112th Ave. was second, with more than 500 more students on campus — 6,941 — but just 2,945 high schoolers taking FRCC classes concurrently. The enrollment figures were 2,824 and 1,302, respectively, at the Boulder campus at 2190 Miller Drive in Longmont. The median age of FRCC students is 23.

Besides grouping its 37 career and technical programs into six “communities” that are made up of similar fields of study — business and information technology; health sciences and wellness; liberal arts, communication and design; math and science; manufacturing, automotive and construction technology; and social sciences, education and public service — FRCC also offers online learning, apprenticeships, general educational development (GED) testing, English as a Second Language classes and continuing education.

FRCC is also adding two new associate’s degrees in optics technology and precision machining this fall, although it will still offer certificates in both programs. Those courses are based at FRCC’s Center for Integrated Manufacturing in Longmont. It also will offer additional Spanish classes. Officials say all the new programs are due in part to feedback from industry partners who cite a shortage of qualified professionals in each field.

Two more bachelor’s programs are planned for introduction in the 2024-25 academic year: one degree in cybersecurity and one in business administration.

According to the Community College Baccalaureate Association, Colorado is one of 11 states where all community colleges in the system offer bachelor’s degrees.

The numbers at FRCC are big for any community-college system.

In 2022, the college awarded 1,912 associate degrees and 3,764 professional certificates. FRCC offers almost 200 associate degrees and certificates, as well as bachelor’s degrees in nursing and geographic information systems, and has added a third this fall in business for creative industries.

“One might think there would be advantages and efficiencies to being large. In fact, just the opposite is the case,” Borg wrote. “Our structure has produced a bloated bureaucracy with overlapping and sometimes conflicting responsibilities. Time and money are consumed in travel between campuses for college-wide meetings, and the campuses wrangle and bargain over policies that end up pleasing no one. Most of our shared college infrastructure, like our online learning management system, is shared by the entire state community college system — so no advantage there.”

Simpson acknowledges that “the college’s old structure had some unnecessary bureaucracy with overlapping and sometimes conflicting responsibilities. That’s just one of the reasons FRCC has been restructuring — to reduce unnecessary duplication. With limited resources, we need to be very prudent with our spending. … Our efforts to restructure FRCC also address the need to foster greater unity among the college’s distinct physical locations (and our online learning offerings) in order to build a more cohesive and successful college experience for our students, while continuing to celebrate the uniqueness of each campus.”

Through that reimagining of FRCC’s organizational chart, Simpson said, “we are streamlining our administrative structures, academic programs and student services by boosting our effectiveness and efficiency, enhancing coordination, improving and streamlining communication, enhancing our systems and tools, and breaking down silos.”

Branching off as a new college would “unnecessarily duplicate all the administrative costs of running a college,” Simpson said. “Keep in mind that if any campus were to become its own college, that would increase the total amount of bureaucracy. With all the non-teaching-related costs of running a new college” — including human resources, information technology, finance, purchasing, facilities, the financial-aid staff and registrar — “that money would be better spent on teaching and making sure our students succeed.”

Front Range Community College, Fort Collins sign
An entry sign at Front Range Community College’s Larimer Campus in Fort Collins. Christopher Wood/BizWest

However, the restructuring plan left some faculty members uneasy, with Borg saying it has given “new urgency” to the Larimer campus’ “need for independence.”

Mike Smith, who teaches in Larimer’s science department, told the campus newspaper, The Reporter, that “the idea of a reorganization is not an inherently bad idea, but the thing is, faculty has been almost completely excluded from any decision making.”

Smith said staff members have pointed out problems but feel ignored by the cabinet members. But Simpson attributed the complaints to natural resistance to change.

“This is a transformational change, and we all know that change can be challenging and scary at times,” she said. “That’s why we’ve given employees and teams around the college a lot of room for discussion and input on many of the more detailed decisions. Cabinet-level leaders aren’t involved in most of those discussions about specifics; rather, teams are working directly with their supervisors to figure out what will work best for them.”

Lilian Clemente, FRCC’s executive director of strategic marketing and communications, said that after joining FRCC in August 2022, Simpson “started out by hosting more than 50 Listen and Learn sessions with teams across the college throughout the fall. She hosts monthly virtual College Conversations where all employees are invited to ask questions or bring up any issues for FRCC’s senior leadership team to address. Throughout each semester, faculty and staff are regularly invited to campus gatherings, town halls and meetings where attendees are welcome to ask questions and share ideas or concerns. Employees are consistently encouraged to bring any questions, concerns and/or suggestions and solutions to their supervisor or the leadership team. That is not going to change. In the fall, we will continue to have monthly open hours for faculty and staff at each campus.”

Smith described those meetings quite differently, however. “The meetings consist of the administration giving us pre-scripted questions and not allowing us to ask our own questions,” he said.

Simpson said she also hosts “regular informal open hours for all faculty at each campus to come talk and share ideas. In the spring semester at Larimer Campus, a good number of faculty members took advantage of that time by coming to talk and share their thoughts. They are showing up, and we are having good conversations,” she said. “At no point has creating a new college — or splitting off a campus — been brought up.”

Smith said the process of removing duplication may do more harm than good because deans and vice presidents may have to drive back and forth between the three cities and schedule countless Zoom meetings.

“Larimer faculty, already used to feeling that our creative ideas are lost to an unresponsive Westminster administration, are widely skeptical of this plan,” Borg wrote, “and students are already confused and unsettled by its uncertainties and complications.”

Simpson responded that she was “sorry to hear that some of our Larimer campus faculty members have grown ‘used to’ that feeling — but it’s my goal to change this. Since I started at FRCC last August, we have been intentionally working to create a culture of care on each campus.”

Added public relations director Jessica Peterson, “Our restructuring efforts over the last year have been an ongoing, collaborative process with input from faculty and staff throughout the college. FRCC’s leadership team has taken a cooperative approach in working with employees, and they have made additional efforts to partner specifically with faculty.”

Simpson said the reimagining of the college “is designed, first and foremost, to remove obstacles for our students and to improve student success. The FRCC community has expressed a desire to create more efficient processes and better consistency — to make our college easier for both students and employees to navigate. That is what our restructuring effort is designed to do, for the entire college, and that is how we will measure success.”

Peterson said Simpson also sends two official communications each month to all FRCC employees to share the latest news and remind folks how to share their feedback. “We also have a page on our intranet dedicated to sharing detailed information about the college’s restructuring efforts,” she said. “In addition, the administration has done a survey of all employees and shared the results with faculty and staff collegewide.”

As for students, Simpson said, “I also hosted meet-and-greets for the student body throughout the year, in addition to meeting with the Student Government Association at each campus. These have been open agenda meetings where they can bring up any issues or concerns and ask any questions they have. These are the students that represent our student body, and I am not hearing from them that students are confused or unsettled. I hope they would come to me if that were the case.”

Borg wrote that, “in the new plan, academic departments will no longer be campus-based, but college-based. Under this awkward arrangement, students on one campus might want help from department chairs and support staff, only to find that they are based on another campus. Adjunct faculty might find themselves working with and for full-time faculty based on another campus. Full-time faculty might have a department chair at another campus and an academic dean at yet another.”

However, Gabriel Castaño, FRCC’s vice president for student success, pointed out that “students are increasingly mobile and no longer exclusively connected to one physical location. With 44% of Larimer Campus students taking at least one online course, we know our students live and work along the Front Range and benefit from using our student support services across all of our three campus locations.”

Rebecca Woulfe, the college’s vice president for academic affairs, said that “every individual program at FRCC also has a lead faculty member or program director” to whom part-time instructors report. Those positions, she said, “will continue to be campus based. An important part of their role, she said, is to “maintain a significant campus presence in order to respond to the needs of students, their department, college, and community.” This is not changing under the new structure, she said.

The Larimer campus already houses both academic deans and student-services deans, Woulfe said, and that will not change. Students will continue to be able to meet with them in person, if that’s their preference, she said, and no Larimer campus deans have been asked to move to another campus.

“As for deans or chairs who may be housed at a different campus,” she said, “they will create flex workspaces at each campus and will be available to meet in person with students and faculty.”

When employees need to collaborate with their colleagues virtually, said JoAnne Wilkenson, the school’s vice president for human resources, “we have the tools to do so. This is nothing new; many of our departments have been collegewide (not campus based) for many years, so virtual meetings are already commonplace at the college.

“One of the things the COVID pandemic taught us is how to work and collaborate with people in different physical locations,” Wilkenson said. “Of course, there are times when face-to-face meetings work best, and that will absolutely be an option. But for many straightforward interactions, video/phone or email conversations work very well for us as they do in most organizations.”

Borg wrote that the Larimer campus “has traditionally had our own vice president, our own faculty senate, and our own student government. Well, no more.” He charged that the “ill-advised one-college reorganization plan … will effectively concentrate more power at the Westminster campus.”

Simpson, however, said the restructuring plan “is actually designed to do just the opposite. It aims to ensure that all of FRCC’s campuses have equitable resources and representation in college decision making. Our new model is already creating better alignment of teams and streamlining our processes, while keeping students at the center of everything we do in order to support their success. The intention has always been for FRCC to continue working together as our existing three campuses.

“Although each campus offers different academic programs at FRCC, they are all equally critical parts of the college,” she said. “The current restructuring of the college will not ‘concentrate more power’ at any one campus. The new structure actually distributes the leadership roles more evenly across the campuses.”

Academic Dean Anne Marie Jacobson said that during the most recent academic year, “we’ve seen more of a presence from the college president at the Larimer campus, where I’m based. For example, she has an office on campus where she regularly works and meets with [Larimer campus] leaders, faculty and staff. She holds open office hours for faculty to meet and bring forth any information or concerns. She meets with the Larimer Campus Student Government Association to hear their priorities. She attends regular student events on campus and in the community.”

Simpson added that “FRCC has always offered student services on every campus, and we will continue to do so under our new structure. Larimer Campus students will be fully supported in person, on campus, as well as remotely” for those who find it easier not to have to travel to campus.

Borg, however, said the reorganization is hurting students. In the spring semester, he wrote, “because of reorganization and resulting resignations, there are no student-life personnel left on the Larimer campus to help student groups organize programs.”

Wilkenson confirmed that “we did lose three valued staff members in student life last year at the Larimer campus,” but added that two of them left prior to any restructuring developments for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. “So those departures could not have been the result of our restructuring efforts,” she said. “The third staff person left to pursue her law degree and new aspirations.

“It’s not accurate that we have “no student life staff” at the Larimer Campus” either now or in April when Borg’s op-ed column was published,” Wilkenson said. “At that time, the campus had three part-time staff people and a new full-time person in student life, and the directors from our other two campuses were spending time [at the Larimer campus] regularly to support the LC team. Since then, FRCC has hired two additional full-time people who are based at the Larimer campus. The college expects to hire another full-time student-life position that will be based at the Larimer campus.”

Front Range Community College has seen some significant turnover, which began during the COVID pandemic, Wilkenson said.

“I’m sure you’ve heard of the Great Resignation affecting organizations all over the U.S.,” she said, “It would be a false assumption to attribute staff departures to FRCC’s restructuring. The college saw a lot of departures starting during the pandemic” which was well before this restructuring effort began last fall, “Unfortunately, this has been a national issue for community colleges.”

Colorado Community College System chancellor Joe Garcia told Inside Higher Ed that “multiple colleges in the system lost at least a fifth of their staff during the pandemic. The turnover rate at Pikes Peak State College, for example, nearly doubled between fiscal years 2021 and 2022, from 11% to 21%. Community College of Denver lost more than a third of its employees, 39%, during that time.”

As for faculty and student government, Simpson said “FRCC plans to continue with our existing model for faculty senates and student government this upcoming academic year,” and Woulfe added that “the college is creating a shared-governance committee — made up of faculty leaders from all campuses and stakeholders from across the institution — that will look at our governance structure.” FRCC’s Faculty Affairs Council, which is made up of faculty leaders from each campus, is supporting the next step, she said. “Faculty Senate is a faculty-centered organization, and they will work together to determine what Faculty Senate will look like beyond this academic year.”

Castaño said “the current structure of campus Student Government Associations will also continue this year, and a similar committee process is being started in which students will assess how SGA should be structured beyond that. Our top priority is serving and supporting students. This is the North Star guiding our decisions.

“This past spring semester, with the assistance of student life staff, the college brought together all three campus SGAs for the first time in anyone’s memory,” he said. “This meeting gave them time to ask questions about our restructuring and begin a conversation. The plan is to have a cross-functional committee made up of SGA members to look at what their structure should be moving forward.”

More than 30 of FRCC’s programs are guaranteed to transfer to public four-year colleges and universities in Colorado.

“Each campus has a distinct student body and a different culture,” Borg wrote. “Each serves a distinct constituency.”

Although acknowledging that “each campus does have a natural transfer connection to a particular four-year college in the same geographical area” as the Larimer campus does with CSU, Woulfe said, she contended that “FRCC has built and nurtured relationships and transfer agreements with each of these universities — CSU being a major partner in many disciplines — for the benefit of all of our students who want to transfer. Our transfer agreements are not campus based. A new college would not have in place the many partnerships and agreements that FRCC has built over the years for our students.

“FRCC’s Larimer Campus students don’t only transfer to CSU,” she said. “A good number of them transfer to other universities” such as the University of Colorado Boulder or Colorado School of Mines in Golden. “And many students from our Longmont and Westminster campuses transfer to CSU. FRCC’s agreements with universities around Colorado and beyond) make transferring seamless for students from any of our campuses.”

Borg wrote that “a fully independent community college in Larimer County would have many benefits. Marketing would be more efficient: we could target local media and build stronger relationships with school districts in the county. Fundraising for scholarships would be easier, as donors to our foundation would know for certain that their dollars would stay within the local community.”

The nonprofit FRCC Foundation raises funds to support the college’s mission of providing accessible and affordable education to students in its communities, and its executive director, Beryl Durazo, said donors already can and do make contributions that are earmarked specifically for students and programs on the Larimer campus. She added that “100% of funds designated to the Larimer campus stay at the Larimer campus.”

Durazo said the foundation has multiple scholarship funds that are specifically directed to students on the Larimer campus, citing a current anonymous donor who provides 100% tuition for Licensed Practical Nursing students only at the Larimer Campus.

“The foundation works across Larimer County to identify and steward major gifts, including support for the college’s new Health Care Careers Center,” located at the corner of Harmony Road and Shields Street in Fort Collins,” she said. “This effort brought donors from across Northern Colorado to support the work at the Larimer campus.”

Durzao said 43% of all of the foundation’s scholarship funds for the academic year 2022-23 were awarded to Larimer campus students.

Front Range Community College larimer-campus-map-thumbnail
A map shows the layout of Front Range Community College’s Larimer County campus in Fort Collins. Courtesy Front Range Community College

Peterson said FRCC already targets local media in each of its geographic areas, and has long-established, strong relationships with the Poudre Valley and Thompson school districts.

Noting that “we already have programs which tie us to the local community: for example, a Law Enforcement Academy, a Small Business Development Center for Larimer County, and a Bridges to Baccalaureate program with CSU,” Borg wrote that if the Larimer campus were independent, “we could concentrate even more energy on building partnerships with CSU, with local government, and with the local business community. Our own college president would have the stature and authority to work directly with local leaders as a peer.”

Clemente said FRCC’s leaders regularly attend community meetings with organizations throughout Larimer County and are actively involved in the community. Simpson, she said, “spends significant time and effort nurturing existing partnerships and building new collaborations that support educational opportunities and local economic development. In her one-year tenure as FRCC’s president, she has already developed a very strong working relationship with the new president of CSU, Amy Parsons, and they meet regularly, attend events together and discuss new and existing partnerships between the two institutions.”

Clemente said FRCC “recently built and launched a new pathway for FRCC hospitality management students to transfer to CSU with junior status to complete their bachelor’s degree,” and “we just finalized a new transfer articulation agreement for civil engineering students from FRCC to transfer to CSU. We already have one in place for mechanical engineering. One of our deans is currently working with the dean of education at CSU to build a pathway for our education students to transfer to CSU.”

She said FRCC is currently working with Delta Dental of Colorado to create a new associate’s degree program in dental hygiene in the new Health Care Careers Center at the Larimer campus.

“In addition to helping alleviate a workforce shortage in dental hygiene, we plan to expand our existing dental clinic to provide low-cost care to the Larimer County community,” Clemente said.

She noted that the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce hosted its April Business After Hours on campus, and that FRCC leaders attended the chamber’s 2023 annual awards ceremony and the Northern Colorado Prospers 2.0 event. FRCC worked with CSU’s community relations department and its foundation to jointly host an event for the Boys and Girls Club, in which the winners of their yearly competition win scholarships to FRCC and CSU.

In addition to its continuing-education classes, the Larimer campus also runs a P-TECH program in advanced manufacturing in collaboration with Poudre High School and Woodward Corp. in which students can earn an associate degree while still in high school.

Although FRCC’s officials pushed back strongly against the idea of the Larimer campus going its own way when approached for this article, Borg said he has had “no negative pushback at all.  Zip.” In the more than four months since his op-ed was published, he said, “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from other faculty and staff at FRCC, about five or six emails from colleagues and some comments when I’ve seen people around campus. … The typical comment I got was, ‘Thanks for speaking out, I agree with your arguments, hope you still have a job (joking) next fall.’

“I got an email from a Longmont campus faculty [member] who is on a state committee who apparently had a conversation with Joe Garcia, the chancellor, the big cheese,” Borg said. “He said he had seen the op-ed and (she said) seemed open to the idea.  I was skeptical, and I never followed up with her just for lack of time.”

What would have to happen to make such a split a reality?

That’s “exactly the question I need to focus on next,” Borg said. “I’m not sure.  I’ve been trying to get a meeting with our state reps, Andy Boesenecker and Cathy Kipp, but they’ve been out of town, and I’ve been out of town, and it hasn’t happened yet.”

Borg noted that the split that originally created Front Range’s Westminster campus took an act of the Legislature, so “that suggests that an act of the Legislature could do it, but I need to do more research on this.”

Fiona Lytle, chief communications and legislative liaison for the Colorado Community College System, said “there’s no formal process for a college campus moving out of the state Community College System or for becoming a separate college within the state system, but many stakeholders at the local and state level – including the CCCS System Office, state board, the Colorado General Assembly, Department of Higher Education and the community – would likely have to be involved.

“It would also require a costly feasibility study to review financial components, infrastructure and more,” Lytle said, “as well as state legislation and regional accreditation.“

Still, Borg is keen on the idea of separation.

“A few of us who have been thinking about this for a long time believe the community college structure will be very resistant to change –  to letting the Larimer campus of FRCC become its own independent college,” Borg told BizWest. “The op-ed I wrote was Step 1 in trying to make the case directly to the public in Larimer County that a new independent college in Larimer County would benefit the county.

“This would apply also to the business community in Larimer County,” he said. “We could devote way more energy and focus to developing partnerships with local business if we were not constrained and limited by our ties to the campuses in Westminster and Longmont.”

But Simpson is standing firm.

“FRCC is focused on strengthening and coordinating its three campus locations to better support our students’ experience and their success in college,” she said. “At this time, no one from any of our campuses has come to FRCC leadership to discuss this option. There is not an effort underway for any campus to separate.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated to include comments from Niroj Bhattarai and then to correct his date of hiring and the date formal talks about restructuring began.

FORT COLLINS — It was once a separate entity. Should it be again?

What is now the Larimer campus of Front Range Community College had been the Larimer County Vocational-Technical Center until it was absorbed into FRCC’s system in 1988, but at least a few professors there now think it’s time the northern outpost declared its independence.

“The Larimer Campus could easily stand on its own,” wrote Jeff Borg in an April 28 op-ed column in the Loveland Reporter-Herald. “With our roughly 11,000 students, we would become the sixth largest of the 13 community colleges in Colorado.”

But as Neil Sedaka sang, “Breaking…

Dallas Heltzell
With BizWest since 2012 and in Colorado since 1979, Dallas worked at the Longmont Times-Call, Colorado Springs Gazette, Denver Post and Public News Service. A Missouri native and Mizzou School of Journalism grad, Dallas started as a sports writer and outdoor columnist at the St. Charles (Mo.) Banner-News, then went to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before fleeing the heat and humidity for the Rockies. He especially loves covering our mountain communities.
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