A conversation with Dr. Colleen Simpson, Front Range Community College's next president
The Colorado Community College System has selected Dr. Colleen Simpson as the new president of Front Range Community College. She will be the first African American to lead the three-campus college when her tenure starts on Aug. 1. She is also the second Black woman president in the statewide college system.
KUNC’s Samantha Coetzee spoke to CCCS Chancellor Joe Garcia and Dr. Simpson to talk about the next steps for Front Range Community College.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Samantha Coetzee: Dr. Simpson, I’d like to start with you. Why did you decide to take the position as president of FRCC?
Dr. Colleen Simpson: When I reflect on my career journey and the work that I have done at City University of New York and also at Northeast Wisconsin, my focus has always been on ensuring access and opportunity for students. But I think what attracted me most about Front Range Community College is the growth that Front Range is seeing serving the Hispanic students within that community. And knowing that I will bring a level of expertise that ensures success and also meeting students where they are. That attracted me to this position.
Coetzee: And can you talk a little bit about how your previous roles will help you in this new position?
Simpson: So my previous roles really focused on meeting students where they are. And so there's a phrase that I like to use that colleges have to be student ready, knowing that every student comes to us with all different learning abilities. They meet us at different academic preparedness levels. But what's important is that the college sees that student as a success. And so within CUNY, I oversaw many retention initiatives that focused on access, focused on inclusion, and also focused on completion at. And in Green Bay I focused on ensuring that we were diversifying the workforce by making sure that our graduates left our institution and were being employed with sustainable wages.
Coetzee: Thank you. Chancellor Garcia, can you touch on why you and the committee chose Dr. Simpson for this role?
Chancellor Joe Garcia: Well, we certainly were just looking for someone with great experience and a focus on student success. Certainly the CUNY system has a great reputation for innovation in student success programs, and certainly her work at Wisconsin, where she worked with multiple campuses, was important. We needed Dr. Simpson to have some familiarity with managing three very different campuses that are in different communities and certainly serving different students. And she brings that experience.
Coetzee: Can you talk a little bit about what you hope to see Dr. Simpson accomplish in this role?
Garcia: Front Range has been on a mission to become an HSA, a Hispanic-serving institution, meaning at least 25% of their students are Hispanic students. And we need someone who is familiar with working with Latino populations and Dr. Simpson has that experience.
Coetzee: I was going to ask about that a little bit further in the interview. Thank you for bringing that up. Chancellor Garcia, can you talk a little bit about why that's so important?
Garcia: When we look at the growing demographics here in Colorado, rather than changing demographics, we know the only growing population is really our Latino population. We have not done a good job in Colorado in all of our higher education institutions, serving that population well. So we have a very large equity gap, and that's the difference between the postsecondary attainment rates of our white population and our Latino population. Our gap in Colorado is one of the biggest in the country. We need to fix that.
Coetzee: Dr. Simpson, I want to come back to you for a moment. What are some of your short-term and long-term goals for FRCC?
Simpson: I would say my short-term goal is to really understand the culture of FRCC, and so I'm planning on doing listening sessions. As Chancellor Garcia noted, there are three campuses that make up Front Range Community College. And so those listening sessions will allow me to go in and learn and hear from the communities related to FRCC. In addition to those listening sessions, I'm also looking to look at the data around closing those equity gaps that Chancellor Garcia talked about. It's important for us to remove barriers both academically and financially in order for students to be successful, regardless of their background. And so that's what I'm looking to do in terms of long-term is really addressing the equity gaps.
Coetzee: Thank you. And I want to ask you both, where do you hope the college will be in a year?
Garcia: We hope the college will be first recovering from the effects of the pandemic. The pandemic really hurt all of our colleges in terms of enrollment. We saw significant declines even as we moved online learning, which is something we have a lot of experience with. But we need to get students back. And we don't want to just enroll them. We want to help them find a program that's going to lead to a living wage job. And we want to help them graduate, not just come for a semester or two. That's the key. And I think that's where Dr. Simpson is really going to help us, because she understands how challenging that is and what she needs to do in order to be successful.
Simpson: In a year, I see us also recovering from the pandemic, but also redefining and reimagining what we look like now, because we are seeing a changing student demographic. We're seeing the needs of our students are different. Our students are demanding both online and in-person services from the college. How do we create that experience for the student, so that that student feels as if they are in a welcoming, inclusive environment — so that we can enroll them, but more importantly, graduate them so that they can transition into the workforce of Colorado.