AURORA | When Betsy Oudenhoven arrived at the Community College of Aurora in 2011, she never expected to be president.
She assumed she would finish out her career in the role that she was hired for — vice president of student affairs — and then retire. But fate intervened and she’s now retiring after a 42-year career in higher education, the past eight as CCA’s president.
Oudenhoven took a circuitous route to community college work. She grew up in New York in a family of six. Both her parents had college degrees, and it was always expected that she would get one, too. She studied psychology as an undergraduate and became interested in counseling, so she got her master’s degree at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Her plan was to be a college counselor, but after graduation she couldn’t find a job.
“In the late 70s it seemed like everybody waiting a table in Boulder had a doctorate,” she said.
She was eventually offered a job as a residence hall director at a college in Wisconsin, and ended up working in rez life at four-year universities for the next 20 years in Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York.
It was when she and her family relocated to Chicago for her husband’s work that she got to use her degree again. She started counseling at a number of community colleges in the Chicago area and ultimately ended up at Joliet Junior College, the nation’s first community college, where she was the vice president of student development.
She ended up falling in love with the community college world. She liked all her students, but working with 18 and 19-year-olds in dorms had gotten old after a while, and it felt like everything she did was so bureaucratic.
“There’s a sense of really being able to make a difference at a community college,” she said.
She had always wanted to come back to Colorado, and after her children were grown she started looking for a new position and ended up at CCA. In 2012, the current president left for a Fulbright and a new hire was brought on. His first day on the job was the day of the Aurora theater shooting, which rocked the college.
“We were in crisis pretty much that whole year,” she said.
The president ended up staying only a year and left the following summer. While it searched for a replacement, the Colorado Community College System asked Oudenhoven to serve as interim president and she said yes. After five months, she was offered the job permanently.
“I was an accidental president,” she joked.
It wouldn’t have been the right choice for her at just any college, she said, but she said that CCA was a good fit for her and she praised the Colorado Community College System for how supportive it was.
The feeling appears to be mutual. Last week, the State Board for Community Colleges recognized Oudenhoven for her work and described her as a “trailblazing” leader.
“Her insight, her genuine care and concern for others, and her ability to expertly move forward the priorities of equity, inclusive excellence, and student success has left a lasting legacy that will benefit CCA, the surrounding region, and the higher education sector for decades to come,” Colorado Community College System Chancellor Joe Garcia said in a statement.
During her time at CCA, Oudenhoven said she is most proud of her efforts to increase the diversity of the college’s faculty and student body and to improve student outcomes.
Too often, community colleges focus on who is coming in the door without ensuring that they are all successful in getting the diploma or certificate that they need, she said.
“In the early years a lot of community colleges were like ‘well, it’s not fair to scrutinize our outcomes because the students we serve are so high risk,’” Oudenhoven said. “There was kind of a philosophy that they have the right to fail…and the beauty here is that we reject that.”
Over her time at CCA the college has boosted its enrollment of Hispanic students to be more aligned with the surrounding population, and is now a designated Hispanic Serving Institution. The college has also finally paid off its bonds and owns its CentreTech campus, which it can now build on.
But there are challenges facing the college as well. State funding for higher education has decreased dramatically over Oudenhoven’s time in the field, and since Colorado doesn’t use property taxes to fund higher ed that means CCA is overwhelmingly reliant on tuition revenue. The rising cost of living in the Denver metro area has squeezed CCA too, she said.
“I hate losing good people because I can’t figure out how to pay them enough,” she said.
A rift has also developed over whether higher education is a public good or a private good, she said. And as the U.S. becomes more polarized, partisanship has fueled ideas about what should and shouldn’t be taught in the classroom, most recently in the debates around critical race theory.
“With the work that we do here with our focus on equity, all we’re trying to say is everybody deserves the same opportunity,” she said.
She praised the current generation of students for being more outspoken around issues of justice, saying they remind her of some of her contemporaries growing up in the 1960s and 70s.
“We have young folks who are not afraid to speak up and use their voices,” she said. “They are showing up in ways I would never have had the guts to do at their age.”
Oudenhoven had been planning her retirement before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and said she could never have imagined what her final years in higher education would be like. Just as she entered her role in the wake of a crisis, she will be leaving with one too.
The incoming president, Mordecai Brownlee, is arriving from a role as vice president for student success at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, Texas. He will assume the presidency on July 15. She spoke highly of her successor.
“He is going to be terrific,” Oudenhoven said. “It would really be hard for me to leave here if I didn’t feel like I was turning it over to the right person.”
In her retirement, she plans to spend more time traveling, visiting family and exploring the mountains that make Colorado such a special place to live. However, adjusting to the new pace of life might be a challenge. Normally she and her husband, who also works in higher education, only manage to take a week of vacation at a time.
“I think on day eight of this retirement I’m going to be like ‘OK now what?’” she said with a laugh.