Jill Tiefenthaler, CC’s president as of July 1, has a solid foundation in economics that will help the college continue to flourish. But her people skills and passion for the liberal arts complete the picture of a well-rounded college president.
“I understand well the power of the liberal arts education, and I’m so committed to it as a mission because I think the liberal arts are a great calling. I believe in what we do fundamentally because of the impact it had on my own life,” Tiefenthaler said.
Growing up on a farm in Iowa meant hard work, helping her mother feed the farm hands and taking care of two younger siblings. But this was no ordinary farm girl; when Jill was in high school and her father bought a popcorn company, she helped keep the business’s books.
Leaving that close-knit community for St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., was a big step that opened her eyes to the larger world.
“It was such a transformative experience for me — going to the Art Institute of Chicago and learning about contemporary art, studying the great philosophers, going to the opera. I couldn’t have even imagined the opportunities I would have. I loved it.”
Tiefenthaler continued to expand her horizons while earning graduate degrees in economics at Duke and working at Colgate and Wake Forest. Her accomplishments at the latter universities are impressive: teaching economics, chairing the economics department, and serving as associate dean of the faculty at Colgate; provost and economics professor at Wake Forest.
Even higher on the impressiveness scale, her “extra- curricular” activities include: founding the Upstate Institute, which builds collaborations between Colgate and the surrounding communities in upstate New York; taking students to London for semester study abroad; doing research on labor economics in Brazil and the Philippines; and accompanying students who rebuilt homes after Hurricane Katrina.
This spirit of community, exploration, and public service was key to Tiefenthaler’s interest in CC — and vice versa. “I’ve felt, for the last couple of years, to make this next step it was about finding the right fit. I think you have to embody a place in this role, more so than any other role. To do the job successfully, I think you have to, 100 percent, believe in the college’s mission,” she said.
Thanks to her 16 years at Colgate, Tiefenthaler was familiar with CC and its reputation among the nation’s liberal arts colleges. And she said her economics training has prepared her for the negotiating, risk assessment, and decision-making inherent in administrative positions.
Those qualities helped her stand out for the search committee as it considered hundreds of candidates from across the country to succeed Richard Celeste, CC’s president for nine years.
“When I heard about my nomination I really perked up and my husband [Kevin Rask, an economics professor] was excited. Then we came to visit and became more intrigued. During our visit he looked at me and said, ‘You’re crazy if you don’t take this job.’ ”
That memory prompted Tiefenthaler’s robust laugh, but it wasn’t easy saying goodbye to her Wake Forest family as she veered between sadness and exhilaration.
That campus is in the suburbs of Winston-Salem, N.C., and Tiefenthaler and her family lived in the countryside while she worked at Colgate, so they’re all excited about being on a campus that’s so integral to the vital heart of the city.
“It’s not separate, you don’t have to go through a gate. It has a warm feeling and an open feeling.”
In their spare time, Tiefenthaler and her family plan to enjoy cultural offerings and outdoor activities while exploring the city and the Pikes Peak region.
Tiefenthaler and Rask will team-teach a seminar on the economics of higher education during Block 5, getting her out to the front lines in the classroom.
“I had the opportunity to teach a couple of times at Wake Forest,” she said. “Not only has that helped me get to know the students, it gives me a lot of energy and helps me remember what the core mission is” — giving students the tools and knowledge they’ll use the rest of their lives.
“I think, fundamentally, the liberal arts is the best preparation for today. Because it’s hard to know what the jobs are going to be in five years, 10 years, so to prepare yourself in any way for ‘a career’ or ‘a job’ doesn’t make much sense any more,” Tiefenthaler said.
She said that CC’s ability to teach students to “learn how to learn” will be hugely beneficial throughout their lives as they change jobs and further their education.
Will students and faculty notice many changes when they return in September?
“I think this fall it’ll be business as usual, but hopefully they’ll be part of the conversations about what we want to change in the coming years,” she said. “I hope that they’ll be patient and generous with me, and help me understand. It’ll be fun.”
One item on her list is assessing the Block Plan, which she loves and thinks is one of CC’s most distinctive characteristics. “I actually think, even though it’s 40 years old, it’s more important than ever before because this generation has more challenges, given everything happening around them, with focus and depth. And they’re all supposedly ‘multitaskers’ and focus is an issue. I think it will serve them even better. The Block Plan has even more of a call and a mission than in the 1970s.”
Over the next few years, Tiefenthaler will solicit ideas on how to re-invigorate the Block Plan to best answer today’s students’ needs — although she already calls CC’s student body “remarkable” in its academic strength.
She’ll also look for guidance from Celeste and his predecessor, Kathryn Mohrman, and from her counterparts at other colleges and universities in the area as she carries out her mission of being both an external and an internal leader.
In early June, Tiefenthaler was reading “Colorado College: A Place of Learning 1874–1999” by Political Science Professor Robert Loevy.
“It’s really great. There’s a lot to learn, both from the living presidents but also from all those presidents and deans who came before me. I always say, ‘If you understand one college or university, then you understand one college or university,’ ” she said, laughing.
Apparently, even a college president — no matter her accomplishments and accolades — has to do homework sometimes.
Our New President in a Nutshell
- Jill Tiefenthaler (TEE-fen-tall-er)
- Born May 2, 1965, in Breda, Iowa
- Husband Kevin Rask
- Children Olivia, 12; Owen, 10
- Spare-time activities include reading, camping, film, theater, and whatever her kids are into
- Priorities for CC include using technology to enhance the student experience; increasing diversity of students and faculty; boosting campus inclusiveness and cultural opportunities; partnering with surrounding community; encouraging faculty-student engagement; preparing students to be sustainability-conscious citizens