A Q&A with CSU presidential finalist Amy Parsons

Amy Parsons

Amy Parsons – CEO of a global e-commerce company based in Denver, longtime Colorado State University leader, and former executive vice chancellor for the CSU System – has been named as the finalist in the search for the 16th president of Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

SOURCE recently sat down with Amy Parsons to get to know the presidential finalist a bit better. More information about her and the search process is available at the presidential search website.

Q: Please tell us a little about yourself.

A: Colorado State University has always been a part of my life. Born in Loveland, Colorado, I primarily grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the youngest of three kids. There were a lot of freezing cold football games in Laramie cheering on the Cowboys over the Rams in the Border War, but when it came time for me to go to college, I begged my parents to let me go to CSU. I’m grateful to this day that they agreed, and they worked hard to help support me as an out-of-state student. I had an incredibly positive experience at CSU, majoring in Political Science and participating in Associated Students of CSU (ASCSU) and Greek Life. I still today enjoy relationships I made with friends and professors in those years, and it sparked a lifelong passion in seeking to help as many students as possible attend CSU and have their own transformative experiences.

After CSU, after attending law school at CU Boulder, I interned at the CSU General Counsel’s office for one summer. Those were my first experiences with the professional world of higher education, learning about Title IX and free speech. It was 1997, the summer of the devastating flood on campus, and I saw firsthand how the campus community pulled together in a crisis. Following law school, I entered private practice as a litigator at Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber in Denver and continued to represent CSU as outside legal counsel for several years. In 2004, after having my first daughter, CSU recruited me to join their in-house legal team full time and I jumped at it. That began a 16-year career at CSU and the CSU System.

Those 16 years included roles as Deputy General Counsel, Vice President for University Operations and Executive Vice Chancellor of the CSU System. Serving on the executive leadership team for more than a decade and being able to oversee some of the University’s largest initiatives, budgets, departments and projects (including CSU Spur, Canvas Stadium, Todos Santos), and represent the University to all manner of outside groups and legislators, has been a privilege. Late 2020 brought the exciting opportunity to be the founding CEO of a new private company that works exclusively with Italian luxury brands in the e-commerce and retail space. The last two years have put all my entrepreneurial, business  and creative skills to work building and growing the company, and it’s proven to be an incredibly valuable professional experience.

Perhaps more importantly, in the last year, my husband and I have become CSU parents, with our first daughter (the one born in 2004) enrolling as a freshman. Going through the college selection and first-year experience with her has given me a whole new fresh perspective and appreciation for CSU and what it does for our students.

Q: Please share what drew you to CSU and why you were interested in the presidential role for the University.

Amy Parsons with her daughters
Parsons with her daughters at the CSU Mountain Campus in 2014.

A: Going through the college selection journey with my daughter this fall, ending with her decision to attend CSU, has only served to fuel my passion, commitment  and vision for CSU, and love for its students. The excitement of orientation and Ram Welcome brought me back full circle to my first day as a student moving into Parmelee Hall.

But it’s more than my love for CSU. A big part of my interest in this role is what I can see are the opportunities ahead for this incredible University. There is only one job that could entice me to leave my current role, and that’s this one.

The work of each individual at this University makes it what it is, each action we take matters, and all our actions have an impact on the lives of our students and our collective future. We’re at a pivotal moment as a university and in higher education in which we must have clear direction and stalwart action.

Our campuses face an array of cultural, political, fiscal and academic issues, ranging from potential enrollment declines to student mental health issues to academic freedom, the imperatives of keeping tuition affordable and addressing rising student loan impacts, a rapidly shifting landscape in intercollegiate athletics, and important conversations around social justice, equity, race, identity  and inclusivity, including our responsibility to the Indigenous people of Colorado and the West.

In Northern Colorado especially, many employees are facing housing costs at an all-time high, and earnings that are lagging inflation. Attention to CSU’s ability to remain competitive in recruiting and retaining talented faculty and staff is critical.

I recognize my privilege as a white U.S. citizen, yet have empathy, insight, respect  and tireless commitment to work as part of our CSU community in fighting for equity and advancement for all of CSU’s people. We must sustain a university where the Principles of Community are more than words on paper.

Q: How have your previous roles prepared you for this position?

A: I’m enormously proud of CSU and our history, role, sustained success and land-grant mission – and equally excited and ambitious for our promising future. As a CSU alumna, donor, fan, parent and leader, I am ready to bring tremendous energy and focus to support our campus community and all those who we serve.

I love CSU. My long professional career at CSU and in the private sector, combined with deep personal roots with the University and Colorado have all helped me prepare for – and feel extremely excited about – this opportunity to serve as president.

Each of my roles at CSU, from tour guide and student hourly for Facilities Management, has helped shape my understanding of the University, our mission and impact, and promise and opportunities for the future.

The VP of University Operations role, in particular, offered such a valuable education on the inner workings of the university, from budgets and finance to construction, HR to legislative affairs, shared governance and policy.

Certainly, the challenges facing higher education and any large research university are significant; with all we have achieved, there is still so much opportunity to grow and improve – that work will require our best and most focused efforts in the decade ahead. Even with the challenges, CSU is well-positioned based on more than 150 years of achievement, leadership and success to weather and excel no matter what lies ahead.

“I’m enormously proud of CSU and our history, role, sustained success and land-grant mission – and equally excited and ambitious for our promising future. As a CSU alumna, donor, fan, parent and leader, I am ready to bring tremendous energy and focus to support our campus community and all those who we serve.”

— Amy Parsons, CSU presidential finalist

With me, CSU will get a leader who is both enormously proud of the University and equally committed to pushing it forward to excel and serve in new ways. A seasoned executive who understands how to efficiently and effectively operate the institution, but with an entrepreneurial spirit and perspective to challenge teams to think differently and creatively to solve problems and generate new opportunities. I also am deeply committed to taking care of people because faculty and staff are the ones who make this University what it is, and we must do right by them.

There is enormous privilege and responsibility of leading an institution forged by the vision of Abraham Lincoln that every student with the ability and will to learn and earn a degree should have the opportunity to do so.

Leading both public and private organizations has prepared me to approach our enrollment and retention strategies with greater focus and precision and honed skills to create beneficial public-private partnerships. I would also look forward to participating in CSU’s continuous innovation around educational systems and curriculum and degree structures to help students obtain timely, affordable and relevant credentials.

It would be the privilege of my life to serve in the role of president, and in exchange, I promise my relentless energy, firm focus  and unwavering commitment to serve the institution and its people.

Q: What will your first ‘100 days’ look like at CSU?

Amy Parsons and Stuart Cottrell

Parsons presents CSU faculty member Stuart Cottrell with the Instructional Innovation in Service Learning Award at Celebrate! Colorado State in 2014.

A: The most important thing to do in the first 100 days is to connect with as many people in our CSU community as possible, both on campus and around the state, to listen to their perspectives, ideas and needs today. To learn from our faculty, staff, students, campus leaders, alumni, donors and partners. It will also be important to fill key vacant positions and build the strongest leadership team for our University – a very diverse team that can bring fresh perspectives, experiences and areas of expertise to the table.

The best teams challenge each other and motivate one another to perform at a high level, and include people who will empower the incredible talent that already exists across all levels of the University.

Q: Are there specific opportunities at CSU that you are most excited to work on? Please share.

A: There are so many exciting things already underway at CSU, and it will be important to engage in continuing the momentum of those efforts.

Among them is the ongoing strategic planning process that so many have invested time, energy  and listening in and is so important to the collective vision of our campus. I’ve been impressed by the inclusive process that is underway with the planning and am looking forward to better understanding the work to-date and building upon that framework for our big visions for CSU.

As the final building at CSU Spur nears its opening in January – with already more than 45 CSU programs committed at the urban campus – there are huge opportunities to showcase our commitment to access, land grant heritage  and areas of scholarly and research excellence.

CSU Spur promises to promote educational equity and serve as a beacon of what the modern land-grant university can contribute in the 21st century. It’s exciting to think about the next phase of the campus focused on connecting future generations with careers and ongoing research in food, water and health.

Whether it’s our growing student numbers and growing diversity, our amazing academic quality, our impactful research  or our powerful presence around the state, CSU is on the rise in so many ways, and it would be a privilege to fuel that trajectory.

Q: Can you please share a bit about your leadership style?

Amy Parsons at Water in the West

Parsons speaking at the Water in the West Symposium in 2018.

Amy Parsons at announcement of naming gift to Canvas Stadium

Parsons at the Canvas Stadium naming event in 2018.

A: I’m a very positive and energized open-door leader who pays close attention to morale and makes sure everyone knows they are valued and supported. I can’t wait to engage everywhere and with everyone across campus.

Over many years and in distinct roles and projects, it’s been an honor to hire and mentor outstanding team members that made up collaborative, diverse, healthy, transparent  and effective teams. Those teams galvanized around vision, strategy  and a shared commitment to high performance.

Beyond experience, of course, are the personal characteristics that will enable the next president to succeed. In times of growth, change  and aspiration, leaders need to be accessible, collaborative, candid  and decisive. There are public and private pressures that go along with the president’s role, and I have both the confidence and humility that are essential to navigating such pressures with integrity and backbone.

When mistakes are made, I own them. When we’re successful, I credit the teams and individuals that made that success possible.

The President’s role must balance gravitas and creating a fun and energized atmosphere for the entire CSU community – amplifying traditions, supporting memorable experiences in and out of the classroom and utilizing what is special to CSU, such as the Mountain Campus, CSU Todos Santos Center, Canvas Stadium, CSU Spur campus  and Magnolia House.

Q: As you know, university campuses consist of many opinions; how do you approach decision-making when working with diverse stakeholders?

A: One of the greatest things about a university community is that it is filled with engaged, diverse, creative, thoughtful people who care deeply about the University. Diversity of thought and engagement around important topics is the secret to success and innovation, and our model of shared governance helps to enable such valuable dialogue.

Every voice should be heard, and while no decision will make everyone happy, the outcomes will inevitably be better with diverse stakeholders involved in the process.

“Every voice should be heard, and while no decision will make everyone happy, the outcomes will inevitably be better with diverse stakeholders involved in the process.”

— Amy Parsons, CSU presidential finalist

Q: Is there anything else you would like the University community to know?

A: I hold a sincere belief in the opportunities for land-grant research universities to improve the lives of the citizens they exist to serve. It is why we were established, and it is our ongoing call.

It is incumbent on us to be the caretakers of Abraham Lincoln’s challenge, and the visionaries for what it must be in today’s world. CSU must be a place where all students, regardless of background or ideology, feel welcome and are supported. Where all faculty and employees are heard, respected and included in the conversation. We must be a competitive, equitable  and rewarding employer, able to attract and retain the stellar workforce that is essential to our success – and this obviously includes being a place where faculty and researchers thrive in their disciplines and have everything they need to succeed.

With the right leadership on campus, CSU will be the clear leader in higher education in Colorado in the next few years and prominent on the national map for the best places in the country to learn and work in the years to follow.

Together, we will set the standard for a community that is energized, unified, proud  and making progress on our goals in leaps and bounds. We must never stop working to fulfill our commitments to our students, our community and our world.

It truly would be the privilege of my life to serve in the role of president at CSU and to work alongside each of the incredible people who make this University thrive.

Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts with you, and thank you for all you do.