When Durangoans think about fresh leadership at Fort Lewis College, people tend to focus on Tom Stritikus, the high-energy president now entering his second year on the mesa.
But Stritikus’ chief aide – in charge of academics on campus – Cheryl Nixon is an even more recent Durango arrival, assuming the position of provost in July 2019.
Nixon admits her career in academia – moving from a student who was a “shy reader” fascinated by the birth of a new form of media, the novel, to an English professor sharing her appreciation of the complex moral issues hidden within “Frankenstein,” to her current position responsible for academics on an entire campus – is something of a surprise to her.
“I think most teachers do not start teaching because they want to become an administrator,” she said. “That’s the last thing I ever would have thought I would go into, because you love to teach, and you love to work with people.
“But many of those same skills, like talking to students, helping them examine issues in a more sophisticated way, is not that dissimilar to talking to a group of faculty or the Board of Trustees. Trying to get a group of students excited about an idea and to find their passion – over time, I realized that’s sort of what you’re doing for a whole college. You’re helping the college find its passion.”
What drew Nixon to FLC, she said, was its small size and the faculty’s commitment to teaching, which were refreshing after coming form a research university, The University of Massachusetts Boston, where she worked as an associate provost and English professor.
She’s especially pleased she can continue in the classroom – teaching a first-year composition course and one of FLC’s new First Year Launch courses, allowing students to offer redesign ideas to better use Reed Library, the school’s main library.
First Year Launch courses, while worth only one credit to the student, are at the heart of FLC’s new focus of putting students at the center of all decisions on campus, aimed not only at improving the first-year experience at the Fort, but also at bolstering student retention rates that have lagged peer schools and have been a consistent thorn in the school’s side when budgeting time comes around.
Reece Medler and Sydney Firebaugh, two first-year students in Nixon’s composition class, realize Nixon has additional responsibilities beyond their class, but they say they appreciate her focus on them when they meet.
“She’s very do-it-yourself,” said Medler, a first-year student from Boulder. “She gives you all the tools, and then she let’s you play around with them.”
Firebaugh, a first-year student from Arvada, appreciates Nixon’s emphasis that no single way exists to approach writing, to structure ideas and to organizing supporting evidence in developing a thesis.
“She’s open and honest, and let’s us do our own thing while being there if we need her,” Firebaugh said.
Nixon says staying in a classroom helps her understand issues faculty deal with as they adapt their methods in the era of a the novel coronavirus.
Helping the faculty and the administration build on the existing strengths – a focus on experiential learning, strong faculty-student relationships, small class sizes – Nixon sees as her prime role not only bolstering Medler’s and Firebaugh’s goals of completing their journeys toward degrees but also improving FLC retention rates.
Budget woes, compounded by a sluggish economy burdened by COVID-19 restrictions, are another problem Nixon sees. But that’s a minefield she has much less control over. Still, she worries the pandemic means the school has not seen the last of its budgetary woes.
The school was forced to cut $1.85 million from its budget and furloughed 11 employees this year to deal with a Colorado state budget that came in at $3.3 billion lower in revenues compared with 2019.
“I think all of higher ed will be dealing with a looming recession, and when state revenues go down, higher ed tends to see budget cuts,” she said. “There may be shock waves yet to come, and we’re not sure exactly how financially that’s going to hit higher ed.”
But looking back, Nixon said had she remained in Boston, her old school, too, would be facing similar issues.
Nixon and her husband, Tim Monroe, were familiar with the West; Monroe had previously worked at New Mexico State University, but she said upon her arrival in Durango to interview, she thought she might have stumbled on the prettiest place for a college in the country.
Durango has also proved friendly to Monroe, who serves as executive director of El Hogar, a nonprofit that funds K-12 schools in Honduras.
Monroe is far from alone while working remotely in Durango and has found a community of people also building their organizations from their homes in the shadows of the San Juan Mountains. He appreciates Durango’s co-working spaces and its efforts to become telecommuter friendly.
The couple’s son, Owen, 22, who is now teaching kindergarten in Chicago, also enjoyed Durango last year when he worked remotely out of Durango to complete his studies at Columbia University, which like FLC closed to in-person classes as a result of the pandemic.
The relative isolation of Southwest Colorado may be a drawback for some, but Nixon said COVID-19 serves to illuminate sometimes underappreciated benefits of remoteness.
“I think there is something really attractive about Durango. We are remote, and there’s a strong feeling of community. I think those are some of the same qualities that make Fort Lewis special,” she said. “I think it’s very similar. We can enjoy the outdoors. We have a beautiful landscape, a beautiful place. We have a strong, small community, and with COVID, all those things are looking better every day.”