May 8, 2013 Issue
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In His Own Words - Dick Dillon

In His Own Words - Dick Dillon

Dick Dillon

I came to CU Denver from Berkeley in fall 1969 with a PhD “all but dissertation” and as a veteran of the Free Speech and anti-war movements. Instant culture shock: no lovely campus, no political turmoil, no protesting students, no bell bottoms. Instead I found a one-building campus crowded with serious older students who fit one or two courses into their busy home and work schedules. Citizen students I called them. Eager, serious, and self-supporting, they changed the way I taught literature. Imagine when the class was discussing that major literary theme of children versus parents; like me, half of my students spoke as parents. My first few years at CU Denver were busy, preparing new classes, finishing my dissertation, busing from Boulder to Denver, and helping care for two young children.

Our English classes in the morning and early afternoon were taken mostly by housewives in their twenties and thirties completing the undergraduate education that was interrupted by marriage and children. They were intense learners who came well prepared and then returned home to relieve baby sitters or wait for their children to return from school. After 5:00 PM, when more than 60 percent of our classes were taught, was another story. Most students came to school from work, dressed for success and often tired and hungry. For the first 10 years this was the basic demographic. From 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM, Monday through Friday, the Tramway Building was an exciting place for students and teachers—no extracurricular distractions, just offices, classrooms, and a decent cafeteria.

My first brush with CU politics came during my third year. I was the Denver representative to the university-wide EPUS (Educational Policy and University Standards) Committee. We met on the Boulder campus monthly to discuss academic policy and recommend changes to the Faculty Senate. In my two years on the committee, big things were happening in Denver, the most important being CCHE’s move to eliminate CU Denver’s undergraduate courses. Faculty opposition to this was led by my English department colleagues Rex Burns and Herb Eldridge, the newly appointed acting dean of the College of Undergraduate Studies. As I got more involved in CU politics, I realized there was little consensus among our faculty and staff about what direction our campus should take.

After the spring semester 1973, [CU Denver economics professor] Suzie Helburn and I organized a three-day conference named Centering on the Seventies in the Tramway Building. The conference gathered 134 faculty, staff, students, and concerned citizens to establish a framework for CU Denver’s future. Eight discussion groups met and wrote reports that were collated in a final plenary session. Our final report was bold and pompous and showed our naive optimism, but we created a presence in the CU system and a vision of our future.

In fall 1973, Harold Haak became the first CU Denver chancellor. A year later he appointed a committee of faculty, staff, and students to write the first campus master plan. I was the committee chair. We were babes in the woods, but Haak, with his academic background in public administration, was a good guide. Alas, much of the idealism of Centering on the Seventies was lost in the bureaucratic language of the final document, but it was a statement of autonomy.

I was elected chair of the Faculty Assembly for 1974–1975. Much of the faculty was developing academic programs to fulfill our “urban mission,” a favorite phrase in the newly approved master plan, such as the creation of The Institute of Advanced Urban Studies and a BA in Urban Affairs. We wanted to distinguish ourselves from the Boulder campus. I also worked with the new Alumni and Friends of the University of Colorado at Denver. The group’s first official gathering in March 1975 included a tour of Auraria, a luncheon at the not-yet-opened student center, and dull speeches by optimistic administrators.

Dick Dillon

Dick Dillon

In fall 1976, Chancellor Haak appointed me the first acting vice chancellor for academic affairs. One of my most important jobs was chairing the weekly council of deans meeting. With two exceptions, the members were all assistant deans, proxies for the real deans in Boulder. The amount of autonomy each Denver school or college had varied. The least autonomous was the School of Business, which had a budgeted faculty of 20 full-time equivalents in Denver but only two rostered full-time faculty. Most of the courses were taught by professors rostered at CU Boulder who received an honorarium for this moonlighting. At the other end of the scale was the College of Engineering, which had a large full-time faculty. Its assistant dean was the legendary Paul Bartlett, one of the real heroes in the development of CU Denver. Yet even he had to serve the Boulder dean. In one case the Boulder dean, Max Peters, told him to give tenure to a professor who was transferred to Denver after being denied tenure at Boulder. I refused to sign off on the tenure, and Chancellor Haak was uncertain. Peters called the three of us to his office, where we were seated before his raised desk like high school students caught smoking in the bathroom as he threatened to take the case to the university president. Haak and I won this battle, but it shows how reluctant the Boulder deans were to lose control of their Denver programs.

In contrast to the Boulder-dominated professional schools was CLAS, led by Dan Fallon beginning in 1976. I became Dan’s associate dean after leaving the vice chancellor's office. He led the college and the campus in many of our fights for survival and autonomy. In spring 1979, he galvanized the entire campus to protest a move by the legislature—once again—to eliminate undergraduate courses at CU Denver. Once again we won, but the price was coordinating our undergraduate courses with Metro State. Long after I left the dean's office, this course cross-listing died a natural death.

One community-service venture led by Dan and me has enjoyed a long and happy life. As opera nuts disappointed with Denver’s lack of good opera, we formed “Friends of Opera” and asked Ellie Caulkins, a former student in my CU Denver opera class, to join the steering committee. Within two years, Friends of Opera morphed into Opera Colorado, and Ellie went on to lead its development, serving several terms as board chair. Dan and I weren't so fortunate. We went back to our day jobs.

While Dan was still the CLAS dean, I returned to full-time teaching and discovered that my research interests in American literature were out of date. I decided to concentrate on the study of opera and, in 1983–1984, spent a sabbatical in Florence studying Italian and researching opera. I spent the next summer at Princeton as a National Endowment for the Humanities scholar, studying Verdi operas under leading opera scholar Harry Powers. I presented at an international opera conference and began teaching “Opera as Literature” at CU Denver to large classes of regular and continuing-education students. CU Denver developed close ties with Opera Colorado. Members of the company performed for our classes, and our students were invited to dress rehearsals.

When our youngest child graduated from high school, our family went to Europe: my wife Margaret and I went to Canterbury, where I taught at the university on a faculty exchange, and the kids went to language programs in France and Germany. Thus began my final phase at CU—promoting international education. Margaret and I co-directed the CU Boulder study-abroad program at the University of Regensburg, and I taught there. Returning after two years, Margaret went to work at the CU Boulder Study Abroad Office, and I began promoting study abroad at CU Denver. A year later CLAS started a student exchange with Moscow State University. I led a group of CU Denver students there on a summer program. In the fall I directed the CU Denver program at Moscow State and taught two literature courses to Russian English majors. Returning after several years, I found CU Denver’s English department thriving with many new hires, especially in the burgeoning writing program. A few years later, in 1999, I retired.

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