This month marks half a century since the University of Colorado Denver was founded. That may seem like a long time ago, but according to chancellor Michelle Marks, “being a 50-year-old university is like being a teenager in university years.” And just like a teenager, CU Denver is still figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up.

To that end, more than a year and a half ago, the school finalized its 2030 strategic plan. Its top goal? Become the first equity-serving institution of higher education in the United States. The initiative stemmed, in part, from a listening tour Marks did after becoming chancellor in mid-2020. During the tour, faculty, students, and staff told her they valued CU Denver’s long-standing commitment to educating people of color, working students, and others who have been left out of more traditional universities. Marks sees the school’s golden jubilee as a good excuse to enhance that reputation. But even the school isn’t totally sure what an equity-serving university will look like.

“There’s a little bit of audaciousness in saying we’re going to be the first, when the term doesn’t exist out there,” says Antonio Farias, CU Denver’s vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion. The school’s initial plans call for hiring more diverse staff members and helping to diversify Denver’s tech economy by connecting companies with its student body, which is composed of 50 percent people of color and just as many first-generation learners. CU Denver has also commissioned murals of diverse alums such as Danielle Shoots, whose venture capital fund focuses on startups founded by people of color, to foster a sense of belonging. But the definition of “equity-serving” won’t just come from the top: Students are helping to decide what it should mean, too.

Kinzey Gill, a senior at CU Denver and the managing editor of the Sentry, the school’s newsmagazine, has been part of that effort. In October, she attended a roundtable seeking student input on the equity-serving mission. “I think it’s a bold statement, and they’re listening to students,” Gill says, but she’s still skeptical. The plans she’s heard discussed so far seem like commonsense measures all universities should take rather than anything pioneering. “I think that this is a great thing to aspire to be,” she says of the school’s plans. “But there’s a lot of work to be done.”

What’s Past Is Prologue

Today, the Auraria campus is home to CU Denver, Community College of Denver, and Metropolitan State University of Denver, but that wasn’t always the case. Auraria was a thriving residential neighborhood until the early 1970s, when urban renewal displaced more than 300 predominantly Latino families to make room for the institutions. In recognition of that trauma, the schools promised scholarships to the children and grandchildren of those families. The program finally launched in the mid-1990s, and last year it was extended indefinitely to include all direct descendants.