Jill Tiefenthaler thought she'd be a teaching lifer.
"It's how I thought I'd spend my entire career, being a faculty member," she says. An economics professor with a doctorate from Duke University, she started teaching in the '90s at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. She quickly moved from full professor to department chair, "and then, all of the sudden, as my husband says, everything went downhill."
It's a joke, as the slippery slope actually led upward.
She left Colgate as associate dean of faculty in 2007 to take the provost position at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. And this July, she moved to Colorado Springs to be the 13th president of Colorado College.
As her résumé indicates, Tiefenthaler is cut from a different cloth than her predecessor, Richard Celeste; he had never been in academia before. As a former governor and ambassador, Celeste was often inclined to work on building the profile of CC.
"He has done a lot in improving the visibility of the college, nationally," Tiefenthaler says. She points out that CC just had its most selective year for admissions, with only 26 percent of applicants accepted.
"We are the only really selective liberal arts college between Iowa and California," she says. "This gives us the opportunity to be something more."
Help me, help you
Tiefenthaler, 46, also points out that Celeste worked to better the relationship between the college and Colorado Springs. She praises the State of the Rockies Project, a signature research initiative of Celeste's that focuses on increasing people's understanding of critical environmental and economic issues in the region.
"It's a great example for how you get students involved intellectually in making a difference and responding to the needs of the area," Tiefenthaler says.
She plans to build on the program, but to form her own ideas, too. When she was at Colgate, for instance, Tiefenthaler helped found and was the first director for the university's Upstate Institute. The intent there was to get faculty and students working with community organizations to address economic challenges in the small, rural area.
"The Upstate Institute was more focused on how you use research and knowledge to have a benefit in the local community," she says, "and give students those more serious opportunities."
One example came when local organizations asked the institute to study the impact of the welfare-to-work program of the 1990s. "I got involved and brought a team of students," Tiefenthaler says, "and what we found was that we had a low food stamp utilization. So we got a big [U.S. Department of Agriculture] grant, the students helped write the grant. We got it for the community, several hundred thousand dollars, to increase food stamp participation, and we partnered with a whole bunch of community organizations."
They found that the earned income tax credit was underused, so they started a program that every year, she says, had about 100 students help low-income families file for it.
These programs are win-win, she says: The community receives much-needed analytical assistance, and the students receive a real-world education.
"They would get an opportunity to interact with a group of people who had different experiences and expertise," she says. "They were more motivated, because they felt responsible to these organizations to do really quality research."
At Wake Forest, she helped establish the Institute for Public Engagement, which is rooted in the same idea.
At CC, Tiefenthaler says she'll spend her first year listening to, and discussing the needs of, the college and the community. For now, just a couple weeks in, she says, "A lot of [engagement] is happening here, but I think that we can do a lot more."
Liberal arts bias
Tiefenthaler considers this "a really tumultuous time" in higher ed. "Not only because of the budget problems," she says, "but because the profile of high school students graduating is changing. The poorest generation ever is on its way to college. It's much more diverse."
At CC, where total costs hit $52,000 a year, diversity has to mean scholarships. Tiefenthaler says 35 to 40 percent of the student body is on need-based assistance, while another 5 to 10 percent is on merit-based assistance.
"We would always like more," she says of money to provide financial support, and notes that the Celeste administration secured a challenge grant from the Walton Family Foundation: If the college can raise $10 million for high-need and first-generation students over the next few years, the foundation will match it.
There's no question that Tiefenthaler believes such donations are a good investment. "The liberal arts are more important than ever," she says, since the kinds of jobs that graduating students are seeking are changing so rapidly.
Her own career path is something of a testament to the strength of a nimble mind, given the way she's adapted to challenges in the classroom and administration. As she puts it, "One of my strengths as an administrator is that I understand the faculty. I've done research, I've been published. I think that I can better support them in their role because I understand it."
As for the liberal arts themselves, consider that Tiefenthaler was just a small-town farmgirl in Iowa before she discovered an unknown world at Indiana's Saint Mary's College in the '80s.
"That opportunity was transformative to me. I know the power of it," she says. "I believe in it."