Heelan retires from CMC presidency
The term of the longest-serving president in Colorado Mountain College has come to an end.
The college learned Thursday that Cynthia Heelan is stepping down for health reasons, after nine years as president.
Heelan is in China until next week and could not be reached for comment.
In a prepared statement, she said, “I have given my heart and soul to Colorado Mountain College, and this marvelous institution will always be a part of me. However, during a recent medical leave I realized that I personally need a change in lifestyle.”
CMC Vice President Dr. Robert Spuhler will continue serving as acting president. He was appointed when Heelan began a health-related six-week leave of absence in October.
The announcement of Heelan’s retirement, and its immediate nature, came as a surprise to at least one CMC board member.
“Hmmm – OK,” said Judi Hayward of Battlement Mesa.
“She’d asked for six weeks. I’m shocked. … I thought this might be coming down the pike, but I didn’t think it would be coming from a telephone call from a media person,” she said.
Hayward said the average college president serves six or seven years.
She said Heelan indicated that the CMC presidency would be her last job before retirement.
Based on the praise heaped on Heelan Thursday, her departure, while sudden, appears to be entirely voluntary.
“Absolutely,” said college spokesman Joe Marquez.
He said Heelan, 60, was battling problems with her endocrine system, and it was causing fatigue exacerbated by the high-paced, stressful lifestyle of a college president whose district encompasses nine counties.
Hayward, the only current board member on the board when Heelan was hired, praised her work at the college.
“I’ve just seen growth, and meeting more and more educational needs throughout our district under Cynthia’s leadership,” she said.
Among those accomplishments were the construction of 11 academic centers and residence halls and the creation of 16 new academic programs.
Marquez said the construction work was a major challenge in that Heelan worked with seven deans who all had facilities needs they hoped to see addressed soon.
“There had to be great diplomacy in figuring out how we were going to implement this massive refurbishment of the college,” he said.
He said the facilities construction cost totaled probably $50 million to $60 million.
Yet the district’s tax rate never increased during Heelan’s tenure. The college’s tax rate was a major political sore point earlier in the college’s 35-year history.
Heelan improved the college’s finances by helping get a de-Bruceing measure passed in 2000 to remove income caps related to the TABOR (Taxpayers Bill of Rights) Amendment authored by Douglas Bruce.
Marquez said the college has been moving toward achieving many of the strategic initiatives set in 1996 under Heelan’s leadership.
One of those was to become a global technology leader. Marquez said CMC has earned statewide attention for its work in distance learning.
Beyond the academic realm, Heelan has a passion for the arts and ethnic cultures. A CMC gallery opened in downtown Glenwood Springs under her leadership, and recently the college reached an agreement with the Northern Ute Tribe allowing its members in-district tuition rates.
In a prepared statement, CMC Board of Trustees Chair Dr. John Giardino said he is sad to see Heelan go.
“She was an incredible servant leader whose participative management style ensured the best decisions were made for the college as a whole,” he said. “She elevated our image across the state and nationally while facilitating huge improvements in the quality of our programs, services and facilities.”
Spuhler said in the same CMC news release, “The whole college is hoping her retirement will help her return to a more optimum state of health.”
He added, “Cynthia was a dynamic leader who facilitated our organization’s passage into adulthood. We became one of the most prominent community colleges in Colorado during her tenure.”
Marquez compared Heelan’s loss to “the Broncos losing John Elway.”
“She was our superstar who led us to great achievements, and it will be difficult to replace her level of leadership,” he said.
The board will be meeting next week, and will take up the question of whether to conduct a national search such as the one that brought Heelan from Minnesota.
“With the holidays approaching I’m skeptical it would be too soon,” Marquez said of such a search. “It’s a massive undertaking.”
An in-house hiring of someone such as Spuhler also is possible, Marquez and Hayward indicated.
Hayward said the college always has asked Heelan to have in place lines of succession in the case of staff departures within the college, including herself. That should help ease the college through the transition involving the sudden loss of its leader.
“The college is not going to suffer. We’ve got some great people at all levels. We’re a big college. We’ll figure this out,” she said.
Marquez isn’t certain of Heelan’s future plans. He said it appears she intends to leave the area, because she has put her house up for sale.
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