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Meet the New Cabinet 

A rainbow is seen above Taylor Hall at sunset
A rainbow is seen above Taylor Hall at sunset

When it came time for President Brad Baca to select a cabinet to help bring his vision for Western to life, he knew he would need to select strong leaders who are the most qualified candidates in the field. With Gary Pierson staying on as Dean of Students, this new team is a diverse ensemble with varying backgrounds, experiences, and identities. “I’m enthusiastic about Western’s future and what this team can accomplish,” President Baca said. Here are the people helping to shape the future at Western. 

Headshot of Jessica Young, Ph.D.

Jess Young 
Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs 

Jessica Young is a gentle giant – not only in her demeanor but also in her convictions. As Provost of Western Colorado University, she takes on the massive responsibility of student success and does so with determined poise.  

“Fundamentally, my main goal as Provost is to ensure that all students from all populations have the same opportunities that I did to succeed in higher education,” said Jess.  

Early in her education, Jess didn’t know many people who went to college, but she discovered an “infinite number of pathways” she could take to get there through her love of wildlife and the outdoors.  

Ultimately, it was Jess’s passion for biology that got her foot in the door. While finishing up her undergraduate degree in Ecology, Behavior and Evolution, she received a recording of Colorado sage-grouse that sounded different than any she’d ever heard from her work with faculty in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. She followed the sound to Gunnison, where, with the help of Western undergrads and colleagues, she discovered that the Gunnison Sage-Grouse was a unique sage-grouse species. It was a significant contribution to science and the conservation of the sagebrush ecosystem that she couldn’t have made without access to higher education.  

Jess Young looks through a pair of binoculars at an outdoor area

“Those early years of exploring general education courses and different majors increasingly showed me my strong interest was in biology,” Jess said. “This exploration and the mentoring of faculty was so important in expanding my idea of what was possible for my professional path.” 

Now, Jess is committed to showing students how to achieve their goals and be a part of something great, especially students from marginalized groups. Being a part of President Baca’s cabinet is helping her realize those goals. 

“The President’s Cabinet is a spectacular group of human beings who are totally dedicated to the well-being of Western staff, students, and faculty,” Jess said.  

In her free time, Jess enjoys spending time with her spouse, Sally Thode. The couple loves the natural world. They revel in it by hiking, camping, and fishing but can also be found at home or the local movie theater watching blockbuster science fiction and superhero movies, including all things Harry Potter. 

Headshot of Gary Pierson.

Gary Pierson 
Dean of Students (Our Dean of Stoke)

After 25 years of service to Western Colorado University, it’s no wonder our beloved Dean of Students and senior cabinet member, Gary Pierson, is number one on our Top Ten list. His dedication to our students and community is evident in everything he does. He even gives his cell phone number to every new student on the first day of orientation.  

“I know not every student takes it or wants it, but I need them all to know they have support here,” Gary said. 

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Of course, Gary’s love for the school comes from how special the people are. He says the ‘Special Sauce’ that makes Western a one-of-a-kind place is the people, so fostering connections with his students is his top priority. And students likely won’t just see him on campus. There’s a good chance they’ll find him enjoying a powder day or biking the singletrack.  

“There’s nothing like the outdoor scene here at Western,” he said. 

Admittedly, the line between Gary’s work and life is blurred. Even on his days off, he will come to campus, and even at the dinner table, he will answer his phone.  

“I really want to give them full credit for being so supportive of me,” Gary said of his family. “I couldn’t have made it this far without them, particularly without my wife and her support. 

Gary Pierson rides his townie in the old Western State marching band uniform

Being a proactive Dean of Students at Western requires more than just a friendly face. Gary learned that caring for himself, his family, and his department is just as important as caring for students.  

And Gary is also an active member of the community. He serves on the boards of Gunnison Trails and the Tourism and Prosperity Project (TAPP) and is a familiar face around town. His love for the Gunnison Valley extends to all aspects of life.  

“It’s so important for our students, faculty, and staff to be embraced by the community and for Western to embrace the community as well,” he urged. 

Often because of his community involvement, Gary is referred to as the face of Western, but it’s evident that he’s a big part of the heart and soul, too. After two and a half decades of service, it’s safe to say that we love Gary just as much as he loves us.  

Hear, hear to our Dean of Stoke! 

A headshot of Ian Higgins.

Ian Higgins 
Vice President for Finance & Administration / CFO  

Math has always come easily to Ian Higgins. It was like that when he was a kid growing up on Long Island Sound in Connecticut. It was like that when he graduated with an accounting degree from Sacred Heart University and entered a world in the throes of a recession with little need for accountants. It was like that when he was a young accountant, finally starting a career that would allow him to keep chasing his dream of living in the mountains.  

He was even good at math working at the rental shop in Tahoe, although he was often thinking about just one number: how many days he could ski.  

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But it’s not just the knack for math that got him to where he is today. It’s the fact that, for a guy who loves numbers and spreadsheets, Higgins is a remarkably good communicator. And while beating back stereotypes isn’t the only thing his skill set is good for, it’s what makes him the perfect fit as Western Colorado University’s Vice President of Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer.  

“I love working in spreadsheets, building out formulas, trying to put a unique perspective on how we can efficiently use funds. It’s a huge part of my job and a challenge. Not just here, but everywhere I’ve worked,” he said. “There are always competing priorities. It’s interesting to me to try to solve that riddle.” 

Ian Higgins jumps off a rock while skiing

Having spent time working in the accounting department at Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont, managing the loan servicing department for a bank on Martha’s Vineyard, and managing the budget at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, among other things, Higgins has plenty of experience balancing priorities. 

Even now, as he tries to solve the riddle at Western and feels the pressure omnipresent in his role as the head of a department that spans the areas of finance, information technology, human resources, and facilities, overseeing almost 90 staff members, he still catches himself dreaming of the slopes and trails he moved here with his wife to enjoy.  

“We’re very excited to be here for all the outdoor opportunities. We love the town and want to be part of a community, get to know our neighbors, and get involved,” he said. “Since I’ve been incredibly busy, I haven’t had much opportunity to get out. But we have nothing but time. We’re going to be here awhile.” 

Headshot of Mike LaPlante

Mike LaPlante 
Vice President for Advancement & Executive Director, WCU Foundation 

Mike LaPlante has always liked having a goal to work toward. He’s at his best when he can see the place he wants to go and can put everything he has into the effort to get there. So, of course, as a kid growing up in Toledo, Ohio, it was team sports that gave him the feedback he was looking for.  

As a young professional, long after the crowds had gone quiet, LaPlante still felt drawn to the energy of sports. He started his career as an assistant athletic director and dreamed of being an AD someday. But soon, he realized athletics wasn’t the only place that would let him focus on a goal, put in the hard work, count on the team he had around him, and see the result. Fundraising for higher education, it turned out, was a game with stakes so much higher than any sport. 

After shifting his focus and becoming an Associate Vice President for Advancement at Colorado State University, he led the Development Team in the State Your Purpose campaign, which ultimately reached its $1 billion fundraising goal 21 months early.  

After seeing that success, LaPlante was eager to take on more. So when the opportunity to help Western with a similar campaign as the University’s Vice President for Advancement came up, he jumped at it.  

Mike LaPlante and Myles VanHee converse about the renovation of the Mountaineer Bowl.

“I was ready for a new mountain to climb, and the ambitions stated through the [$80 million] Elevate Western campaign were intriguing to me,” LaPlante said. “We’re taking on this significant fundraising effort, and, with my past campaign experience, felt confident I could make a difference.” 

These days, LaPlante is happy he can work to achieve a goal that will improve students’ education and experience at Western.  

“At Western, the student enthusiasm paired with the dedication and commitment of our faculty and staff, make it a fantastic place to work,” LaPlante said. “It’s an honor to represent Western and strive to help students find pathways they may not have found before. If we can provide a scholarship to a student who wouldn’t otherwise have the means to attend Western, that makes all the difference in the world.” 

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Headshot of Vice President for Inclusivity, Steven Parker.

Steven D. Parker 
Vice President for Inclusivity  

As a black man in the United States, Steven D. Parker was born into the work of Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity, and Justice (DEIJ+). Though he’s faced blatant bigotry and tokenism inside and outside of academia, Parker knows higher education is still the path to a better future.  

“Education is a strategy for change, growth, unity, understanding, and betterment … education is hope,” Parker said. 

Through the nature of his position in life, Parker has learned to fight for justice, but his career in this pursuit started when he went to college for a degree in social work. Since then, Parker has worked in higher education as a diversity officer, Title IX coordinator, and even a residence life director. In these roles and in his current role as Western’s inaugural Vice President for Inclusivity, Parker operates under the belief that every person, regardless of and in respect of identity, is inherently worthy of life. 

“Not all of our siblings in the United States or even around the world are seen as inherently worthy of living; we’re just not,” Parker said.  

Steven Parker sprints on the indoor track in the Mountaineer Field House.

Since starting at Western, Parker has worked with students and the workforce to establish the Division for Justice and Inclusion. This Division is the first of its kind at the University, focusing solely on diversity, equity, inclusivity, and justice. Through Parker’s office, Western has also established the Center for Civil Rights, the Center for Dis/Ability and Accommodations, and has hired the interim Director of Restorative Justice and Title IX Coordinator.  

Parker’s passion for social justice can be found in everything he does. Outside of his career, Parker is an avid reader and runner. Now, he uses that resilience to stand firm in his mission of equality.  

 “Oftentimes, people inquire about what it takes to dismantle systemic oppression in the United States. I oftentimes veer from the truth because they will not handle the truth,” Parker said. “Systemic oppression is longitudinal, and it infects the bio-psycho-socio-cultural components of life. To treat an infection, we must actively fight it through time. The fight through time is an essential component that we must be willing to devote ourselves to if we are ever to live united.” 

Leslie Taylor smiles with her arms folded in front of Taylor Hall on a blue sky winter day

Leslie Taylor 
Vice President for Marketing & Enrollment 

Leslie Taylor is an ambitious mother, adventurer, and former collegiate athlete who landed the job of her dreams as Western’s Vice President of Marketing and Enrollment when the stars aligned after early retirement Surrounded by the beauty of the Gunnison Valley, Leslie says it’s hard not to feel gratitude. 

“Being surrounded by natural beauty and truly awe-inspiring sights creates a sense of gratitude and appreciation for where we are,” Leslie said. “I believe that having gratitude in our lives is a superpower. It makes us feel better about life and gives us space to care about people and our work in a different way.” 

Leslie Taylor reaches for a bunch of greens at one of the booths at the farmer's market.

Though our location clearly affected her, as it does most of us, Leslie was even more inspired when she learned about the people. She saw what President Brad Baca was developing in his inaugural year as president, specifically embracing regional public university (RPU) values, and a spark ignited. An RPU is a public four-year institution that is community and place oriented. Generally, the schools are known for being focused on broad access to education and affordability. 

Leslie’s work in higher education is driven by a commitment to making college education more accessible to all students. “As an indigenous woman and first-generation college graduate, I am passionate about providing equitable opportunities for access and success,” she said. “If we don’t work to engage folks from all backgrounds and levels of economic capacity, we’re missing out on those perspectives and the potential of those minds.” 

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