Lief guided by Naropa’s founding vision
Although Lief has been serving as president since last summer, the university in Boulder will celebrate Lief’s ceremonial inauguration on Saturday, Feb. 16, with music, poetry readings and video remarks from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, a renowned Buddhist teacher and decendent. Lief’s formal oath will be led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a former world wisdom chairman at Naropa.
The search for a new president began in September 2011, after Stuart C. Lord announced that he would step down. Nearly 300 people applied, which the search committee eventually narrowed down to four finalists.
“All of the candidates were exceptional,” Lief said. “I don’t think they could have made a mistake with that group to choose from.”
Naropa announced Lief’s appointment in May, and he took over the presidency from interim president John Whitehouse Cobb in August. However, Lief’s relationship with the university extends back to the school’s origin in 1974. In addition to being an early student of Naropa’s founder, Lief was an original board member of the Nalanda Foundation, the nonprofit that housed the university during its early years.
Lief, 62, has been a member of Naropa’s board of trustees since 1986, and was elected chairman of the board in May 2011. His wife, Judy, is a former dean and chief executive of the Naropa Institute, and both of the couple’s daughters graduated from Naropa.
Lief feels his extensive history with the university will serve him well as president.
“Next year will be our 40th anniversary, and the reality is that I will probably be the last Naropa president who is able to look back to the beginning.” Lief said. “I think it’s important to remember where we came from in terms of the founding vision for this place.”
That vision is based on the concept of contemplative education, which Naropa defines as an “approach to learning (that) integrates the best of Eastern and Western educational traditions, helping students to know themselves more deeply and … cultivating academic excellence and contemplative insight in order to infuse knowledge with wisdom.”
Although more schools and organizations are starting to focus on contemplative education and mindfulness, Lief thinks Naropa still offers a unique experience for students.
“We have shaped contemplative education in the U.S. over the last 40 years,” Lief said. “It underlies our entire curriculum, not just a department or two. It’s the whole university.”
The Buddhist-inspired university offers an array of degrees in nontraditional fields such as ecopsychology, peace studies and wilderness therapy alongside more-traditional degree programs such as environmental studies, writing and literature, religious studies, and music and visual arts.
“I’m happy that a very significant portion of our alumni report that within six months of graduating, they are employed in jobs that they really want to be in,” Lief said.
According to Naropa’s website, 73 of the school’s undergraduates and 82 percent of its graduate students find jobs in their field of study within six months of graduation.
For the 2012-13 school year, Naropa lists 402 undergraduate students and 617 graduate students. Undergraduate tuition for the year is $26,360, less than a 1 percent increase from last year, with 69 percent of undergraduate students receiving some kind of financial aid.
Lief said that keeping tuition increases to a minimum and raising money for scholarships are two of his top priorities.
“I believe that we provide a great value, but it is still an expensive journey for students,” he said. “It’s important that they feel their time here was well spent.”
One way he hopes to do that is by broadening Naropa’s offerings to include new degree programs for online and distance learning.
“Although we want students here as part of our community for at least some of their time, there are all kinds of new platforms for delivering education,” Lief said. “It’s about striking that balance.”
Lief also hopes to reach out to the nondegree-seeking public by expanding Naropa’s continuing education and extended studies programs.
“I’m looking for us to become much more engaged with the local community by collaborating with businesses, nonprofits, government organizations and other community leaders,” Lief said.
Lief also asserted his commitment to keeping Naropa in Boulder. In May 2011, school officials announced that they were beginning a search for a site to consolidate Naropa’s three Boulder campuses, a task they said could move the university out of Boulder altogether. Lief said that will not be the case.
“We would like to find a way to consolidate, and that is complicated when there are limited development opportunities,” Lief said. “But we have been committed here since 1974 and have no intention to leave. Part of Naropa’s strength comes from having the Boulder community to draw from, and we don’t take that for granted.”
In addition to his service to Naropa, Lief has served as managing partner at Colorado law firm Roper, Lief, Mains and Cobb; first president of Greyston Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that offers housing for homeless families and those affected by HIV and AIDS; and principal in a real estate development group in Vermont.
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