Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow
Joe Mildenhall was praised for his pioneering work in online learning systems during a retirement party Wednesday afternoon in the Student Union at Grand Canyon University.
Mildenhall’s platforms helped build the University of Phoenix into an online education powerhouse, and in 2009, he joined GCU President Brian Mueller to complete the task of doing the same at GCU.
“To be able to retire at your age and say you were an integral part of two of the greatest transitions that higher education has ever been through ... We have been part of two miracles,” Mueller said, describing the hundreds of thousands of online learners who utilized the systems he helped construct. “And you built it. You built it.”
The longtime GCU Chief Information Officer started with a system at the University of Phoenix in 1998 “that was running on someone’s desk in San Francisco and supported 3,000 students,” he told colleagues and friends at the gathering. In three years, it supported 70,000.
Along the way, there were glitches that Mildenhall helped solve with the calm, steady demeanor that many praised on Wednesday. He kept a phone by his bed, like an on-call physician of technology. He said it kept him motivated to improve the systems.
During one system shutdown crisis many years ago, he described the thrill of finding a special character in an instructor’s post that brought it down.
“That was a fun one to diagnose,” he said. “I love challenges and how to solve problems.”
Through it all, he remained calm, said Kathy Claypatch, GCU’s Chief Information Officer and longtime colleague.
“I learned a lot of lessons from Joe. How to be flexible and adaptable no matter what is going on in a changing technological world,” she said. “No matter what is going on, keep your cool.”
Mueller said Mildenhall’s unique skillset of understanding technology but also how people teach and learn made it happen and helped grow the University’s online enrollment to 90,000, a key factor in helping to grow GCU’s ground campus.
Mildenhall has been a vital cog in the improvements in GCU’s learning management systems, from Angel to LoudCloud to Halo, launched in 2021.
On Wednesday, he was given a 3D printed “purple halo” that he placed on his crown with a smile.
Mildenhall credited the team who worked alongside him. But Executive Director of Campus Technology John Kalua said it was Mildenhall’s mentorship that guided him through his career, especially his “can we do this?” emails.
“Every single one of them got me to think differently or challenged me to do something I had never seen before,” Kalua said. “I’ve never had a mentor train me organically without saying I am going to train you.”
Chief Technology Officer Dilek Marsh also praised that personal touch, once going to the drug store to get her medicine. “It’s those little things. I don’t want to go over the stuff with work. It’s the things outside of it that are so special to keep us together.”
With gentle guidance while drinking “Diet Dr. Pepper at scale,” said Senior Vice President of Curriculum and Publishing Mark Alexander, Mildenhall led colleagues with graceful patience.
“I just loved working here at Grand Canyon,” Mildenhall said. “Being here and being able to work around students you are impacting is really special. It’s the kind of thing that gets me up every morning.”
He will spend more time visiting his 10 grandchildren in California and Texas, he said after the program. No doubt he will stroll across the campus he helped build on occasion.
“You don’t really think about it when you are doing it. It’s incremental. But as you look back on what you’ve built over the years and what it’s doing, you are amazed,” he said.
He can’t forget the day it brought it all home to him.
“The first game in the new arena,” he said of the 2011 opening of GCU Arena. “To see that many people from where we started, it settled in how much we grew the University.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.