Remarks to the 1870 Dinner
February 4, 2012
What a great production this evening! Let’s give everyone involved with this evening another round of applause. But I have to admit that the best thing about tonight for me is an old thing: seeing so many of you again. Over the past 19 years, we’ve gotten to know so many of you, and as I see you I’m reminded of so many great stories. This evening has been about stories — you’ve heard our students and others telling about their CSU experiences and the impact of this Campaign on their lives.
The power of story telling
Story telling is a powerful form of communication, and people who study it point to the fact that story telling is implicit, evocative and emergent — it causes us to connect to our personal experiences and our own memories. I became interested in story telling in part through my good friend and our former Board chair, Pat McConathy, who thinks it’s one of the most powerful ways for people to come together, to share experiences and to understand each other.
This is my fourth year sharing stories with all of you at an 1870 dinner. Over those years, we’ve told the story of Land Grant Universities, of Colorado State’s alumni, of our greatest donors who have literally transformed this university before our eyes — Pat Stryker, the Monforts and Ed & Jackie Warner — of our faculty and our students who are the muscle and bone — heart and soul of CSU.
These stories all contain elements of hope and striving, change and transformation, and success and excellence.
Over the span of the Campaign for Colorado State, you have helped us to write a story of excellence: of support for a world-class faculty and new faculty positions, of students filled with ability and drive that are, indeed, our best hopes for the future. A story of excellence in people, programs and places. A story that builds on the foundations of this great American university and adds a compelling chapter to an even longer and more enduring story in which our chapters are but a small part.
Your generosity has opened doors of opportunity
Over the span of the Campaign for Colorado State, your generosity has unlocked and opened doors of opportunity through which our faculty and students have stepped — and in doing so their lives have been transformed. And through that transformation — that door — they will go on to change our world.
Hope and striving. Change and transformation. Success and excellence. I suspect the most challenging of these is change and transformation. It’s a struggle for any organization and difficult for many people. But it’s where the growth occurs. This campaign has changed CSU — as you’ve heard. But it’s also changed us in more subtle, underlying ways. We see ourselves differently. We see differently what we’re capable of. It’s increased the depth and breadth of our expectations. It could just be me, but I think I see us standing just a little taller, holding our head a little higher, not explaining the way things are so often and asking “why not” more frequently. But times of change and transformation are not always comfortable for everyone. Recently, against our backdrop of change and transformation, some have suggested that change may signify that Colorado State has lost its focus — maybe forgotten our raison d’être.
I’ve been listening to such comments for several weeks now. I’ve been thinking about it. And today, I have a few things I’d like to say about that.
From the moment Abraham Lincoln put down the fountain pen he used to sign the Morrill Act that created Land Grant Universities, places like CSU have been about one thing and one thing only, and to understand that you need to picture a person.
They’re usually young (but they don’t have to be) — they could be a man or a woman — they could be white, black, or brown (we don’t care about their race) — they may want to be a teacher, doctor, lawyer, accountant, they may want to open a small business, go into science or engineering, be an artist or writer, or just be a great citizen — we don’t care about their religion — we don’t care about a whole set of things they believe — and we certainly don’t care about how wealthy their family is.
What we do care about is giving them a superb education if they’ve earned it with their talent and motivation — with their merit.
Merit — the raw material of excellence
Merit, you see, is the raw material of excellence. And merit is a foundational — indeed quintessential — element on which Americans have built our society.
We were the first nation to stake our future on the ability of each and every one of our citizens — not the abilities of a couple of social classes.
We doubled down on that stake less than 100 years later with the commitment of the Land Grant Act that says we will all be better off if every one of us melds our individual merit into our collective foundation of excellence.
We’ve kept this focus at CSU in our words and in our actions — recently via the Commitment to Colorado and by focusing this campaign on scholarships and academic excellence.
Encircling the inside of the dome of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., is the following quote from Thomas Jefferson: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” And what greater form of tyranny over the mind of man can we envision but to limit access to education, enslaving one to ignorance? To think that anything could ever cause a Land Grant University to lose this focus is to fail to understand what we are about in the most fundamental way possible.
But “ever” is a long time. I probably shouldn’t stand here today and tell you that there will never come a day when American public higher education will shift its view. I can’t say there will never be a day when the person at this podium speaks in soft, apologetic tones about pipelines, formulaic funding, and the optimal distribution of limited educational resources — saying in code that our commitment to merit has ended and that we will no longer afford excellence.
But that day is not today.
And that day will not occur at this university so long as those of us in this room care about CSU, its heritage and its future. And so long as we collectively draw breath to chart that future, transforming merit into excellence will remain the focus of Colorado State University. That focus should apply to everything that we do.
We should expect it of ourselves.
And we should never settle for anything less.
Hope and striving. Change and transformation. Success and excellence. But tonight has an additional final focal point: You.
The key you hold
In front of each of you is an envelope that contains a wooden key. This key is symbolic. It’s my hope that you’ll place this key somewhere where you can see it each day, and that when you see it, you’ll be reminded of two things:
First, this university’s enduring thanks for your generosity, which unlocked doors of opportunity for so many via the Campaign for Colorado State.
Second, that each of you has the ability, every day, through your choices and actions, to unlock doors of opportunity for others — and for yourself. And it’s my sincere hope that each of you will seize that opportunity as often as you can.
You are why the Campaign for Colorado State was successful.
You are why this is a great university.
And you are why it remains my very great honor to serve as the president of your university.