Remarks to the 1870 Dinner
February 9, 2013
So I think I owe you all an apology.
Here we are at the end of another wonderful evening, the food, the music, the setting have all been excellent as always. The program has highlighted many of the world-class programs going on at Colorado State. And, as always, the chance to catch up with many old friends, even if only for a moment, is the most special part for me. And this evening comes on the heels of last year’s 1870 dinner, where we celebrated the success of the university’s first campaign — The Campaign for Colorado State. And both of these events come, of course, following four difficult years; four years of some of the greatest economic challenges that Colorado State has ever faced. And we came through those years, by nearly any measure, stronger than ever. Consistent record enrollment, record research, Colorado’s university of choice, first-generation scholars, retention and graduation rates, reputational indices and public perception, philanthropic support, engagement in the life of our city, state and world, and so many wonderful service and research stories about making a difference — here and across the globe.
All of these attributes form a wonderful testament to the quality of the faculty, staff, and students of this great university, who seized the opportunity provided by the foundation laid by those who came before us and built upon it a new chapter that will be read with pride when the history of CSU is written.
You were all, of course, a vital part of that success. And so this evening, after all that we’ve accomplished and all that we have to celebrate, you deserve simply a toast and our heartfelt gratitude. You’ve earned that.
CSU may become the first publically defunded land-grant university
But, to paraphrase Lincoln, “With energy and sleepless vigilance, we must look forward.”
And so, I apologize in advance for shifting the tone a bit from one of celebration, but if we are, in fact, vigilant, we cannot fail to note a darkness on our horizon — a darkness that portends a storm, a darkness that we hope will pass us by, but for which we must now begin to prepare.
Despite our recovering economy, there is no way to escape the relentless analysis that unless something fundamentally changes in the way in which we entrust resources and their management to our elected representatives, a series of budgetary pressures will crush the discretionary budget of our state to zero, eliminating funding for public higher education sometime in the next decade. We will, unless something changes significantly, become the first land-grant university in history to be publically defunded. In fact, we face an unprecedented challenge — one never seen in the 150 years of land-grant universities. And, tempting as the ostrich approach to trouble may be, this problem will not be solved by our ignoring it. We cannot ignore this challenge; we cannot fail to plan for it, because what this university offers to our society and the generations who follow is too important for us to fail.
Consider the impact of these first generation graduates
Consider the impact on our world today if Colorado State University had not been available for:
- A young Mexican American woman who remembers a time when she was just three years old and wanted to sit in the center aisle at church. But since her family was Mexican American, they had to sit off to the side. She never forgot that memory, even when she enrolled at CSU on an Honors scholarship, even when a faculty member encouraged her to change her major to political science, even when she became the first Mexican American woman elected to a state house of representatives anywhere in the country — and even as she went on to build a stellar reputation as a pioneer, advocate, and leader for our state, nation, and all people — of course I’m talking about Polly Baca.
- A boy growing up in here in Colorado, in Del Norte, in the shadow of Lookout Mountain — an isolated place, far from the glare of city lights, where the view of the stars must have been phenomenal. He followed his own stars to CSU’s College of Engineering: where Kent Rominger became an Astronaut and Shuttle Commander.
- Or the young black man from Denver, a National Merit Scholar and the son of a railroad porter, who came to CSU only to be denied housing and refused service in local restaurants because of his race. But he never viewed the world through cynical eyes, instead building his reputation as a leader in ROTC and vice president of his class. He became a CSU football legend, and after graduation joined an even more legendary team, the Tuskegee Airmen, where John Mosley rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel.
These people — and so many like them, first-generation college graduates, many of them from small rural communities, many of them from economically struggling, low-income families — are our collective heritage. And were they all here this evening, I believe they’d remind us that none of us is smart enough, insightful enough, lucky enough, to guess who, among the 5,000 faces sitting in Moby Arena at next Fall’s Convocation, will go on to create a vaccine, champion a change in law, lead our government, raise a wonderful family, or write a poem that moves our very souls.
And make no mistake: we need those people. The loss of human potential because we narrowed the gate of opportunity to only a subset of those who were qualified and who have, by their actions and hard work, earned the chance to make the most of their lives — benefiting us in the process — should be unacceptable, indeed repugnant to those of us who believe in America’s commitment to meritocracy.
Can we save Lincoln’s American system of education for the common man?
And so, knowing this challenge must be met, we look around this room. And if we’re honest, we ask ourselves, “Are we up to this task?” Who are we to save Abraham Lincoln’s great American system of education for the common man?
It’s a daunting question. Here’s another one: Who are we, everyday people from cities and farms across Colorado and this nation, with diverse backgrounds and the usual pressures of life, to be responsible for saving mankind’s greatest educational innovation?
But perhaps, again, we can take some solace, some comfort, some inspiration from Lincoln’s own words when faced with challenges that make those confronting us pale in comparison. Perhaps his most recognized in this vein comes from his famous December 1862 address to Congress, 10 weeks after penning the executive order establishing the Emancipation Proclamation and almost exactly half a year after signing the Morrill Act: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”
The power of persistence and the power of the common, everyday citizen
Despite how well that phrase has survived in our history, Lincoln, in fact, had a long history of belief in the power of persistence and the power of the common, everyday citizen. In a personal letter written in July 1860, he offered this advice: “I know not how to aid you, save in the assurance of one of mature age, and much severe experience, that you cannot fail, if you resolutely determine, that you will not.”
Responding to challenge — *THAT* is the heritage of Colorado State University.
- Charles Lory brought CSU through the 1918 Spanish influenza, two world wars and the Great Depression; and I’m suspicious he didn’t always know what was coming next.
- Bill Morgan managed the greatest growth in the history of our university and the transition from Colorado A&M to CSU amidst the social turmoil of the 1960s. And I’d bet a pretty penny that he spent more than a few sleepless nights staring at a dark ceiling.
And we also know that these presidents did not, alone, navigate the rapids of their day. They were aided by people who shared a common bond with everyone in this room this evening: a love for CSU.
Perhaps our actions here will be cited as a model for education and innovation
Of course, part of the difficulty in using history as inspiration is that we know the end of the story. We know Lincoln saved the union. We know Lory and Morgan found the right path forward. But we don’t know how our own story will end. Perhaps, years from now, this funding challenge will not even rise to the level of footnote in the history of higher education. Perhaps this chapter will describe the fall of American public higher education. Perhaps our actions here will be cited as a model that brought the opportunity for 150 more years of Land Grant University education and innovation.
So here we are this evening — in the midst of our story. We don’t know the ending, but we see the challenge only too clearly. And, like it or not, we, in this room, are the champions who must rise to meet the challenge of our day. This falls to us, whether we would accept the challenge or no.
If not us, who? And if not now, when?
Tonight, we begin a new foundation, an age that will begin in 2020
Tonight we begin to lay, upon the legacy left to us by so many great men and women, a new foundation that will serve Colorado State University for its next 150 years. That age begins in 2020, and I believe we should — and we will — stand there on that day with pride in our accomplishment, secure in the fact that this great university will continue to open wide the doors of opportunity for all who walk her hallowed halls and beautiful grounds because her foundation, our foundation, has withstood the greatest storm of our day.
Because we know we must not fail, we stand, to paraphrase Lincoln, resolute in our determination that we will not.
I’m going to close with my personal favorite sentence from one of Lincoln’s letters. It was written in response to a challenge about whether or not he was up to the task that faced him. His answer, spoken with his characteristic simplicity, speaks plainly to us across a century and a half of time: “I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.”
*THAT* is the spirit of CSU.
I came to Colorado 20 years ago and I’ve stayed because I believe those who make up this generation of people who care so deeply about Colorado State University can make an important difference, and I am so proud to be a small part of that. There is so much for you all to be proud of at Colorado State. I hope that you are as proud of your university as I am to serve you as her president.
Together, we will write a wonderful end to this chapter — to our story.