President’s Fall Address to the University
By Dr. Rick Miranda, Interim President
Thursday, September 29, 2022

Thank you and welcome to everybody. I’m delighted to be here with all of you today. This event represents the best of the CSU community, and it has some special significance this year.

Twenty-five years ago, as CSU faced the challenge of rebuilding from the Spring Creek Flood just months earlier, President Albert Yates established this tradition, adding a picnic and campus-wide celebration to what was a more modest annual fall address event.

Storms on July 27 and 28 of 1997 dropped more than 14 inches of rain in some locations on the slopes to the west of us, sending a wall of water into the city and on to campus. The flow along some of the streets near campus was like that of the Poudre River at the height of spring snowmelt. The flood created rapids in parking lots, burst through doors, and filled the lower levels of buildings. Facilities management ultimately pumped about 5 million gallons of water out of our buildings. Tragically, five Fort Collins residents died in the flooding.

I had become chair of the math department only weeks before the flood, and was spending those days in a mini-vacation in Steamboat Springs with my family. I recall distinctly hearing a call from the other room, where the TV was, to come and listen to the breaking news story.  It is a moment seared in my memory all these years later, watching on TV what was happening back home in Fort Collins. Personally for our department, much of the library’s math collection had been destroyed. Across campus, colleagues and students lost work measured in semesters, years, and decades.

The days, weeks and months after the flood were challenging in so many ways. And yet the community came together to clean up, to rebuild, and, in many cases, to reinvent. We adapted, and our resilience put ourselves in a position to excel.

President Yates, speaking here 25 years ago, called on the CSU community to take strength from the shared experience of recent months. He said: “The flood offered many lessons, not the least of which is that we can be better than we’ve been…Only if we do this – only if we are better in the end – can we claim that our recovery efforts have been successful.”

When I look back over these 25 years, I think that we’ve fulfilled President Yates’ hopes: We are better in almost every way. Enrollments are strong, and the entering class is better prepared, and is closer to reflecting Colorado, than ever before. Research has grown exponentially; we are in the first rank of land grant universities for our size, and our scholarly reputation has never been better. The campus has been transformed physically in this time, with a score of new facilities to teach, learn, and discover in. And our reach and impact across the state of Colorado continues to impress.

We can be better than we’ve been,” he said. These are simple, yet powerful words, and you all, the Colorado State community, responded over these decades, and fulfilled our hopes admirably. There is a lot that we can be proud of.

We’re not done though, are we?

Pandemic Crisis and Response

It’s a new century; it’s a different September morning; many of us remember 1997, but the majority don’t, I imagine. However the more things change the more they stay the same, eh? We’re gathered here today in a distinctly parallel situation.

We’re now several weeks into the fourth academic year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve lost members of our community to the disease; many of us have lost loved ones, friends, colleagues.

Operations in every corner of our university, and of our world, were impacted; some irreversibly. We’re not the same as we were just three years ago.

And it’s not over yet: We know that risks from COVID, along with fear and uncertainty, remain. The disease has highlighted our essential vulnerability and the countless ways that we are interconnected.

But we’re here today, after a pause of two cycles of Fall Addresses, to do three things: remember the costs we have borne; celebrate the successes we’ve had; and to look to the future. Everything we’ve learned in this period can be harvested, to make us Better Than We’ve Been.

We’ve not only reinvented ourselves in a host of ways, to address the challenges of the COVID period, in very positive ways. We’ve also identified some weaknesses on our campus and in our community. For example, we know the impacts from COVID have not been borne equally by all groups: The burdens have been greatest for those who are most vulnerable.

This, on top of the health and economic challenges of the pandemic, has demanded renewed attention on the need to focus on basic fairness, and to talk openly about complicated issues involving opportunity and identity, and about ways we are falling short of our ideals. I think we have generally responded well to those issues, but there is more to do: We can be better, fairer, than we’ve been.

Free Speech

Focusing on fairness, and on the flip side to that, of inequities, has led us, not only here but on college campuses across the country, and in society in general, to polarization in so many ways. This polarization, left/right, upper/lower, privileged/minoritized, white/of-color – has made it difficult to communicate effectively. Not only have we tended to congregate, even virtually, in our own silos – but too many of us have been tempted, when reaching out of those silos, to use ad hominem arguments, hurtful characterizations of identities, even hate speech at its worst. On this campus, we believe deeply in the principles of free speech and academic freedom; those are bedrock principles for us.  We can’t protect members of our community from the free speech of others. What we *can* do is:

  • (a) appropriately speak out and clearly articulate our values;
  • (b) work hard on educating our community on how to effectively exercise their own free speech in response; and
  • (c) provide a variety of support measures to our most vulnerable.

Hate speech is virtually always rooted in malicious lies – and our primary mission is to counter lies with the truth. Discovering the truth, speaking the truth, supporting the truth – that’s what we ought to do best. We should always strive to be more effective champions for the truth than we’ve been.

Highlights Currently

We have been stress-tested by COVID and by a range of other forces, and I feel privileged to look out at what is happening on this campus and see how busy and productive all of you are. This is a community united by our love of education and by recognition that education has the power to transform lives. And we’re doing that, and doing it well – in many ways, better than we ever have.

  • This fall, we welcomed over 5,500 new first-year students to our campus, our largest incoming class ever. Congratulations to our colleagues in admissions and others across campus who made this happen. It speaks to the health of our university and to the recognition that this is a community that is focused on the success of our students.
  • It’s also significant that Forbes magazine recently ranked us as the best educational employer in the state.
  • Year after year, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education ranks us among the nation’s top doctoral institutions in terms of sustainability, and this year we are number two in the country.
  • Our research expenditures set a record (again!); and our Rural Initiative promises to engage Colorado in new and needed ways. Many great things are happening here.

And as I indicated earlier, our trajectory over the past 25 years has fulfilled President Yates’ hopes: We are so much better than we were!  But this is a time to look ahead, too.

Priorities for this Year

Two weeks ago, about 120 leaders from across campus gathered out at ARDEC for our Fall Leadership Forum, and we discussed priorities for the year ahead.

We are weaving diversity, equity, and inclusion goals across all our activities. We want to be a campus that is welcoming to all: welcoming to those who traditionally never saw themselves joining us here, and welcoming back those who we’ve traditionally served well but have been concerned that we’ve de-emphasized our land-grant values. We haven’t! But we have to tell that story better: We can be more inclusive than we’ve been.

  • Students: Our three top priorities are enrollment, student success, and improving the curriculum.
    • One enrollment goal is for each entering class to reflect the diversity of our state as we move toward Hispanic Serving status.
    • Also, the Board of Governors has invested in student success and our essential work to close equity gaps while improving overall retention and graduation rates. A goal of 90% first-year retention rates, 80% graduation rates, with zero equity gaps, in five years is reachable, and we should strive for that.
    • And we are updating the curriculum, with plans to add new certificate options for undergraduates, core curriculum reforms, a focus in experiential learning and interdisciplinarity, and online options, as well.

The pandemic has taught us that we can be more student-centered than we’ve been.

  • Faculty, Staff, Teaching Assistants: We all know the big challenge here. Compensation, compensation, compensation. We have to do better. Our faculty, our staff, and our graduate assistants deserve to be paid comparably to peers around the country, and they should be able to live and buy homes in the community where they work. We need to take a hard look at both overall compensation and at equity: How do we ensure basic fairness across campus while also focusing on raising where we are overall? We’re going to put special attention to our colleagues at the lower end of the pay scales in our next budget cycle. I specifically mention here attention to reducing fees for our graduate staff as a particular focus; I met with representatives from our Graduate Student Council yesterday and my promise to them, and to all of you, is that this will be featured prominently in our upcoming budget investments. As I noted before, the pandemic has highlighted some of our weaknesses, and we are committed to a higher attention to pay equity than we’ve had before.
  • Community: With funding from the Board of Governors, we’re moving ahead with our rural initiative. Our Sturm Collaboration Campus is up and running in Castle Rock, with targeted 2+2 programs and strong partnerships with Arapahoe Community College and the Douglas County School District. We can serve Colorado and beyond better than we’ve done.
  • Research and Innovation: Our research expenditures reached a new record, nearly $450 million, their highest level ever, and we continue building our strengths in sustainability, climate, health, food-water-energy, data-IT-computer science, democracy, and other areas, often crossing disciplines. We are looking for places to invest there, and we hope to move forward with cluster hires in some areas in the next cycle. The pandemic has opened up whole new areas of research and impact for CSU, and building on that, we can be even more of a research powerhouse than we’ve been.
  • Operations and Facilities: We are moving ahead with construction and renovation projects, including a $100 million-plus project to expand and transform the Clark Building. We’ll be upgrading our IT infrastructure and our HR systems. CSU is beautiful; and we can be a more inviting campus than we’ve ever been, and we’re resolving to do that.

Spur Campus

The Colorado General Assembly provided $200 million in funding for our Spur campus in Denver, a platform enabling us to address some of the most challenging issues of our time.

This campus at the National Western Center has been in the works for nearly 10 years, and two of its three buildings are open. The first, Vida, with programs related to animal and human health, opened in January. Terra, dedicated to food and agriculture, opened in June. And a third building, Hydro, which will highlight research related to water, will open in January around the time of the 2023 National Western Stock Show.

I am thrilled that we just announced nearly 40 unique projects that are already at Spur or will be getting started soon, and we will announce additional projects soon. These initiatives originate from virtually every one of our colleges as well as the Office of Engagement and Extension.

The focus across these initiatives and the Spur campus is finding ways to connect with visitors and the local community as an anchor institution there, to make research accessible, and to help young people, including many from underrepresented groups, begin to see themselves in the work that we do here at CSU.

And by giving us a major new presence in Denver, it connects us to the rest of the state and supports our land-grant mission in ways we haven’t had before.

At the Spur Expo earlier this month, in my welcome, I mentioned that my father Henry (98 years old last week) and my grandson Henry (2 years old) would both delight in visiting Spur and seeing all that’s available. They are nearly a hundred year different in ages! Older Henry lives in Massachusetts; I’m not sure I’ll be able to get him out here soon. But younger Henry is coming this winter, and I’m going to take him down there! Truly Spur is for everybody.

Value of Higher Education

We are doing all of this at a time when some are questioning the value of higher education, and the idea that it improves lives. But the statistics are inarguable – there is no better investment for yourself than to attend a university like CSU. However, we have to continue to make that case, both statistically and for each individual who enters this Oval seeking a better life.

In our broadest sense, with our research and engagement mission, we have immeasurable value to the country and the world, as part of a network of Research 1 universities spanning the country. The pandemic and the contributions that universities made in protecting us demonstrated that in countless ways. Our value to the country is inarguable.

Our value to the State of Colorado, through our land grant mission, our extension offices, regional campuses, agricultural research stations, and the Colorado State Forest Service is equally impressive. Week in and week out, we’re in the state of Colorado adding value.

More locally, to Northern Colorado, Larimer County, and the city of Fort Collins: we grew up together over the past 150 years, and we will continue to do that for the next 150, jointly supporting the region’s and the city’s vibrancy and health.

And finally, I want to speak to the value that we generate through our graduates, our students and alumni.

People often ask about the “legacy” of university leaders; and folks talk about buildings, about programs, about organizations. But the real legacy of leadership in higher education is the tens of thousands of students who develop as scholars and critical thinkers, who use the platform of the University to probe deeply and with increasing rigor the fundamental questions facing all of us, and who graduate to positions of substance in our communities.

A promise lives within each one of our students. It is our responsibility to ensure that the students in our charge can fulfill their promise; that they are given the freedom to listen, to speak, to learn, to fail, to fail again, and ultimately, finally to succeed. That requires that we hire and develop faculty and staff who understand this responsibility, who are committed to it, and who have the talent to excel at providing that environment and that education to our students.

Better than We’ve Been!

Those are not easy aspirations for our students, and for us. (Easy is not worthy of our attention.) We have great challenges ahead as a campus, as a state, as a society, as a planet – I need not remind you of all of them this morning. But just as the challenge of the Great Flood of 25 years ago initiated a greater trajectory for us, we can emerge from the COVID pandemic stronger than before. If we are intentional about capitalizing on our innovation, our willingness to change, and our hunger for improvement, we will be on a path to real pre-eminence.

I had the pleasure earlier this week of attending a conference on mountain environments and ecology in central Colorado, in Aspen, and drove there on Sunday, back Tuesday afternoon. A quick trip, during a gorgeous September set of cloudless days, with achingly beautiful scenery in every direction at every moment. We are blessed to live in the best state in the country. Just look around. Our goal should be no less: to be the best land grant university in the country. We can be; and to quote President Yates one more time – we can be better than we’ve been.

We are better than we were, and we will be even better in the years to come. It’s been a great honor to be a part of this, and I look forward to the rest of the year, challenges and all. I want to thank all of you for what you are doing. And I want to especially thank you for your support during this interim year and for welcoming me back to administration. It’s been a great honor, and I hope to fulfill your expectations. Have a great year!