November 14, 2019
President Joyce McConnell
Good morning, everyone. I am going to start with some thank yous, they’re going to take a little while, so you’ll have to bear with me. But I feel like it’s in keeping with the generous spirit of Colorado State University.
Mahala, thank you for your wonderful introduction. I promise all of you in the audience, I did not write it. It was truly lovely.
Jan, I cannot thank you enough for sharing our Land Acknowledgment with all of us today.
Nancy, thank you for your words.
Some of you know Nancy Tuor. But to those of you who do not, let me tell you that she is not only the chair of the CSU Board of Governors, but she is also someone I admire tremendously, who has had a distinguished career of leadership in both the private and public sectors. It’s my honor to serve you in your term as chair.
Thank you to the entire Board of Governors for having confidence in me to lead this amazing, great university, also to do it in its 150th year, as the 15th … first-female President.
And of course, thank you to Chancellor Tony Frank, for literally passing on our institutional mace this morning. Tony, I hope you put a little bit of your tremendous experience, wisdom, of course wit and charm in there — in that mace — when you passed it along to me. You are a tough act to follow, and you know what — I am deeply grateful to you for that!
Many more of those gathered here today have played critical roles in the care and feeding of this President. I cannot individually thank all of you aloud, although I am deeply, deeply grateful for everything you have done for me.
But there are a few people here whom I simply must recognize:
First, I must recognize my mother and father, Bessie and Harvey McConnell, are here to celebrate this occasion. There are no words to express what they mean to me or what a powerful role they have played in my life. I had the good fortune of being raised by loving, fun, open-hearted, open-minded parents with the highest integrity, parents with a passion for fairness and the well-being of all. Mom, Dad, thank you so much!
My mother’s sisters, Aunt Mary and Aunt Alice, took care of me sometimes when I was a baby. They read me books and started me on a lifelong love of reading and curiosity. And in being here today, they remind me of my roots. You see, my grandparents emigrated to the United States from Greece speaking only Greek and with little schooling. But they valued education above all else because they understood its transformative power.
My Aunt Mary reminded me that they had 10 children, all of whom were forbidden to drop out of school, even when the family needed the money.
Although I know my aunts do have a tendency to exaggerate, they tell me I am the fulfillment of my grandfather’s dream, because I am now in a position to see that the transformative power of education is available to a whole new generation of students. I am so proud to be in this position, and I want you all to know I take my responsibility — and CSU’s responsibility — to transform lives through education very, very seriously. And you can see, it is truly in my blood.
My wonderful siblings, Mary, Michael, and Lynne are here, as are their spouses, David and Melanie. Their love shines for me. They support me through good times and bad. They remind me of my human fallibility and that it is good to laugh at oneself on a regular basis.
My husband Vince Trivelli is here. He has been by my side for 37 years; he has believed in me when I did not believe in myself; who makes me laugh; who fills me with his enduring love and confidence.
My beautiful, smart, wonderful daughter, Alexandra, is here. Alexandra, I love you more than I can ever convey: You teach me every day what it means to love, to be an independent woman, to understand what it means to be young in this uncertain world. I hope that I can use that understanding to better support our students and young faculty and staff.
I am also just blown away to be supported here today by friends from West Virginia.
Ellen Cappalanti chaired the search committee when I became dean of the WVU College of Law. Ellen, you started me on my leadership journey. Thank you!
WVU President Gordon Gee, is here with his incredible fiancée, Laurie Erickson. Gordon believed that I could be a university president before I ever imagined this role for myself. I know that today he is here to cheer me on, to tell me to trust my instincts, to laugh, and to enjoy the adventure.
And my dear friend Nancy could not be here today. But if she watches or listens to this address, I want her to know how critical her friendship is and has been to me.
To end my thank yous, I also must thank other people who are here from West Virginia, particularly the two presidents of our schools in our system at WVU. And they are Carolyn Long and Jennifer Orlikoff and they have been great colleagues for me for many years.
And to end my thank yous, I must thank the entire team who’ve worked so hard to make today glorious. And particularly to our event team and to all of our musicians who have worked so hard. And to my two assistants who followed me here from West Virginia. Or, as Gordon would say, “I stole them.”
As many of you know, I accepted the Presidency of Colorado State University without ever having visited Fort Collins or the Colorado State University campus.
You see, I knew right away, from my very first interactions with members of this campus community, that this is a very, special, and incredibly welcoming place.
Once Vince and I arrived in town, we felt that even more, from generous and thoughtful people like Dave and Paul Edwards whose beautiful home — Magnolia House — is now CSU’s President’s home. They made it possible for us to settle in and to get to work right away, exploring this beautiful town and this beautiful campus.
At the start of the day, I walk onto campus under the towering trees of the historic Oval. I cherish this path, which leads right to my office, because it drives home the deep roots — and yes, that’s a pun intended — of CSU.
It also reminds me of the contradictions that are part of our long history.
Colorado State was built on land taken from Indigenous nations.
And yet, since our founding on that land, we have served the people of Colorado for 150 years as the state’s land-grant university.
Those two facts sometimes strike me as impossible to reconcile.
But aspiring to do the impossible is part of what we do at CSU. It is part of what makes this an extraordinary institution and community.
We were founded as the people’s university, a place to educate those who otherwise would not have access to higher education. That means all of our people, an ideal that we haven’t always lived up to, but work very hard to live up to now.
Throughout our history we have fostered Colorado’s ability to meet the needs of its people and communities through education, engagement, economic development and research.
But even as we celebrate our sesquicentennial, we also must expand our understanding of what people and what communities we serve.
We must become more inclusive and more equitable in our inclusivity.
We must offer greater access to the education, research and engagement to which we are so committed.
Chancellor Tony Frank, with the support of many here today, left us an extraordinary record of accomplishment to build on, including gains in enrollment, increased graduation rates, growth in research funding, innovation and scholarly activity, international recognition of our amazing faculty and students, fundraising exceeded a billion dollars, and campus construction of beautiful LEED sustainable Gold and Platinum buildings.
But if we stop here, we risk becoming irrelevant.
So of course, we will not stop. But what’s the alternative? I believe that the accelerating pace of our world leaves us with three options;
The first option would be to fall into the trap so aptly captured in the truism that it is irrational to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.
The second option would be to commit to change, but at a cautious pace. I will tell you plainly that if we do this we will lag behind our bolder peers.
Finally, we can choose to transform Colorado State University, and to do so with the urgency that we know is warranted. We can be bold, we can be curious, and we can be courageous.
I believe that this is what we must do. And it is what we will do, to continue to fulfill our promises to our students, faculty, staff and the state of Colorado for another 150 years, and more.
I sometimes look out the windows of my office at the trees along the Oval and marvel at how permanent they seem, like they’ve always been there and always will be.
But as we know from photos and descriptions of the college back in the 1870s, almost the entire area from Fort Collins to the foothills was a treeless prairie.
We planted trees here. And we built a world-class university.
That’s important to what I want to tell you today, because it calls to mind a Greek proverb that says people plant trees so others may climb them and rest in their shade.
The message in that proverb is of course about the long game, the focus on the future — and the belief in the future — that must drive everyone who plants a tree. It is an act of faith. It was an act of faith for those who started a university. And it is an act of faith to become a university President.
Those are all bold. And they don’t bear fruit right away.
But when they do, you have the shade from the sun and the sound of the wind in the leaves — and at CSU you have a thriving institution that isn’t done growing.
Not by a long-shot.
What trees do we need to plant today in order to meet the needs of those who will follow us?
In my Fall Address, I introduced the notion Courageous Strategic Transformation, which is not a traditional strategic plan, but a bold imperative.
I ask all of you to join me in truly transforming CSU. And for those of you wondering what exactly I mean by that, let me get specific.
I want us to develop new strategies for access, with a commitment to equity and affordability. I want to make access to a CSU education — and the success it will bring — available to all Coloradoans, with a commitment to excellence as our guiding star.
I want us to create a campus climate that allows our students, faculty and staff to truly thrive. Every single member of our community deserves to know that they are welcomed and valued for every aspect of their identity, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, immigrant status, socio-economic status, disability, age, or veteran status. They deserve a place where there’s no question — theirs or anyone else’s — whether they belong. Because they do.
I want us to do more, and I want us to do it just as quickly as we can, to address the intersecting needs of our students, faculty and staff. I want them to find their educational and work experiences rigorous and rewarding. And I want us to make the mental health of our community members a priority, not just when they are in crisis, but every day. Let’s prevent crises in mental health, not just try to fix them.
I want us to innovate in education, research, and engagement for excellence, equity and elevating quality of life and prosperity for Colorado’s citizens, businesses and communities.
Throughout our history, our student populations have changed — and they are changing now. And we must be prepared to meet our students where they are. Many will be first generation; more will be increasingly diverse. Projections say by the end of the decade, one in four Coloradans will be Hispanic or Latin-X, and just a few years later that percentage will be close to 30 percent. Some of these promising young people are living in uncertain immigration status. Some of them are actively afraid that pursuing a degree at CSU could bring unwanted attention to them or their families.
We must find a way to open our educational doors to these students and make it possible for them to stay and succeed.
We also must do more to recruit Native American students whose tribal lands we have built upon. And as was true of the original land-grant colleges, we must work with these students to ensure that the courses and curricula we offer meet their needs.
We must also listen to — and then communicate clearly with — our many students and their families who are terribly anxious about the cost of higher education. They hear daily about the sky-rocketing cost of a college degree and how graduates are burdened by debt as they begin their careers. Many are convinced they simply cannot afford a degree. Colorado Governor Jared Polis takes this anxiety so seriously he has made addressing the issue the center of his policy agenda for higher education.
It’s no secret that public funding for higher education has declined for decades, but not just in Colorado, it’s true across the nation. Twenty years ago, state funding covered as much as two-thirds of the cost of educating a Colorado State University student, with about one-third of the financial burden falling to students and their families.
But over the past two decades, those numbers have flipped. Students and families are now covering at least three-quarters of the cost. That means they now have to save for years to afford college, and often still leave weighted down with debt.
There is good news on this front, though. And I believe that the return on state funds invested in educating students makes a difference in our economy, even if you consider only the expanded tax base.
That’s right, many Colorado residents graduate with no debt. But a Colorado resident graduating from CSU with a bachelor’s degree leaves here with an average debt of about $25,000 — about the price of a new car. It’s expensive, but they will graduate with an average starting salary of almost $50,000.
And all studies show that someone with an undergraduate degree will earn, on average, a million dollars more than those with a high school degree. They will also, maybe over their lifetime. They will also maybe more significantly, be healthier and their families will be healthier, and they will all enjoy a higher quality of life.
That’s a pretty good investment for both the state and the individual. Earning a high-quality CSU degree at a relatively low cost continues to be one of the best deals in higher education.
But to gain the confidence of those who are discouraged, we must talk transparently about how we contain costs. We must tell the story of our commitment to affordability, openly. Our students and their families need and deserve to understand how deeply we are committed to having them here.
And even while realizing these urgent goals, we must also re-affirm our excellence. To do this, we must establish priorities, say no to some things; we must act on those that we do establish as priorities, assess their efficacy and be willing to start anew if what we are doing is not delivering the excellence that our students deserve.
I want you to know that we are committed to the health, welfare and creating a beautiful environment for all of our faculty, staff and students to succeed. Particularly, in the area of mental health, I want to mention the Board of Governors. The Board of Governors recognizes the significance of the work that needs to be done and has been supportive of all of our efforts to develop and deliver on a strategy that focuses not only on treatment, but on prevention.
We have some of the best minds at this university, who can help us figure this out.
Some people like to quantify outcomes in terms of dollars and cents. But the way we measure this one thing is in human terms: We believe this expansion of resources will result in the university retaining students in crisis who might otherwise leave, helping keep them healthy and safe and be a part of the CSU community. And when we can do that, the positive impact will go beyond those individual students, directly and indirectly it will touch their classmates, friends, and families.
Serving our students is the essential part of our land-grant mission.
But as a university, we are also in the knowledge business. And as a land-grant, we are going to create that knowledge to address the critical environmental, social, and economic challenges facing our world today. Our faculty are world-class — recognized nationally and internationally for their innovative educational programs, research and engagement. I cannot name all of the challenges we face, but I have no doubt that our faculty are prepared to meet them.
The ones that are at top of mind for us, are climate change, the related issues of sustainability and renewable energy, food and agriculture, the vectors between animals and humans and disease … And we desire a broad-based economic prosperity based on meeting these challenges.
We will think innovatively, we will master what we need to master, and we will meet those challenges.
I also want to mention, just at the end, that we must integrate our Principles of Community more deeply into our policies. That is something I talked about at the fall address, and we will continue to work on.
But as we reaffirm our commitment to our land-grant mission—access, affordability, excellence and a commitment to Colorado and its citizens, it’s very important to look at what we’ve accomplished.
When this place was first conceived in 1870, Colorado was still a sparsely inhabited territory. It wouldn’t become a state until six years later. But it was already a place where those who envisioned the college intended that it would serve both the daughters and sons of Colorado.
From the very start, this university took a broader view than their peers at colleges back east in terms of who was welcome and who to include.
It’s a place where women led the way academically in the early years, taking the same coursework as the men and earning 11 of the 18 degrees awarded in the first five graduating classes.
It was a place where the third president, Alston Ellis — who had desegregated the public schools in Hamilton, Ohio before coming here — invited a talented young man to become the College’s first African-American student and, four years later, first African-American graduate.
And it’s the place where a member of our second graduating class, Grace Espy Patton, enrolled at age 15, graduated at 19, and began a short, but brilliant career. She worked first as a professor at the College; then earned national recognition as a writer, publisher and speaker. She became an early leader in the Colorado suffrage movement and a powerful advocate for public education. Ultimately, Patton was elected Colorado’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction. She earned more votes than the governor.
In an interview following that election — in which two other women were elected to the state assembly — Patton said:
“In these days it is a good thing to be a woman, but better still to be a Colorado woman.”
As a recently-minted Colorado woman, I’d say that’s true in these days, as well. And I’d add that it is even better still to be the president of this outstanding Colorado institution of higher education at this pivotal time in history.
So let’s move forward, courageous in our actions, strategic in our thinking, and prepared to transform in order to meet the challenges of our rapidly changing world.
Thank you all very much for this incredible honor.