President’s Fall Address to the University, September 20, 2017
Dr. Tony Frank, President
President, Colorado State University
Chancellor, Colorado State University System
Twenty years ago. Where were you then? As I look at all of us gathered here today, I’m cognizant that some of you had yet to be conceived. Others were scattered across the world, not yet in the graduate programs that would eventually lead you to join the faculty that is the backbone of our university. Others of you were in different jobs and different stages of life and had yet to join this wonderful community called Colorado State. For all of you who were not here in the summer of 1997, a little context might be helpful.
On July 28, we experienced rainfall a large amount of rain in a short period of time over a small area, causing Spring Creek to overflow its banks. CSU alone was flooded with more than 5 million gallons of water, reaching a depth of up to five feet outside buildings. It may not have had the 50+ inches from Harvey or the 150 mph winds of Irma, but these storms share a common impact: lives were lost and the work of lifetimes vanished.
Please join me a moment of silence to remember those lost in these storms.
These storms also share a common outcome: human resilience and personal sacrifice for others. Here at CSU, we received that in the support that poured in from colleagues literally around the world; and we gave it. I remember, as a department head, how amazed I was at the number of people who volunteered to help in any way they could.
It seems – as time often does to us – like a long time ago, and also just yesterday.
In two months I’ll start my 10th year as president. Together, we faced a different storm at that time. What we now call the Great Recession was roaring into life. We stood astride a fiscal flood that took lives and the works of a lifetime. And we saw great personal sacrifice, and experienced the resilience that followed.
It seems – as time often does – like a long time ago, and also just yesterday.
Part of the role of a university president is to use important milestones, inflection points in time, from which we chart progress. And we can stand here today and cite impressive progress:
- A decade of consecutive record enrollment as Colorado’s School of Choice.
- One in 4 of our students is first generation, and we are enjoying record levels of student diversity.
- Retention and graduation rates are up, and gaps based on race and gender and socioeconomic status are down.
- Awards, markers of scholarly impact, and research funding all continue to be strong.
- We are delivering services again in every county in Colorado and actually re-opening an Agricultural Experiment Station.
- We are surging ahead in student satisfaction and alumni participation rates as the national trends decline.
- We stand amidst a physically renewed campus that will serve this university well long after our time to care for her has passed.
- We are nearly two years ahead of schedule in completing our second campaign, the $1 billion State Your Purpose campaign, designed to launch CSU into her next 150 years.
- And recognition of who we are and what we do continues to grow – here in Colorado and across the nation and world.
- And our commitment to excellence in everything we do – as individuals and collectively – has never been stronger.
- All of this is due to the hard work of all of you. Thank you. This is a great university because you have made her so.
But part of the role of a university president, at least as I have come to understand it, is to use these same milestones to provide perspective on work that remains undone, areas that require our attention:
- We are the subject of deep societal divides, causing us to pass over all of the common ground we all share and focus on our differences.
- Decades of averting our gaze from racial injustice as a society have produced a crop of racial tension, and there are those among us who would unsheathe the scythe of hatred to harvest this cursed crop.
- Tools of communication that offer the opportunity to bring us all closer together can be used instead as a megaphone for voices and ideas that threaten to divide, isolate, and intimidate.
- Our sensibilities are so offended by some of what reaches our eyes and ears that we are willing to consider giving up 1st Amendment-related privileges gained over decades by men and women of courage who marched, fought, and died to earn them.
- And so, against this complex backdrop, our conscience calls out to us:
- What is our role in assuring that race, gender, power, privilege are brought out of the shadows and discussed openly to broaden understanding?
- What is our role in assuring that freedom of speech is never muted; that we never take for granted this gift from those who passed it to us freshly sealed with their sacrifice?
- While we cannot protect members of our community from morally repulsive ideas or speech, what is our role in assuring that every member of our community – no matter how vulnerable – knows that they do not hear these ideas alone, they do not reject them alone, they do not face them alone? How do we assure that they know that we – all of us – Colorado State University – stand shoulder to shoulder together to assure that the volume and vehemence of hate speech crash empty and broken against a shore of solidarity and the immense silent strength that undergirds human dignity?
As we consider these questions, we can draw upon some of the characteristics we have embedded within us as members of this community.
- We debate everything. With friends, colleagues, those with whom we passionately disagree. We express. We discuss. We agree and disagree. And we always defend each other’s right to do so. And we always hold ourselves accountable to discourse worthy of the Socratic heritage of the academy.
- We challenge our own convictions. Just as we grudgingly bestow the term “theory” on a hypothesis when its piñata has withstood the battering of intellectual attack, we must accept our own convictions only after they have withstood the most rigorous challenge to which we can subject them.
- We are composed of the DNA of Land Grant Universities. Born in the forge of war, we were created to assure that anyone with the talent and motivation to earn a world-class degree has that opportunity. What matters to us is what is in our heads and hearts, what dreams we want to pursue, and what knowledge we need to pursue them.
Armed with these characteristics, we can tackle cultural change – we can improve how we treat each other, making progress on everything from living wages to non-tenure track faculty rights to racial and gender equity to sexual assault to suicide prevention.
But without these characteristics, we would navigate the storm of our day – this maelstrom of ideas and conflict – without a compass or sextant. We would be adrift at the mercy of forces that threaten to wash over us.
But we are not adrift. We have the ability to navigate. We have a strong mast and deep keel. We have each other. In the face of everything the last 147 years has been able to throw at our society, the community that is Colorado State University has stood strong – rooted like an oak able to withstand destructive winds. I have no doubt that we will emerge from the current storm unified and with our commitment to free speech, to civil engagement, and to an inclusive and healthy community fully intact. Decades hence, others will debate new topics and face new storms – under the protective shelter of the oak that we now strengthen and grow.
Columnist David Brooks writes about “thick” or “sticky” organizations that leave a mark on the people they touch. Now I suspect that for many of us, diverse as we are, different organizations are “thick” or “thin” for different people. But much of what Brooks writes resonates with me – and I believe with many of us – about our university. “Thick” institutions become a part of the person’s identity, people like the version of themselves that is called forth by such places, they collectively serve some higher good, and there is an intimacy of identity borne out of commonality of purpose.
At CSU, this commonality of purpose is both simple and profound: to improve the quality of life. We do this through our discoveries and their application, through our students and alumni and the lives they lead, and we do it right now – today – in the way we support and care for each other.
Colorado State is who she is – “thick” and “sticky,” leaving her mark on each of us – because of the great people who make her so.
This is a great university.
But it is not as great as it can be.
And it will be, indeed it cannot be any more or any less – than as great as we choose to make it.
Let’s use this year to take another step toward greatness by demonstrating that we cherish free speech and civility – and we refuse to sacrifice one on the altar of the other.
That’s a goal worthy of our heritage, a goal worthy of our best efforts, and – successfully achieved – a gift we can be proud to leave to those who follow.
This university is great because you have made her so. And it remains my privilege to work alongside all of you. Let’s have a great year, CSU!