Remarks to the 1870 Dinner
October 23, 2009
Dr. Tony Frank
President, Colorado State University
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a high school teacher of mine — Mr. Shroeder. He taught speech at Mendota Township High School, and he was constantly trying to drum into our heads why his course mattered. I seem to recall assuring him that speeches were not going to be a major part of my future.
The past year — with tonight as an example — seems to have proven me somewhat mistaken on that point.
In fact, it was one year ago that we all gathered here, in the face of a crashing economy, and talked about why land grant universities and Lincoln’s great experiment still mattered — maybe more than ever. And over the past year, we’ve carried that message to many places.
At county fairs, community tours and service clubs around the state, and in countless meetings with elected officials, we’ve beat the drum of good stewardship, accountability, transparency — and made it clear that while we were doing our part to improve on these fronts, we need others to understand and advocate for the importance of public higher education.
At graduation ceremonies in December — and again in May — we reminded our newest graduates that others had sacrificed so they could obtain their degree and the degree wasn’t an end — it was a “commencement” — a time to begin — a time to start giving back.
At convocation this fall, we told our incoming students about the importance of their opportunity — the chance to walk that same stage in four years, forging the latest link in a chain flowing unbroken from the pen of Abraham Lincoln — to make their link a strong one because we need their help.
At the Green & Gold Gala, we publically announced to our alumni our $500M Campaign for Colorado State University and its purpose — access, but to a world class education.
At the inauguration last month, I reminded our campus community that the most important thing we can do to respond to the crisis that faces us is to never lose focus on our fundamentals — excellence in teaching, excellence in discovery, excellence in application.
I’m proud of those messages because of what they say about Colorado State University and its people.
We are weathering the storm around us.
We are planning to be able to weather worse.
We are setting the stage to improve — within whatever conditions we face.
We are maintaining focus.
We are striving to excel.
We have confidence in the future and in the power of our University to transform lives and our world.
Those are positive statements, and as president, I’m proud to be able to make them. But we also need to be looking past our immediate storm. When this is past — and it will be — what is our vision for Colorado State University?
Well, we’re a top 50 public university now — the next logical step up for us is a top 25. Top 25 universities serve more students and their reputation is built on demonstrated excellence. In short, they are successfully delivering on their mission in very effective ways that are recognized by others.
Then we’d ask, how do we get to be a top 25? We’d start with a task force and break-out committees. We’d need some consultants and best practice visits and focus groups. We’d generate a strategic plan summarized in Powerpoint presentations and we’d store the plan in large, well labeled 3-ring binders on very nice shelves in the Administration Building, and we’d hold open forums to discuss them.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’d want to have a top 25 university at CSU — and we will get there. But I sometimes think our planning is so complex that it doesn’t serve as a very useful vision of our future. I think a simpler and better compass might simply be improving our university each and every day — getting to top 40, top 25, top 10 — continuous improvement.
Lots of organizations have different ways of expressing the simple compass of continuous improvement. In business terms, we’d focus on our core competencies of offering an exceptional product (great faculty intermixed with wonderful students in facilities and a culture that inspire) at an exceptional value. We need to value our customers and our employees and never lose focus on our values.
Athletics would say we don’t miss tackles, we don’t miss free throws, we never walk the pitcher.
If we expressed the outcome of continuous improvement with specific examples, we might envision more students having the opportunity to explore renewable energy with the likes of Bryan Willson, or sustainability with Diana Wall; or infectious diseases with Ian Orme; or the global food supply with Gary Smith, George Sofos or Jan Leach; or the atmosphere with Tom VanderHaar; or get wrapped into a pretzel in an ethics debate with Bernie Rollin.
From a historical perspective, continuous improvement would mean that the next Colonel John Mosley, Representative Polly Baca, and Governor William Ritter will find the doors of opportunity to a world-class education wide open.
However we choose to express it, our vision is wonderfully simple: we focus on doing what it is we exist to do a little better today than we did yesterday.
But there’s a risk. This one-step-at-a-time approach tends to make us sleepy. We’ll be fine. We won’t get there tomorrow. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And, if we’re not careful, the same pathway to excellence has become a trap that has caused us to lose our sense of urgency.
And we should have a sense of urgency. Our vision stands against a stormy backdrop. National and Colorado demographics show the most rapidly growing segment of the population will be from 1st generation families — where neither parent has been to college. These tend to be lower-income families, and the rate at which children from these families attend college is lower and their success rate when they arrive is lower still. The term “1st generation” was largely coined at CSU by Dr. Paul Thayer, a nationally renowned expert on this subject who heads our own retention and student success programs and, like most soft-spoken people, can’t be a prophet in his home town — we take Paul far too much for granted. Because of Paul and his team and their programs, CSU has a very low “persistence gap” the difference in graduation rates between majority and minority groups. But Colorado has the largest persistence gap in the nation, we have unenviable high school graduation rates, we have rapidly increasing numbers of 1st generation children approaching a pipeline totally unprepared to help them — and their families — through it, and our cost structure is driving more of those who do make it to the higher education marketplace away from our finest universities, with one well-known analyst saying it this way, “Higher education is becoming increasingly stratified along lines of social class.”
Against this backdrop, some of our elected officials have held apparently serious discussions about the defunding the world’s finest public higher education system at the dawn of the knowledge economy when the rest of the world is massively investing in public higher education. Stunning. Jaw dropping. Mind numbing. Bad public policy that is anathema to a land grant university.
So let’s acknowledge that the path forward to our vision may be simple — it’s one step up at a time; but it’s also a very steep path with drop offs — and it’ll be a tough climb.
It’s fair to ask: Are we committed to improving in this climate?
Well, I am pleased to tell you this university is fully prepared to move forward, even in these times — so committed that I’m now going to do something so rude that my mother will be rolling over in her grave. On a night we gather to highlight the transformative impact that the Monforts, Pat Stryker and her foundation, and the Warners have had on so many students passing through the halls of our university — on a night when we celebrate your contributions and incredible generosity — I’m going to ask for more.
You have all helped to build this great American university, and now we need your help to keep the doors of opportunity open. We need your help to attain the vision of access to a world-class education for anyone with the talent and motivation to make a difference in our world. We need you — our most valued donors — to step up again — and not just with endowed chairs, scholarships, and facility gifts (although I can assure you we won’t turn these down). We need you to help bring more people into the campaign. and we need you to advocate for public higher education.
Now Pat McConathy, our Board chair who you’ll hear from in a moment. knows more than a little about philanthropy. And Pat tells me that I’m the wrong person to ask for help. He says I work for the University, I’m paid by the University, and people expect me to ask on behalf of the University. So I’m going to try something a little different, and ask on behalf of some people who can’t be here tonight.
Let’s start on behalf of a tall, quiet, skinny kid from the eastern plains who’s good at math and who, without knowing it, should become a chemical engineer because he has a transformative formula regarding the production of cellulostic ethanol floating around inside his head. He needs CSU — but we all need him more.
I’ll ask for your help because of the bright-eyed Latina high school girl who loves biology. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’ll get interested in medical school and her cardiology professor will inspire her and she’ll go on to a great career. She needs CSU, but given my family’s medical history, I need her more.
We ask on behalf of the freckle-faced girl from a ranch on the Western Slope who loves horses, hiking, wildlife — who looks at how the land is changing and, unbeknownst to her, is carrying a passion for integrated land use and conservation.
We ask on behalf of the athlete from the suburban Denver school who loves to read and write, and wants to teach and inspire.
We ask on behalf of the quiet boy who watches the unintentional cruelty of children from the edge of the playground and is becoming committed to social justice, public service, and the rule of law.
Or the young girl who only knows that her grandmother and grandfather get misty-eyed when they talk about the Oval and wear their alfalfa sweatshirts with the pumpkin colored “A”, and are so proud they’re Aggies, and so proud their children are Rams, and they want their granddaughter to have that same opportunity.
Or the young girl whose grandmother and grandfather never graduated from high school and whose parents never went to college and who doesn’t even know she has a chance at that same opportunity.
We ask — on their behalf — because they’re home in bed — sound asleep — not knowing what’s in their heads and what they need to help release it, not knowing what passions have yet to be ignited by the education ahead. And not knowing how much we need them and the dreams they carry. They don’t know it yet, but THEY are CSU — and its future.
And in this spirit, I’d like to invite Rhonda Fields to join me on the stage.
In 2005, two of our young graduates left Colorado State armed with enormous potential and eager to move on with their lives together. Vivian Wolfe and Javad Marshall-Fields were well-respected members of our campus community — student leaders who had succeeded academically and were certain to find success in their careers and as a family. But tragically, they were killed in a terrible act of retribution as Javad prepared to uphold his civic responsibility and testify in a murder trial. Their loss was heartbreaking to their family, friends, and to our campus community.
Their families since have worked tirelessly to transform their great loss into a lesson of hope and possibility for other young people who, like Vivian and Javad, want to transform their lives through education. Today, the memories that we at CSU hold of Vivian and Javad are not sad ones — but recollections of their hope and optimism. It’s that spirit that we celebrate today with this special gift of $10,000 from the Wolfe-Marshall-Fields Fund to support our Campaign scholarship goal — to help the next Vivian and Javad.
Ladies and gentlemen, these two families, represented here tonight by Rhonda Fields, are heroes. Let’s thank them for their courage and example. Gifts like this one change lives.
At my inauguration, I told our faculty that this is now our time — to protect, nurture, and advance the great and generous legacy that is Colorado State University.
But this is your time as well. Your time to make a difference. Your time to help transform not just Colorado State University, but in doing so — the world we will leave behind us as our legacy to our grandchildren.
I know you feel as I do, that it’s our privilege to make a difference — and I hope you know that you have our heartfelt gratitude for the difference you have made and will continue to make here at Colorado State University. Thank you.