Fall Address to the University


Delivered by Albert C. Yates

President, Colorado State University

Chancellor, Colorado State University System

September 23, 1997

Welcome! We begin this year unlike any other in memory. The July flood brought an unwelcomed and unprecedented challenge to our campus. We met the challenge; we passed the test. And in the process we learned much about ourselves about our courage and perseverance, about our resolve and capacity for community and compassion. We learned, too, that there can be true unity in adversity. We did well and we can be pleased.

And so the reason for our gathering today is simple: we are here to celebrate our successes, to breathe a collective sigh of relief, and to say "thanks" to a community of friends and colleagues who refuse to have their spirits dampened or their dreams crushed. And so to all of you, I say, "thank you"!

Through it all we’ve kept our humor and our perspective. Nonetheless I think I’ll forego calling this a "watershed year" or referring to "the tide of public opinion." Perhaps, like everyone else, I’m ready for a break from the intensity of recent weeks. It’s time to relax, to smile and pat each other on the back.

But, even so, we can never forget or diminish the impact of the flood. Five women lost their lives in the flood. Many of our neighbors lost their homes. Thirty campus buildings sustained damage. Tragically, too many members of our faculty lost the work of a lifetime. Nearly 200 faculty, staff and students were displaced from offices that had long been their campus homes. This was a devastating event – marked by acts of courage and heroism. Who were the heroes? There are too many to name: the ROTC students who pitched in to pack up waterlogged faculty papers for drying; the associate dean who not only arranged to get office dividers on loan from Hewlett Packard for the departments of philosophy and foreign languages and literatures – but who then showed up with his wife and spent an entire Sunday setting up every single one of them; the staff members who struggled to salvage what they could on the lower level of Morgan Library before the water became too high; the students who helped stranded motorists escape from their flooded cars and make it to safety; the bookstore workers who swallowed their own sense of loss while racing to get a makeshift store ready in time for fall semester; the facilities staff members and police officers and environmental health workers and administrative staff in Business and Financial Services, all of whom gave weeks without a break or a rest; the people in enrollment services who scrambled to notify students and relocate services in time for the start of classes; faculty from across the University who pitched in, set aside their own grief, and made sure classes would start on time and without disruption; and so many, many more. To all of you: again, thanks!

There is one person who must be identified by name because his work and sacrifice on the night of the flood single-handedly prevented a far-worse disaster. Jim Abraham, a graduate student who works in Environmental Health Services, was in the office that night and first spotted water entering the building. He alerted the Environmental Health Services staff and then, with a co-worker, spent the entire night going to every campus building to move hazardous materials out of the path of the flood. He waded through the pounding water to retrieve and move all those materials that he knew were dangerous – and, as a result, prevented them from becoming a danger to our entire campus and community. At the end of the night, he went home to rest. But Jim lived on the first floor of the International House – and while he was working to save our campus, everything he owned was wiped out. Jim, you have our compassion and our thanks – we are truly in your debt!

I also want to offer a special thank you this afternoon to the food service workers, who not only managed to feed thousands of conference visitors during the flood without any steam – but who also are working today to serve and prepare lunch. Many others, too, who deserve our thanks are unable to be here for a host of reasons. Please know that we’re grateful and we hope to find other ways to express our thanks in the future.

Together, we made the flood our common enemy, and pledged to make the campus whole and safe again as quickly as possible. Even those of us who vowed, immediately after the flood, that classes would start on time with little disruption weren’t entirely convinced it could be done. Well, we did it! We took on one of the toughest challenges this University has ever faced and we prevailed – but only because you cared. We have earned this time to relax and reflect – to laugh a little and enjoy the moment. That’s why we’re here today.

This experience has, in so many ways, shown how closely our behavior can mirror our rhetoric when circumstances demand. Our character as a University and a community was tested in a very public way, and we passed the test. Indeed, the response to the flood has proved much of what has been said in recent years about the strength of this community, about our resilience and commitment. We are challenged, now, to demonstrate that same character in confronting the many other critical issues that lie ahead.

The flood offered many lessons, not the least of which is that we can be better than we’ve been. We have the opportunity now to rebuild and improve upon what we had before – to seize this chance to transform Colorado State University into the kind of institution we all want it to be. Let’s use what we’ve learned and invented in these last several weeks to ensure that the University that emerges from this crisis is a better and stronger place — in all of its dimensions — than it was on the 27th of July. And please hear this: Only if we do this — only if we are better in the end — can we claim that our recovery efforts have been successful.

As well, we cannot allow the flood to become an excuse for neglecting the normal agenda of our University – to prevent us from making progress in those areas we know are critical to our long-term success as an institution. It would be easy to lapse into a state of feeling like victims. We have to remind ourselves continually of the opportunities to be addressed.

The spirit so evident here today, the spirit that got us through the last two months, now must be directed to the pressing issues that face our university. To do this, we must continue to question how our words match our actions in our many areas of priority and emphasis. There are four imperatives that beg for special consideration in the year ahead:

1)First among these is the need to foster a true learning community, where our emphasis is shifted from what we teach to what our students learn. A year ago, the leaders of our University gathered for two days to talk about the undergraduate curriculum. When the two days were over, we congratulated one another and left, enthusiastic and full of energy for all the great things we were going to do to renew and revitalize undergraduate education. We agreed to redesign and implement a new core curriculum; we agreed, as well, to recast our structure for the delivery of instruction, hoping to reduce our concerns about class size and faculty/student relationships. Today, one could easily argue that we are no closer to making these things happen than we were when we left that leadership forum a year ago.

But please don’t misunderstand me. There are many good and creative things happening in our teaching programs; and pockets of real and sustained progress exist across the full breadth of colleges. Now these pockets of success must be made coherent and integrated into the whole of undergraduate education.

I believe there is no greater imperative facing this — or any other university — than to accept the challenge to transform ourselves into a true learning community, an environment that cares more about what students know and are able to do than how many hours they spend sitting in a chair in the Clark Building. If we fail to act, if we continue simply to extend the debate, we will lose the opportunity to join the vanguard of higher education institutions that are beginning to find real and innovative ways to address these same questions.

2)Second is the issue of diversity. If research universities hope to lead society in important ways, one characteristic is more essential to success than any other: Our culture must reflect a wide range of perspectives and experiences. During my first few years on campus, I used to say – as many of you will remember – that CSU is a warm, inviting and friendly place. But over time, I’ve learned that’s not a true statement for everyone on our campus. Sure, there’s much we can brag about in the success of our diversity efforts, but there are still far too many incidences of insensitivity inside and outside the classroom for us to feel complacent and proud. A few years ago, I started the President’s Minority Student Advisory Committee, a group of students with whom I meet several times a year to talk about their experiences and impressions. And persistently, they recount experiences that reflect a general insensitivity to their lives and their thinking – they talk about feeling singled out in class, about others who question their abilities and their right even to be here. And these students are voting with their feet.

This year, let us do what we know we must do to make good on our promise of a "warm, inviting and friendly place," for everyone in our community.

3)In general — despite my earlier comments — we can feel good about the success and progress made in our teaching and research programs. But the third part of our mission — outreach — remains a point of concern. The interdependency of these responsibilities of teaching, research and public service is the hallmark of our land-grant mission – yet we’ve stood back and watched as other institutions have become closer to our own constituents than we are. We continue to have good ideas, to plan well and to create promising strategies — but too often we’ve been unable to pull the trigger. There is much we are asked and expected to do in social and economic development and in meeting the needs of our constituencies for a lifetime of learning. In the coming year, we must re-commit ourselves to making progress in this critical area, or we will continue to lose ground to other institutions that provide the flexibility and range of services our constituents demand.

4)That brings me to a fourth and final imperative. Over the last several years, we’ve made extraordinary progress in raising the overall level of quality and responsiveness of our institution. We’ve done this by worrying about operating budgets, faculty salaries, the aesthetics of campus, state of our facilities and the quality of the overall teaching and research experience. We all ought to feel good and proud of what has been accomplished to date. Our stature and influence as a University are growing and we merit a bit of self-congratulations.

But we’ve done the easy part. To reach the next level of excellence and join the truly eminent national universities will require tougher choices in the allocation of our resources. It will mean that we must be more selective in our investment in people and programs. In many cases, it will mean setting aside our egalitarian instincts and investing in efforts that have the real prospect of national distinction. The undergraduate experience, for example, should grow to be a "program of excellence," allowing us to boast increasingly about the achievements of our graduates.

And most important, we must invest in people in individual faculty efforts that enhance the potential of significant contributions to our world and culture, but offer, as well, the platform for individual honors and rewards. The past year our entire institution was elevated greatly by the achievements of our colleagues. Remember our joy and our pride when:

  • English Professor Mary Crow was named Colorado’s Poet Laureate;
  • Professor Patrick Brennan became a University Distinguished Professor;
  • Philosophy Professor Holmes Rolston was named this year’s Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh;
  • Professional Veterinary Medicine was named a Program of Excellence by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.
  • And none of us can forget the shared glow of distinction when Professor Mortimer Elkind was honored with the Roentgen-Plakette Award in Germany in April and a few months later President Clinton presented him with the most prestigious Enrico Fermi Award, recognizing a lifetime of achievement in the use of radiation to treat cancer.

If our visions of a great university are to become reality, then such extraordinary examples of achievement must become an expected part of our annual record. In the months ahead, I ask that we set our sights on this next level of achievement and begin to make the difficult choices necessary to get there.

Finally, I look forward to the year ahead. It is a year we begin with an advantage the advantage of renewed institutional spirit and a new-found sense of a common purpose. If we manage to sustain the sense of unity and institutional spirit that have characterized the flood recovery, I am confident this can be the best year ever for Colorado State!

Thank you and best wishes!