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Albert Yates, who left a strong, lasting legacy as the 12th president of Colorado State University, received the Founders Day Medal on Feb. 11 as CSU celebrated its 149th birthday.
The Founders Day Medal, first awarded in 2010, honors CSU’s best of the best for their contributions to the University and the world. Founders Day was created to celebrate the day CSU was established as Colorado’s land-grant institution in 1870. It highlights the values that have sustained the university, the people who shaped it and its enduring mission of service through teaching, research and engagement.
The CSU community celebrated the University’s birthday on Feb. 11 with cookies and live music on the Lory Student Center Plaza.
“Al Yates is certainly one of the greatest leaders in Colorado State University history – a president who used his tenure and influence to truly transform the institution in positive and lasting ways,” said CSU President Tony Frank. “As a leader, a role model and a champion for excellence, his impact continues to resonate and inspire. He, Ann, and their family welcomed the CSU community into their home and hearts and helped all of us begin to view the potential of this university in a different light. That vision and example set the stage for CSU’s impressive trajectory over the past two decades.”
“This has great personal meaning to me,” Yates said of receiving the Founders Day Medal. “The medal suggests that during my presidency, we – faculty, staff and students – were able to create structures, inculcate values, set priorities and promote operating approaches that have endured and become foundational. My hope, and now perhaps dream fulfilled, has always been that my time at the university contributed to a culture that strongly values people and the unflinching pursuit of excellence.”
Yates became CSU president in 1990, and held the position until 2003. He is remembered for shaping the character of the University, turning adversity into advantage numerous times. CSU historian James Hansen, in his book Democracy’s University, noted: “Albert Yates became president at a time when CSU urgently needed continuity of leadership … (His) arrival coincided with the end of the Cold War and the full unleashing of the Information Age technology. The Human Genome Project, personal access to the World Wide Web, and the emergence of a truly global economy all occurred while he was president.” In response to this dramatic societal change, Hansen wrote, “Yates brought to CSU a true vision of education leadership.”
Yates’ tenure was marked by some historic disasters and tragedies, including the 1997 flood that devastated much of campus, the 1994 Hourglass Fire at the Mountain Campus, the Columbine High School shootings that impacted many current and incoming CSU students, and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In addition to guiding the University through recovery in all these instances, he challenged the community to draw strength from these hard times. As an example, to show appreciation to the employees and community volunteers who reopened campus after the 1997 flood, he hosted the first Fall Address and University Picnic in the middle of the massive recovery effort, creating an annual campus tradition.
“Things like the fire and the flood of 1997 showed the collaboration, camaraderie and resilience of the community,” Yates said. “We tried to capitalize on the idea that in times of adversity, cynicism, dissent and lack of cooperation are in retreat. During such times, we sought success in turning the University into a coherent, unified community — faculty, students and staff — pursuing excellence in all we chose to do.”
He was also a champion of student success and diversity efforts, creating the President’s Multicultural Student Advisory Committee and the President’s Commission on Women and Gender Equity.
“We did not embrace the idea that students of color would be isolated from other students,” Yates said. “We didn’t want to create black or Hispanic houses on the edge of campus; we wanted to ensure that the experience of all students was the same. Our role as an institution is to do all we can to make the resources of the University available to all who can succeed here.”
Yates is also credited with helping CSU reconnect to the agricultural community, and fulfilling the institution’s land-grant mission of serving the entirety of Colorado.
“It meant extending ourselves to all parts of the state, and ensuring that all of our colleges were available to the industries they were designed to support,” he said.
Yates hired legendary football coach Sonny Lubick, was key to the creation of the Mountain West Conference, and helped transform the way CSU viewed athletics and the student-athlete. He explained that in regards to football players, especially, there was an increased recognition that very few would go on to become professional athletes, and that the institution’s number one priority needed to be treating them as students first, preparing them for their entire lives.
Many of those Yates mentored and brought into the administration have developed into the University’s current leaders, including President Tony Frank, who Yates hired as his vice president for research.
“Under his leadership, the institution has taken off in exponential fashion,” Yates said of Frank. “Nothing gives me more pride than to be able to say I had some small part in that. I continue to be the quintessential supporter of Colorado State University. I’m so pleased by its current trajectory, and will always be available to assist when asked.”
The medal ceremony
At the Feb. 11 ceremony, Frank acknowledged that many in his administration were recruited and promoted by Yates.
“His blood runs through the veins of this administration, and we’re proud of that,” he said.
In his remarks after receiving the medal, Yates expressed pride that the values of his presidency have lived on.
“Perhaps some of what we did was a springboard to the future, and so that makes me feel pretty good about this,” he said. “But you have to remember, it wasn’t about me. It was never about me. It was about you, and all the others who shared with me this dream of getting to a particular place.”
He also acknowledged feeling anxiety at the end of each year of his presidency about whether he had expressed enough gratitude to the CSU community.
“Did I say thank you enough?” Yates said. “Every year I said that. Did I say thank you enough, to the faculty, to the staff, to the students who made the university better? I always hoped that I did. … I have the opportunity today to say to you, and the extended CSU family, thank you. Thank you for believing in a dream, for accepting a hope, to get us to this particular place.”
Yates had a distinguished academic career as a professor and administrator before coming to Colorado. He earned his Ph.D. in theoretical chemical physics from Indiana University at Bloomington. Following postdoctoral work at the University of Southern California, he returned to Indiana University to join the faculty of the Department of Chemistry. In 1977, he was named vice president and university dean for graduate studies and research at the University of Cincinnati. Yates served for nine years as executive vice president and provost at Washington State University immediately preceding his position at CSU.
Yates was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1942. The third child of John and Sadie Yates, he left Tennessee after high school to enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. He returned home to graduate magna cum laude from the University of Memphis with degrees in chemistry and mathematics before pursuing his advanced degrees at Indiana. He and his wife, Ann, have two children, Aerin and Sadie; he is also the father of two older children, Steven and Stephanie.
Yates made significant contributions to improving education and has been honored with a variety of awards, including the University of Cincinnati Award for Excellence; the Denver Public Schools Celebration of Excellence Award for outstanding contributions to Colorado education; the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver Recognition Award for encouragement and support of the educational aspiration of Denver’s minority students; and the Collins Award from the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce in honor of his exemplary service to the community. The State of Colorado also recognized Yates in 2001 with an official proclamation by the Colorado General Assembly. In 2003, CSU’s chemistry/biosciences building was named Albert C. Yates Hall in his honor. And just before he completed his term at CSU, Yates was awarded the Citizen of the West award by community leaders and the National Western Stock Show.
“The Citizen of the West [award] pays tribute to a person whose life and work embody the Western values we all hold so dear,” Bill Coors said at the time. “With Al Yates, his word is his bond, and he’s dedicated his time, energy and integrity to building our state’s land-grant institution into a leader in the nation and a source of pride for Colorado.”
Previous winners of the Founders Day Medal include the Monfort family; Peace Corps visionary Maury Albertson; local philanthropist Pat Stryker; former CSU President Bill Morgan and wife, Lilla; longtime professor and university supporters Tom Sutherland and wife and CSU alumna, Jean; decades-long supporters Bob and Joyce Everett; veterinary oncology pioneer Dr. Stephen Withrow; CSU athletic star and Tuskegee Airman John Mosley; and alumnus and philanthropist Walter Scott, Jr., for whom CSU’s engineering college is named.
Those who would like to send a personal note of gratitude to Yates can visit https://advancing.colostate.edu/ALBERTCYATES.