Access to Excellence

Access to Excellence

by Coleman Cornelius | Photography by Mary Neiberg

Tony Frank is marking the 10th anniversary of his presidency at Colorado State, a top-tier public research University with more than 33,000 students and an annual budget surpassing $1 billion. In January, the National Western Stock Show named him 2018 Citizen of the West, a high-profile honor that helps raise scholarship money for students in agricultural fields. Frank also is chancellor of the Colorado State University System that includes CSU-Pueblo and CSU-Global Campus. Here, he discusses what it means to lead a contemporary land-grant university.

Coleman Cornelius: You often discuss the importance of the land-grant university. What is its core value, and how has it evolved to meet the needs of modern society?

Tony Frank: Throughout years of modernization, what really comes through as a core value to me is access to excellence. America’s landgrants have a research responsibility, an application responsibility, and the responsibility to provide access to a world-class education to everyone with the talent and motivation to earn that opportunity. We can’t get our role and mission right if we focus only on access or only on excellence. We’ve got to get both right.

CC: In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act to establish land-grant universities across the United States. Why was that significant?

TF: If you think about college education in that time period, it really was the province of the sons of the upper class. In signing the Morrill Act, Lincoln advanced our system of public higher education for the children of the working class. With that change, we became the first country in the Western world to bet our future on the entire next generation, not just the children of one social class.

The idea of individual merit comes through in so much of early American history, and it’s been a strength of our country. We believe that our collective good is influenced by individual success. So when a person earns a college degree that their parents never had the chance to earn, they improve their own life and their family’s life, and they go on to do things in any number of professions that improve the rest of our lives. That sort of virtuous circle, to me, was at the heart of the American investment in the children of the working class. It is the underpinning of land-grant universities.

CC: You’ve also noted the timing of Lincoln’s action. Why is that so striking to you, and what lessons does it provide?

TF: When Lincoln signed the Morrill Act during the Civil War, the Seven Days Battles had just ended. The Confederate Army had saved Richmond and was on the advance. It struck me as a compelling aspect of the story that, with this big defeat and the fate of the Union very much in doubt, the president is signing incredibly forward-looking legislation that is going to be pretty much irrelevant if this war goes a different way.

From there, I started looking at that whole year. In the timeframe of 1862 and 1863, the Department of Agriculture, the National Academy of Sciences, the Pacific Railroad, all of these things – in addition to land-grant universities – were created in the face of a very uncertain future. All those nitiatives were looking forward at large, longer-term national interests. There was a pattern: Lincoln took very personally the pain and the suffering of the soldiers who were fighting on his orders. Out of that pain and those ashes, he typically would bring forward some altruistic, forward-looking ideal for what the Union could do if it could be saved.

In that is a really interesting lesson: Out of mistakes, out of pain, out of bad things happening, we always have the ability to grow something positive. That, to me, is a message of real hope and inspiration.

CC: Since you became CSU president, you have grappled with what you call the “defunding of American public higher education.” How do you summarize this issue, and what specific challenges does it present?

TF: State funding per student in every state of the country has been declining. At a public university, you get money from two places to educate a student – from all of us as taxpayers chipping in, because we believe this investment benefits all of us, and then from what the students and their families pay in tuition. So, as one of those has been declining – state funding per student – the other has increased to make up for it; that’s tuition.

Of course, universities also bring in funding that directly supports research, and private giving is critically important to improving institutional quality and accessibility. But those funds don’t cover operating expenses. When it comes down to the day-to-day costs of paying faculty and delivering education, there are only two funding sources: tuition and state support.

The cost of educating a student, relative to the economy as a whole, has stayed relatively flat. We’re educating students for 4 percent more now than we did 20 years ago, adjusted for inflation. Four percent is a minimal increase over a 20-year period, and people are stunned by that.

What has changed is who we ask to pay for it. Twenty years ago, about one-third of the cost of education was paid through tuition, and now three-quarters of the cost of education rests with tuition.

The fundamental challenge of American public higher education today is: Are we going to transfer costs to the individual, or do we still believe that education is a public good from which we all benefit – so it’s worth our investing in it collectively, the way our parents and grandparents did? The land-grant version of that, which is particularly acute, is how do we manage the balance of assuring that we’re providing access while also assuring that we’re never going to let the quality decline?

CC: How do you address that discrepancy – the need for access and the difficulty with rising tuition?

TF: We’ve been fortunate at Colorado State in dealing with these issues during a period of increasing enrollment. We’ve had a value proposition of quality faculty, a location, and a campus that have allowed us to attract students. That increase in enrollment – particularly with students who come from outside Colorado – has given us financial resources to hold down resident tuition. We have reinvested portions of that revenue back into need-based financial aid, so low-income Colorado families are really spared those increases.

We also launched a program called Commitment to Colorado that has resulted in our lowest-income students – students who are Pell Grant-eligible – not paying tuition or fees. They may still have to borrow to pay living expenses. But our data are clear: Although we’ve had annual tuition increases, our percentage of low-income students has remained constant. If you have the ability to earn a degree, and the motivation, there are financial resources available.

This is also a reason that philanthropy has become so critical, because it provides another key source of support that allows us to hold down costs for students and their families.

CC: You have stressed the need for internationalization on this and other land-grant campuses. What does that mean, and why is it important?

TF: Research universities, particularly out of the land-grant tradition, have a heritage of conducting research that is applied to benefit the society we exist to serve. The great global challenges of our day – food, water, energy, the environment, health – are right in the sweet spot of what land-grant universities can do, and they’re all things that ignore borders. You cannot discuss climate or water or food production or disease epidemics without looking at them in an international context. For us as a land-grant University, and for our students, understanding what’s happening in other cultures and how to work with internationally oriented teams are critical elements of success.

“The great global challenges of our day – food, water, energy, the environment, health – are right in the sweet spot of what land-grant universities can do ”

– Dr. Tony Frank, President, Colorado State University

CC: The President’s Commission on Women and Gender Equity recently marked its 20th anniversary, at a time when sexual harassment and gender equity have gained tremendous attention nationwide. Why is it important to focus on these issues on campus, and what do you see as the major challenges ahead?

Tony Frank, CSU PresidentTF: First, I’d note that CSU is the largest employer in Northern Colorado, with about 7,500 employees, so we have a responsibility to strive for leadership on critical workplace issues that affect the quality of the work environment for everyone, men and women.

On a personal level, I have an image of my mother in 1976 – it was the bicentennial for the country, and she was very involved with the Equal Rights Amendment as a schoolteacher in a small, agricultural community. It struck me a few years ago that a lot of the issues we were talking about were similar to those my mom had been talking about in 1976. The pace of progress, given the level of recognition we had for the scope of the problems and the importance of fixing them, seemed extraordinarily underwhelming.

It struck me that we have an opportunity to take problems that have existed for a long period, that need to be addressed, that men in the working world would not have tolerated were we on the other side – and fix them.

We’ve made really good progress, working with an awful lot of people, around policy pieces like parental leave and salary equity. There’s still a lot in front of us in terms of the culture. There are deep roots to a lot of these issues that require a sustained effort to really turn the corner. I cannot escape the feeling that this is a place where we can move the needle and make a big difference. If we do, we’ll be incredibly proud, and if we fail to, I think we should be pretty ashamed.

CC: You have supported the CSU Reframe campaign to prevent sexual assault and interpersonal violence, and you’ve even called on male students to step up with solutions. Why take these approaches?

TF: No one in our community should live in fear. Sexual violence is far too prevalent, and the data are very clear: The vast majority of sexual violence is caused by men. That leads to the conclusion that men can also stop this. It’s not that simple, of course, but we cannot enact cultural change unless we lean into it and unless we, as men, start to hold ourselves accountable.

CC: You often encourage that “Rams take care of Rams.” Why is this an important concept?

TF: The “Rams take care of Rams” idea began as a way to urge our students to feel some responsibility to the people sitting next to them at convocation, to help get them all across the finish line at commencement. So that it’s not just, “I’m going to take care of me, and if you all make it, that’s up to you,” but we have a collective responsibility to make sure there are as few empty seats in each graduating class as possible.

CC: In 2020, Colorado State University will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its founding. What are some key benchmarks you’d like to see CSU achieve by then?

TF: Several years ago, we set a vision that started with a question: “If we can get to 2020, our 150th birthday, what would we like the institution to look like?” Those things include enrollment size, graduation rates, retention rates, diversity, academic quality, decreasing graduation-rate gaps based on socioeconomic or racial status. We talked about research and scholarly productivity, faculty size, where we’d like to be in terms of our physical plant, philanthropy, the level of engagement we wanted to have across the state, where we wanted to be with internationalization, the reputation of the institution both nationally and internationally. There was no shortage of objective, measurable benchmarks.

As we sit here today, it appears the institution we will see in 2020 is going to be pretty much in line with that vision. Some of the numbers will be a little higher, other numbers will be a little lower, but in general we’re the sort of institution we pictured – a research University with a great faculty that has really grown its student enrollment, that has increased graduation rates, decreased graduation-rate gaps, with a revitalized campus, a commitment to engagement, and a commitment to excellence in everything we do as a University.

Yet at the end of the day, what matters to me most as the University turns 150, having spent a decade of my life working on measuring these things and looking at these objectives, is not any of those objectives. What matters to me now is more the overall, subjective ethos of the university. This is an elite place without an elitist attitude.

It’s a place where people roll up their sleeves and get work done and get their hands dirty. It is a place with a big heart.

I’ve come to believe that one of my biggest responsibilities as president, one of the things I take most seriously, is making sure that ethos stays in place. I hope when this University starts her second 150 years, and after that, our campus community will be ready to take on the challenges of the day, and will look at challenges that might seem daunting and greet them as opportunities.

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