A New Year’s wish from the Chancellor

Over the years, I’ve written many long email messages, but never, to my increasingly leaky memory, a New Year’s Eve message. And to my colleagues at CSU Pueblo and CSU Global, here’s a hint from your colleagues at CSU Fort Collins – there’s nothing in here you have to read; no work-related announcements. Some would probably tell you the use of the ‘Delete’ key is a good choice here…..

Back on New Year’s Eve 1989, my first year as a faculty member, we gathered with some friends for New Year’s Eve. We wrote our hopes for 25 years later – 2015. We sealed them in envelopes in the piano bench that sat in front of my grandmother’s huge upright piano in the living room of the first home we ever purchased (at 16% interest and at what we were sure was the top of the real estate market – ever). Well, time passed, as it tends to do. Careers shifted, two of those university colleagues have since passed away, we moved, and somewhere along the way those envelopes were lost. I haven’t actually thought about them much, but I find my mind drifting back to them as I reflect on the impending end of 2020. I know my wishes then have little to do with my wishes in 2020. As Sam Sifton said in his column last week, we still stare at the lights on the tree, but we see more than we did before. And, as my mind is wont to do, I am tempted to look ahead and wonder what we’ll learn from this year. What will those of us who are still here think about a quarter century from now when we look back on 2020? Our children and grandchildren will have some amazing stories. Some of what is recounted will, I imagine, seem hard to believe. And yet we’ll believe it – because we lived it. We’ll recall the fear, the relief, the sense of anxiety, the smell of change in the air – in many ways. Too many of us will remember loss.

I wish you could see the faces that I see as I imagine the Zoom screen gallery view that I am writing to: I see educators, scientists, artists, mentors, administrators, advocates and people who have been going about their jobs – despite the disruption – doing what must be done to keep our campuses open and running. I see people near the end of their professional journey – and I think how nearly impossible it must be for our students to imagine what it was like to walk in their shoes. I see people just starting their journey – filled with possibility, ready for their time, ready – as each generation before them – to make improvements to the society we all share with each other in this increasingly small and interconnected world.

And I see people who are under stress – personal, financial, professional. The world around us is an uncertain place these days, for all of us. As I think about the mail that hit the Chancellor’s inbox in 2020, there are people who think “we” (the CSU System and its member campuses) are too fill-in-the-blank: liberal, conservative, elite, egalitarian. If I’m honest, most of the labels that others apply to us are, from their point of view, negative. Maybe that speaks to our emotional state these days, that the energy required to reach out is more easily found behind the fast burning fuse of anger. Maybe it speaks to the frustration all around us, an outlet for our uncertainty. At best, these messages are a call to improve. At worst, they’re a shouted indictment whose black-and-white truth appears self-evident to the shouter.

In a box in my office (My office!  There’s something I haven’t seen for a while….) I have a box of plastic magic wands. I bought them for $1.99 on eBay many years ago. I have tended to give them out to people working on committees dealing with challenging issues that faced the university. The wands always came with the same instructions: These cannot make money, but they can allow you to see the future you would wish. In other words, tell us what you think the right answer to this challenge is, unconstrained from what “can’t” be done. Then let’s join efforts around seeing what progress we can make. The wands were a gimmick, a device to reframe the question outside the existing mindset. But I realize many years later that I should have included another caveat: The wands don’t work unless most of the people involved agree – at least to some degree – on the future that is envisioned. Me with one wand? Not so effective. A house divided imagining widely divergent futures focused on our differences? Not effective at all. A community coming together around compromise, change, and collective improvement (“this solution may not be perfect, but it’s an improvement”)?  In that case, these darn things actually work!

And that leads me to my point in writing (finally). If I could use one of those wands now, and it actually worked just on my own wishes, I’d wish for a 2021 characterized by each of us assuming good intent from those around us – and receiving the same in return. Someone advised me once to hear the most bitter criticisms as if they were genuinely and unthreateningly asked to us in a private conversation with someone we loved … and then answer that question, not the one that had been asked. Defensiveness, anger – all the things we respond with when we perceive ill intent around us – dissipate, and this allows us the gift of self-reflection. Perhaps sometimes the certainty we feel about our relatively absolutist positions exists because it was forged in a furnace of fear and frustration, and we don’t really wish to face those. What if our conversations were gently sculpted from trust and self-confidence, with the knowledge of respect from those around us? What would that change? Could we listen? And hear? Could we converse? That would mean we could learn. And that would mean we could improve.

Could we do that in 2021? For ourselves and for each other? Could we back off the articulation of our beliefs just enough to turn down the noise of rhetoric and hear each other’s voices?

It’s true that in all of our fields and endeavors in academia, we build upon the work of those who came before us, adding a new layer of understanding, a new way of thinking about an issue. In many cases, to paraphrase Newton, we walk in the footsteps of those we see, through the lens of history, as giants. But because it is our training and proclivity to look at things beyond their first appearance, we know these are always deeply flawed giants – history marks this without exception, and we confirm it with our own humanity, our own frailties, our own mistakes. But the flaws of the giants we follow do not mean they are not giants. Mistakes do not invalidate progress. As Frederick Douglass mused from various viewpoints around the issue over time, Lincoln was simultaneously deeply flawed — and the right human for that moment in history. Would seeking perfection have prevented attaining improvement? Does it for us, today, in our own interactions?

However you wish to improve yourself and your world in 2021, I wish you success. It is my hope that we will do that together, that we will listen more, compromise more, find more common ground. And that our generally aligned hopes will pull together our unaligned approaches, and we’ll be bound together by simple grace that we can extend to each other. Then, I think, those magic wands could do some amazing things — and I’d love to be here to see what they’ve produced a quarter century from now.

Be well, CSU, and welcome 2021!

– tony

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