One reason the COVID pandemic has seemed to alter our sense of time is that all the normal events and traditions that typically fill our days are either cancelled or online. It was a strange January in Colorado without the National Western Stock Show. For the Colorado State University System, February is the month when we typically celebrate Founders Day – our founding as an institution – and this year that happened almost exclusively on social media.
But it would be wrong of me to let this month pass without a little bit of reflection on why this anniversary matters.
This nation’s history began with one of the greatest human experiments: to see if individuals could self-govern. We’re still testing the limits on that one, but so far, we have a couple of hundred years of evidence that it’s possible.
About a hundred years into that first experiment with democracy, we embarked on another: public education. It was a radical concept at the time to consider making a college education available to anyone, regardless of economic status, who had the commitment and ability to earn a degree.
Instrumental in launching this second experiment were Senator Justin Morrill and President Abraham Lincoln. Standing in a teetering economy, with the echoes of war barely faded from their ears, they made the following suppositions:
- That democracy would only succeed with educated citizens.
- That a successful economy spread out across the vast physical space of America, and adaptable to future changes, needed an educated workforce at all levels.
- That the very fabric of society would be strengthened by inclusion of teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals in all of our communities.
- And that the best way to attain this was for everyone to contribute to helping finance the cost of these educations, because what is returned to us by these soon-to-be graduates will be far more than what we have invested.
Their vision led to the creation of land-grant universities like Colorado State that had a specific mission to serve society as a whole through accessible education, basic and applied research, and outreach that put this research and knowledge to work for people and communities. In Colorado, that experiment launched on Feb. 11, 1870, with the creation of CSU – now a system of three universities all bound by their commitment to access, scholarship, and innovation.
This is an experiment that has worked beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. And it’s a legacy fulfilled and embodied by people like the man we honored with this year’s Founders Day Medal, Dr. John Matsushima. Johnny – the founder of Ag Day, 2013 Citizen of the West, longtime CSU professor – grew up one of seven children on a family farm in Platteville, with no indoor plumbing and often not enough food to go around. He worked hard in 4-H and then as a student at CSU, obtaining his degrees in 1943 and 1945 – not an easy time for someone of Japanese ancestry in America. Over the years, his research into cattle feeds went on to transform the global cattle industry.
In December, Johnny turned 100. (Happy birthday, my friend!) And this month, we’re recognizing him for his transformative impact on Colorado State University and global agriculture.
Every year, 60,000 students attend classes at a CSU campus. And among them are countless people who, like Johnny, will seize the education they’re offered and use it to improve the lives and well-being of people worldwide. Our first CSU Systemwide economic impact study, released just last week, revealed that 1 in 25 people in Colorado’s workforce is a CSU alum, and our graduates are using their talents to strengthen state industries and communities. What’s more, our campuses multiply the funding they receive from the state in ways that add significant value to Colorado – in taxes paid by our graduates, student spending in local businesses, innovation that fuels competitiveness, and thousands of public- and private-sector jobs.
These are all the reasons we honor the founding of CSU each year – and virtually or in person, it continues to be an experiment worth celebrating.
This message was included in Chancellor Frank’s February newsletter. Click here to subscribe to the Chancellor’s monthly letter.