Student activism has played a significant role at Colorado State University over the decades, whether it was focused on national politics, civil rights, apartheid, recycling or social justice.

And in many cases, students who exercised their free speech rights on campus were able to secure lasting change in the causes they represented.

During the first week of her freshman year in 1958, Polly Baca recalls a friend approaching her in their residence hall and saying, “You have to come with me, because we’re forming a Young Democrats group, and you’re the only other Democrat on the floor.”

“Without CSU, I would never have gotten into politics,” says Baca, who went on to become the first Latina to be elected to the Colorado State Senate. She also served as president and CEO of the Latin American Research and Service Agency, or LARASA, in Denver.

After growing up in Greeley, in a low-income family surrounded by discrimination, the only way she managed to attend CSU was with a scholarship for being in the top 5% of her high school graduating class. Because she was Latina, Baca says, her high school principal tried to convince her to go to a private college even though her scholarship was only for public Colorado universities.

“It was the pain from that discrimination that drove me and made me determined to excel,” she says. “I felt that it was up to me to change how Mexican Americans were treated.”

Polly Baca

“It was the pain from that discrimination that drove me and made me determined to excel. I felt that it was up to me to change how Mexican Americans were treated.”

— Polly Baca, CSU alumna

Making political connections in the ’60s

Police arrest activists at CSU in 1968 during a demonstration against Dow Chemical recruiting on campus.

In 1958, she got involved in Byron Johnson’s successful U.S. congressional campaign.

“I was in awe that I could know a congressman, coming from my background,” says Baca, who is now a member of the CSU Board of Governors. “That would have never been anything I could have dreamed of, growing up.”

At CSU, she was a physics major until the faculty advisor to the Young Democrats suggested that she consider switching to political science. After chairing a mock Democratic National Convention at CSU to nominate a presidential candidate in 1960, she landed an internship with the Colorado Democratic Party.

“That changed my life — I met all the operatives in the Kennedy campaign,” says Baca, who recalls the first time she met then-Senator John F. Kennedy in southern Colorado. “A long, white convertible pulled up, and Sen. Kennedy got out, looked at me with those blue eyes, took my hand, and from that point on, I was a John F. Kennedy supporter.”

She went on to be politically active in a number of other areas, including the effort to lower the voting age to 18, immigration reform and organizing farm workers. She served in the state legislature for 12 years and became the first Latina to co-chair two Democratic National Conventions.

The “Beer-In,” or “Drink-In,” occurred on Oct. 18, 1968, when ASCSU President Doug Phelps and other student protesters committed civil disobedience by drinking beer in the Student Center, at a time when alcohol was prohibited by campus policies. read more

Influx of first-gen students

CSU Vice President for Diversity Mary Ontiveros recalls the early ‘70s being a much more volatile time than the last part of that decade. It began with campus protests around civil rights and the Vietnam War, and the arson-caused burning of CSU’s first building, Old Main, in 1970, when Ontiveros was a freshman.

After graduating in 1973, and while enrolled in graduate school, Ontiveros worked in admissions on campus, recruiting minority students from around the state. She was also asked to help lead El Centro for two years, and recalls that there was a lot of student activism around providing more funding to what are now known as Student Diversity Programs and Services.

“We recruited many diverse students in the early 1970s, but it was clear that there needed to be more resources on campus to support them,” Ontiveros says. “The college experience was particularly challenging for first-generation students, whose parents were not always able to give them the assistance that other parents could give.”

She recalls that when one first-gen student told his parents that he was going to graduate school, his parents were disappointed because they thought he hadn’t gotten his undergraduate degree and needed to go to a special school to graduate.

In an additional example, Ontiveros says that when another first-generation student got his CSU course catalogue as an incoming student, he and his father thought taking 16 credit hours meant that he’d be in class 16 hours a day

“He thought to himself, ‘Wow, college is really going to be difficult,’” Ontiveros says with a laugh. “His father told him, ‘Look, you’ve worked a 16-hour day in the fields, and if you can do that, you can do this.’”

In her role at El Centro, Ontiveros dealt with numerous cases in which Latinx students reported being treated unfairly by faculty. She’d discuss it with the faculty member, who usually insisted everyone was treated equally in class — and that was the problem, she says.

“Being equal is not the same as being equitable,” Ontiveros says. “People needed to recognize that we’re not all equal. If I gave everyone a size 9 shoe, that would be equal, but not equitable, because feet are different sizes.”

There were also efforts on campus to address institutional racism, such as improving the way that antiquated computer systems in admissions categorized students.

“You could be categorized in the computer system as an honors student, or a minority student, but you couldn’t be identified as both,” Ontiveros says. She recalls explaining to an Asian American student that the system required student last names to have at least three letters, even though the student’s last name only had two. “The student took it well and just said, ‘OK, I’ll just add another O.’”

In 1970, CSU students demonstrated during a CSU basketball game against Brigham Young University, protesting against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ policy barring African-American men from the priesthood.

Fraught times in the ’80s

A headline from the Collegian in the 1980s.

Clay Lambert attended CSU from 1981 to 1986 and served as editor of The Rocky Mountain Collegian in the 1985-86 school year. He recalls students taking over the Fort Collins office of former U.S. Rep. Hank Brown to protest U.S. covert operations in Central America when the Iran-Contra affair was coming to light.

“That was certainly a fraught time,” says Lambert, who now lives in Palo Alto, California, and serves as editorial director of the Half Moon Bay Review. “That was certainly something that animated our generation.”

At one point, a Collegian reporter wrote about participating in a job interview with a CIA recruiter on campus. Even though the reporter disclosed in the interview that he was doing a story for the student newspaper, the CIA sent the Collegian a letter accusing the paper of being duplicitous.

“I thought that was hilarious, the CIA calling us duplicitous,” Lambert says. “I wrote back and said they should hire the whole Collegian staff, and I never heard back. That was the kind of thing we were into, poking the establishment in the eye.”

In print, he regularly referred to former CSU President Philip Austin as a “former Nixon aide” because of his previous service in former President Richard Nixon’s administration. Lambert also remembers that a military helicopter once landed on campus near the Lory Student Center as part of an effort to recruit students.

“Someone painted a peace sign on it, the military got mad, and it flew off,” he says with a laugh.

A military helicopter that was tagged with a peace sign on the CSU campus.

According to Lambert, other student activism at the time included calls for divestment from South Africa over apartheid and opposition to President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs.”

“But it was nothing like what the kids are active in today, like the Black Lives Matter movement,” he says, adding that many college students were inspired to challenge the establishment because of The Washington Post’s reporting on Nixon’s Watergate scandal. “Every journalist of my generation was driven to it by Watergate. We understood that the pen was mightier than the sword.”

Clay Lambert

“Every journalist of my generation was driven to it by Watergate. We understood that the pen was mightier than the sword.”

— Clay Lambert, CSU alumnus

Early sustainability efforts in the ’90s

Recycling had long been a part of Nick Sweeton’s life, growing up in the Boston area. There, recycling was a necessity because landfills were full, and garbage had to be transported long distances. When he came to CSU in 1999, he was surprised to find that there were no recycling bins.

“I didn’t know there were places that weren’t recycling,” Sweeton says. “The idea of conserving and recycling was ingrained into us growing up. So when I moved out here to go to grad school, I was shocked that people just threw all these reusable materials away.”

Sweeton, who was a residence hall director, made it his mission to get CSU to start recycling. The effort initially met some resistance from those who questioned all the extra work it would mean for custodial staff and all the training it would require to teach students how to sort trash from recyclables.

Nick Sweeton

“The idea of conserving and recycling was ingrained into us growing up. So when I moved out here to go to grad school, I was shocked that people just threw all these reusable materials away.”

— Nick Sweeton, CSU alumnus

“Whenever someone’s exposed to a new idea, you’re always told why it won’t work,” says Sweeton, who is now associate executive director for Housing & Dining Services. “But once they feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves, or as a contributor to a solution to a problem, they’re more likely to go along with it. And I also think input equals buy-in, so some of the strategy was just hearing them out.”

He assembled a group of leaders from key stakeholder groups, from students to hall directors, office managers to custodial staff. He also received encouragement from his advisor at the time, David McKelfresh, who is now executive director of assessment and research in the Division of Student Affairs.

“I remember one of the professional housing staff members telling me to tone it down, saying we’re a different place, and we don’t need to recycle out here,” Sweeton says. “And of course, when you’re young, that only encourages you more.”

As a result of his efforts and the task force he created, a recycling program was piloted in Edwards and Parmelee halls in Spring 2000.

“That came with a little bit of prestige for those two halls,” Sweeton recalls. “People would say proudly, ‘We are one of the pilot halls. Our students are recycling now.’”

The fall after he graduated with his master’s degree in student affairs in higher education in May 2001, recycling was expanded to all residence halls.

In addition to environmental activism, Sweeton says other hot-button issues among students at that time included LGBT rights, from gay marriage to inclusive restrooms. He also recalls protests when members of the extremist Westboro Baptist Church came to Fort Collins, as the brutal 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was still a raw topic.

Present-day activism

Recent activism at CSU has included demonstrations against police brutality as well as gatherings in support of DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

Vance Payne, who graduated from CSU in 2019 with a degree in mechanical engineering, was one of the students who organized the CSU Solidarity with Mizzou protests in November 2015 to show support for students at the University of Missouri who were fighting racism.

The protesters assembled with signs and banners in front of the Lory Student Center and the Administration Building, presenting CSU administrators with a list of demands that included more funding for the cultural centers and the addition of required diversity coursework to the core curriculum.

“We wanted to help others understand that people have different levels of privilege, and there is history and validation of these things,” says Payne, who joined the President’s Multicultural Student Advisory Committee. “I served on PMSAC for three years, so I got to see what the demands were, and what the University was doing to address them. The ‘Principles of Community’ approach was good; the University did a nice job of promoting that.”

Payne said students had mixed views on the administration’s response when a paper noose was found in a wing of Newsom Hall where a Black student served as resident assistant in August 2017. But he said former President Tony Frank’s famous line “A Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi” from a February 2018 campuswide email condemning white-supremacist activity on campus was a strong and necessary statement.

Later that spring, Payne was one of the speakers at CSUnite, a procession and rally in response to bias-motivated incidents on campus.

Vice President for Diversity Mary Ontiveros (left) and Vice President for Student Affairs Blanche Hughes at CSUnite in 2018.

“Basically what I said was, all of this is great, and it is powerful to see so many people care that others are having an issue,” he says. “But the way we improve this is not by showing up today and then going back to what you do normally. When you see somebody drawing a swastika on campus or calling someone a racist term, you need to call them out, so that they feel so uncomfortable they never do that again.”

Ontiveros says she has seen student activism change over the 50 years that she’s been on campus.

“Students today are so much smarter,” she explains. “We were reacting to a lot back then. Today, they understand issues at a different level and have higher expectations. They’re more sophisticated, they know what they want, and they sometimes don’t understand history and systems because social media is so immediate. We have to respond to that, and respond faster than in the past. They have a more acute sense of urgency, and I appreciate that.”