McConnell embraces student demonstrators, calls for ‘courageous transformation’ in first Fall Address

Colorado State University’s historic Oval was the scene for Joyce McConnell’s first President’s Fall Address, which opened with the Land Acknowledgement delivered by student Serena Natonabah. During McConnell’s remarks, more than 300 students peacefully marched in front of the stage to protest recent racially biased incidents on campus. Following the remarks, CSU’s 15th president mingled with members of the campus community enjoying the annual University Picnic. Photos by CSU Photography

Joyce McConnell’s first Fall Address as president of Colorado State University was unlike any delivered by previous leaders of the state’s land-grant institution.

The first difference was that McConnell is CSU’s first female president, and she spoke with a perspective her predecessors simply did not possess.

But this Fall Address, delivered on a glorious September day on the historic Oval, was unique in another, much more powerful way: For the first time since the inaugural speech and picnic were held in 1997, a significant number of students peacefully demonstrated against recent incidents of racial bias on campus.

McConnell did not shy away from the criticism; in fact, she embraced it, thanking the students for their passionate commitment to make sure their voices are heard. Several hundred of them – many carrying signs of protest – marched in front of the stage early in McConnell’s speech.

“I’m very, very proud of our students who are marching right now and exercising their First Amendment rights,” she said as the crowd applauded the students for the duration of their slow, silent march.

“I’m very, very proud of our students who are marching right now and exercising their First Amendment rights.”

— President Joyce McConnell

McConnell also lauded the 700 participants who attended an ASCSU meeting the previous night at the Lory Student Center – many of them, like her, waiting until 1 a.m. to make sure every voice was heard and every opinion expressed.

“Whether individual or institutional, racism and bias is antithetical to the core mission of excellent higher education,” she said. “Our universities and colleges must be places of equality and achievement driven by discovery and difficult conversations. Robust debate on a public campus is protected by the First Amendment, but this does not mean we are powerless to fight for change through positive, engaged discourse, action and accountability.”

McConnell then announced a new initiative, based on a successful model used by the University of Washington since 2015 to improve campus climate, called the Race, Bias and Equity Initiative. It will include students, faculty and staff encompassing both short- and long-term actions.

“We start today, and we start immediately,” she said of the plan launch, adding that her office will invite every student who spoke before ASCSU to participate.

“I want to make clear, the burden should not be on our students,” she said, addressing the entire campus community. “The burden is on us. We owe it to all our students to create an environment in which they can flourish and succeed.”

Applauds achievements

McConnell also took a few minutes to laud the achievements of faculty and researchers over the past year while challenging those same people to do even more to fulfill CSU’s land-grant mission to make the world a better place. She encouraged the entire campus to engage in what she calls Courageous Strategic Transformation – not simply talking about change but making it happen.

“We must up our research game,” she said. “We must move faster to solve the great challenges we are facing today. We must think more creatively and more boldly about how to apply our discoveries and how to share them with the world. Otherwise, we fail to make good on the promise of the Research 1 university.”

McConnell then concluded by expanding on a favorite charge – Own Your Brilliance – that she often shares with those she meets on campus. She encouraged everyone – students, staff, faculty and campus leadership – to share their brilliance both academically and in living the CSU mantra of accepting and overcoming challenges.

“Let’s own that brilliance and shine together today, tomorrow and far into the future,” she concluded.