Fresh off a national championship with the University of Alabama, Colorado State University’s new head football coach, Jim McElwain, thinks he can remake the hapless Rams. He’d better, because his bosses are counting on a newly energized football program to do a lot more for CSU than simply win games.
On an early May afternoon, CSU’s campus is quiet. Except for a few students who have stuck around for summer session, the sidewalks are empty, the classrooms are dark, and the Oval—the symbolic center of campus—stands stoic in the face of another three-month break. The 583-acre campus sits just southwest of Old Town Fort Collins, where nearly every restaurant, bar, and store features Ram green and gold in its decor. CSU students fill orders at the local ice cream shop and work the registers at Old Town boutiques. Recent grads buy small houses in South College Heights and populate cubicles at Hewlett-Packard.
Without CSU, this small city, population 143,986, might never have grown much beyond the military outpost it began as in 1864. (Colorado wouldn’t become the 38th state until 1876.) Two years before “Camp Collins” was founded, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, the law that provided grants of public land to establish colleges. Today, there are more than 100 of these “land-grant” institutions throughout the United States and its territories. CSU, which began life in 1879 as Colorado Agricultural College, is the state’s only one.
About 133 years and a few name changes later, the CSU campus bustles with 30,000 students, eight colleges, and 1,540 faculty members, all contributors to the school’s distinct yet somewhat indefinable culture. Despite its local reputation as a haven for stoners and New Belgium beer aficionados, CSU has never appeared in the Princeton Review’s list of the country’s top party schools. It has, however, been ranked by Popular Science as having one of the top 25 “most awesome college labs”; it ranks among the top 15 colleges with undergraduates serving in the Peace Corps; and it’s been lauded by multiple publications for its emphasis on green initiatives and technology. CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences consistently ranks in the top 10 nationwide for its awards, grants, and contracts. The university is also home to one of the best veterinary medicine programs in the country as well as an elite atmospheric science school. Among universities without medical schools, CSU attracts the second largest amount of research dollars, behind only Georgia Tech.
Accolades like these underline the university’s academic accomplishments, yet there’s a quiet confidence among students and faculty that seems rooted in something else. By almost anyone’s estimation, CSU is the third most-prominent university in the state, behind the University of Colorado Boulder and the Air Force Academy. Maybe the self-assurance comes from the belief that the school is an oft-overlooked gem, a serious college populated with aggies, geeks, and hippies that somehow thrives in relative seclusion without the attention—and scrutiny—that more brand-name universities attract.
The problem is that thriving requires a lot of money. And in the past decade, the state of Colorado has repeatedly cut higher-education funding. In the past three years alone, CSU has lost a cumulative $36 million in state financing; the university’s president, Dr. Tony Frank, expects further cutbacks. To combat this shortfall, in 2011 CSU reluctantly raised student base tuition by 20 percent (a $1,051 increase), a move that runs counter to the land-grant university’s mission of providing affordable access to higher education. The funding dilemma has forced Frank, who has been with the university since 1993 and has served as president for three years, to explore other potential moneymaking endeavors. “I’m a huge fan of land-grant universities,” Frank says. “I think they’re one of the greatest American inventions of all time. But right now, there’s a tremendous challenge to determine what the future of this system is as public funding declines.”
It’s simple, really: Frank needs students—from Colorado, but especially from other states—to want to attend CSU. He wants the words “Colorado State” to roll off high school seniors’ tongues with the same excitement elicited by institutions such as the universities of Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio State, or California-Berkeley—all household-name schools that draw students from beyond their state borders. Hell, he’d like CSU to be thought of before CU-Boulder, which right now sounds a little crazy, if not downright impossible.
Frank knows CSU can compete with many big-brand schools academically. Where the school falls short is outside the classroom. Frank says—and many agree—there’s one department where CSU hasn’t been measuring up for years; an area that’s highly visible, potentially lucrative, and likely to attract higher enrollment. Frank wants CSU’s pitiful football team to find some swagger, start kicking some ass, and make any teenager watching ESPN think longer and harder about Colorado State University.