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Global Connections

A brief history of CSU

February 10, 2011

On Feb. 10 and 11, Colorado State will honor the creation of the institution, the values that have sustained it, and its mission of service through teaching, research, and engagement with Founders Day celebrations. Events will take place at the Colorado State Capitol and on campus in Fort Collins.

More information on Founders Day celebrations.

Artist's rendering of the Colorado Agricultural College campus that appeared in the 1895 Silver Spruce year book.A grand beginning

Colorado’s land-grant college originated in 1870 when the territorial legislature established an agricultural college at Fort Collins. The population in Colorado at the time, six years before Colorado became the 38th state, was not quite 40,000.

The school qualified for endowment under the Morrill Act of 1862, which provided federal land grants to academic institutions offering instruction in “such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts” and promoting “the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.”

The campus farm

Elijah Evan Edwards (1831-1915)A decade passed before classes began at Fort Collins, but in the interim, experimental work was conducted on the campus farm. How could emerging modern sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology be applied to Colorado’s distinctive agricultural conditions? Which were the most suitable methods of soil use, irrigation, crop selection, animal care, and pest control? Answers demanded careful study, which an agricultural experiment station would soon provide.

In September 1879, President Elijah E. Edwards and a two-member faculty welcomed the first students to college. A single course of study served all, and three graduates received degrees on June 5, 1884. By the turn of the century, the curriculum included majors in agriculture, engineering, and home economics along with fledgling graduate-level work. Dedicated faculty contributing to the new school included James Lawrence, Clarence Gillette, Theodosia Ammons, and Elwood Mead, who introduced the first instructional program in irrigation engineering to be offered by an American college.

Outreach augmented research and teaching, and knowledge thus benefitted Coloradans beyond the home campus. Enduring programs such as 4-H were launched, and extension agents would eventually provide service in almost every county.

Turn of the century

Research, teaching, and outreach were all key college programs when Charles A. Lory began a 31-year tenure as president in 1909. A former ditch rider whose family had homesteaded in Colorado, Lory committed the school to practical education and service to the state. During his presidency, enrollments grew from 217 to 2,048 and the college developed into a well-rounded technical institution. By 1940, degrees were available in agriculture, engineering, home economics, veterinary medicine, forestry, vocational education, agricultural economics, and rural sociology.

These years also featured the emergence of campus activities and traditions. Fraternities, sororities, Coach Harry Hughes’ football teams, and painting the “A” left indelible memories for students. So did the calamity of the Great Depression, which posed exceptional challenges for Colorado’s land-grant institution.

American involvement in World War II threw normal college routines into disarray. Enrollments plummeted as students and faculty left Fort Collins for military service. Although the college remained open because of President Roy Green’s success

in bringing military training programs to campus, national defense rather than academic goals prevailed. Research and extension efforts strongly emphasized agricultural output.

Post-war emergence

The post-war years saw an influx of veterans attending college on the G.I. Bill. In addition, Cold War tensions led to vastly augmented federal support for scientific research and training. Sponsored projects and graduate programs proliferated.

President William E. Morgan and an unidentified man at a groundbreaking ceremony for Hughes Stadium on May 9, 1967William E. Morgan, who became president in 1949, led the school’s emergence as a modern educational institution. A prudent planner, he saw the need for major campus expansion and energetically changed the face of education over the course of his 20-year tenure. Improvements in the liberal arts, library acquisitions, and international programs solidified the University as a major educational force. In 1955, the college awarded its first Ph.D. degree and, two years later, changed its name to Colorado State University.

During the 1960s, enrollments soared from 6,131 to nearly 17,000. A.R. Chamberlain succeeded Morgan as president in 1969 amid campus unrest that may have led to the burning of Old Main in 1970.

Chamberlain worked to consolidate University changes during a period of less rapid growth. By the conclusion of his 11-year tenure, the boom in American higher education had waned along with the fervor of the younger generation. Good jobs elicited greater concern than good causes.

Dynamic era

During the 1980s, CSU faced many questions. Which programs would best serve a dynamic modern society? Could traditional commitments to agriculture and rural Colorado be balanced against escalating urban needs and international involvements? What role should computers and electronic networks play in facilitating education? The University addressed these and other critical issues despite administrative upheaval that featured three different presidents within a four-year period.

On July 28, 1997, a devastating flood tested CSU by ripping through Morgan Library, Lory Student Center, and other buildings. However, after heroic effort by the campus community, CSU managed to start fall semester classes on time under the leadership of President Albert Yates, who saw the opportunity to make CSU “a better and stronger place in all of its dimensions.”

During his 13-year presidency, which began in 1990, Yates provided leadership that advanced this goal. CSU emerged from the flood with an enhanced sense of community, and its rebuilt campus was an aesthetic and functional improvement. Under Yates, the quality of research, undergraduate and graduate education, and opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities steadily improved. Key faculty helped to promote this progress. Temple Grandin, William Gray, and Holmes Rolston were among those esteemed by their own students and colleagues and also by the public at large. Researchers Tom Vonder Haar, George Seidel, Ed Hoover, and Gordon Niswender – just a very small sample – helped take CSU research to higher levels.

Intercollegiate athletics also flourished. Sonny Lubick’s winning football program, entry into the Mountain West Conference, and unprecedented success for women’s teams highlighted this trend. Olympic champion swimmer Amy Van Dyken and basketball All-American Becky Hammon were among the school’s most recognized athletes.

Into the millennium

The 2003-2004 academic year was marked by the arrival of a new president, Larry Edward Penley. Penley’s knowledge of higher education served to forward the land-grant objectives of CSU even in the face of economic problems later in the decade that affected education throughout the nation.

Student Recreation CenterDuring this time, student leaders recognized the need to invest in new and improved facilities. Students agreed to a new student fee for physical improvements to campus and embraced renewed social concerns for the environment, which dovetailed with the University’s legacy of environmental research and campus conservation efforts. Energy conservation, LEED buildings, a large solar array on the Foothills campus and smaller arrays on main campus buildings, and the establishment of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability are among the hallmarks of this green era.

A leading force

The strong foundation built by past presidents continues to this day under the leadership of Anthony Frank, who became CSU’s 14th president in 2009. President Frank’s commitment to CSU’s land-grant mission was shaped by his own experiences growing up on a farm in rural Illinois and later by his experience as a student, faculty member, and researcher.

Based on its storied 141 years, Colorado State has earned its reputation as one of the leading land-grant research Universities of the 21st century, thanks to world-renowned faculty, dedicated staff, a talented and involved student body, and engaged alumni and supporters.

To continue sustaining civilization in the new millennium, the goals and values of the institution are to provide students with an outstanding, competitive education; conduct research that can improve the quality of life for people and communities worldwide; and help meet practical and economic needs of Colorado through community outreach.


This article is based on a historical summary of Colorado State by James Hansen, professor emeritus of history.