As delivered by CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano

Sept. 13, 2022  |  Doors Open: 8:30 a.m. | Speech: 9 a.m.

 UMC Glenn Miller Ballroom

Estimated Time: 14:30

Good morning!

Thank you, Jordan, for the introduction and for your leadership on campus.

Welcome to all of our students, staff, faculty and guests, both on-campus and online.

I’d like to recognize Lesley Smith, chair of the CU Board of Regents, who is with us today.

And my wife, Yvonne. 

It’s been three years since we last held an in-person State of the Campus event, and I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to gather with you today.

I remain thankful for all of your exceptional efforts that got us through the worst of the pandemic, and I'm excited for the future that lies ahead.

I am pleased to report that the state of our campus remains strong. 

The University of Colorado Boulder is among America's leading comprehensive research universities, and we are pouring heart and soul into addressing the humanitarian, social, and technological challenges of the 21st century.

Every day our students, staff and faculty are reaching higher and inventing new ways to lead, innovate, and make a positive impact on humanity.

But it’s clear that not everyone sees the value in higher education. Studies show that trust in our American democracy and our institutions of higher education are eroding at an alarming pace.

About 58% of U.S. adults say they are not satisfied with the way democracy is working in America, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center in the spring of 2021.

Meanwhile, according to another survey from Pew, only half of American adults think colleges and universities are having a positive impact on the way things are going in the country, with stark divides along partisan lines. 

My message is simple today: Colleges and universities must change this course, and that change can begin here, at the University of Colorado Boulder.

While we cannot forget about tangible issues impacting our lives today – inflation, health care, housing prices – we also must prioritize holding onto the very features of democracy that underpin all of those other conversations.

Each of us has a responsibility and a role to play.

At CU Boulder, we must rededicate ourselves to supporting and sustaining democracy every day. And we do this by:

  • supporting free speech and thoughtful discourse;

  • by conducting research that informs policy and serves the public good;

  • and by enabling and encouraging participation in the democratic process, to prepare the students, our students, to become leaders in our state, our country, and our world.

A colleague years ago told me that a university should be a “house of conflict,” where differing perspectives are shared and debated in pursuit of greater understanding and knowledge.

If the university is to become viewed as less of an ivory tower and more of a public square, we must ensure that a wide range of viewpoints are seen, are heard, and are represented on our campus.

CU Boulder has made a commitment to free expression in its policies and procedures, and we must embody our commitment in our everyday interactions.

Too often at institutions like ours, we’re hearing of instances where students or faculty may be afraid to speak out of their own experiences, or offer their insights and ideas for fear of being shouted down, ridiculed, or ostracized by their peers.

This behavior goes against the ethos of an open, honest, and respectful conversation that we must exemplify on our campus. 

The university should advance democracy through open communication that intentionally focuses on equity, justice, and the inclusion of diverse voices. 

To do this, we can look to models like the CU Dialogues Program, which facilitates conversations for students, staff, and faculty that help us explore many different topics to better understand our own positions, why we believe the things we believe, and how we can collectively work toward more equitable outcomes.

We need more organizations, not fewer, that seek to foster reasoned discourse on a wide range of social issues and bring new voices and broad perspectives to our conversations.

As we seek out more diverse viewpoints, it’s also important that we differentiate between spirited public debate and the self-interested confrontation that degrades democracy. An argument is only as valuable as its ability to persuade, rather than to stifle.

Another key element in sustaining and protecting our democracy is serving the public good. I firmly believe that we must continually strive to put the “public” back in “public institution.”

When I use the word “public,” I mean not just publicly funded and governed. I’m talking about research, education, and service that advances our collective good.

Since opening its doors in 1876, CU Boulder has championed its role as a comprehensive public university serving our state.

Nearly 150 years later, faculty, staff and students continue to embrace this mission, and our reach has broadened across the nation and the globe.

It’s about ensuring that CU Boulder improves outcomes not just for its graduates or its employees, but for everyone whose lives we touch.

Last year alone, we harnessed a record-breaking 634 million dollars in research funding for the benefit of communities across Colorado and around the world.

In every corner of our colleges and schools, our 12 institutes and more than 75 research centers, faculty and students are advancing basic and applied research, scholarship and creative works for the good of humanity.

We are helping to:

  • electrify transportation

  • discovering how hot, dry nights are increasing wildfire risk

  • and examining how COVID-19 has accelerated the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. 

Our researchers are working directly in communities throughout Colorado to help find solutions to problems that they face.

And the university’s excellence in climate, energy, and sustainability have earned us the honor of co-hosting the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit with United Nations Human Rights this December. It’s not just a conversation about climate science; it looks at how our changing environment impacts human rights across the globe, bringing together researchers and world leaders to focus on our most pressing challenges.

As we seek to serve the public good and cultivate an atmosphere of free speech, we also must enable and encourage all within our community to participate in the democratic process – particularly by students who will become our future leaders.

Today, more than a dozen CU Boulder alumni hold elected positions in Colorado state government – and we have several alumni serving in national elected offices. Graduates of CU Boulder have gone on to serve as U.S. ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, governors, and in numerous other public offices.

Our campus has been at the forefront of leadership training in higher education for decades, through programs such as the President’s Leadership Class, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. 

The Center for Leadership, founded in the fall of 2020, unites 37 leadership programs across campus – a reminder that students from every major and course of study benefit from developing leadership skills such as critical thinking, empathy, integrity, and ethical decision-making.

Since 2016, CU Boulder has also been a member of the All In Campus Democracy Challenge, which encourages nonpartisan civic engagement such as voting, contacting elected officials, and supporting political causes.

I’m proud to say that in 2020, the Democracy Challenge awarded CU Boulder “Platinum” status for achieving an 80 to 89% voting rate among eligible students. As we approach midterm elections this fall, I encourage all of the eligible voters in our community to exercise their fundamental democratic rights. 

Your vote is your voice. So make it count. 

On campus, participating in CU Student Government, the Graduate and Professional Student Government, and other organizations are great ways for students to practice engagement, leadership, and governance while still in school.

To be clear, engaging in democracy is not just for our students.

CU Boulder faculty and staff play an active role in the direction of the university through shared governance organizations like the Boulder Faculty Assembly and Staff Council.

A functional democracy requires participation from all, and there’s no better time than now to get involved.

Representatives from the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization, are outside the room today to assist anyone who needs more information about registering and voting.

When I say that upholding democracy requires all of us, I truly mean all of us. 

If we as a university are to help form a more perfect nation, we must ensure that every person –  regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, disability, creed, class or background – has the opportunity to participate. 

We must embrace diversity of all kinds, critique existing “ways of doing things,” and commit to change to ensure that the promises of democracy are not reserved for only a few.

As a university, we know we are an imperfect model of inclusion, free speech, and other ideals to which we aspire.

However, we cannot wait for perfection to rededicate ourselves to upholding democracy.

So today I’m asking each faculty and staff member, and each undergraduate and graduate student, to thoughtfully consider how we can work together to create an inclusive campus that supports democratic ideals.

Where can you invest your time and energy to bring these goals to fruition? What existing efforts can you join? What new endeavors can you create? What challenging conversations can you have?

I invite you all to continue this conversation over breakfast here today and revisit this topic throughout the year.

In the coming year I’ll be seeking opportunities to strengthen our commitment to democracy, and to connect the dots between democratic principles, advancing DE&I, and the research, education and outreach we’re already doing.

I would also love to hear YOUR thoughts and ideas for how CU Boulder can support and sustain democracy, so please share them! 

There are QR codes spread throughout the room where you can access an online form to share your thoughts and ideas, and we’re also taking feedback by email at

As I close today, I want to acknowledge that recommitting to our role as a “house of conflict” may invite discomfort and detractors. 

Our commitment is to a reasoned exploration of ideas, not to distractions that take away  from our mission of diversity and inclusion.

We won’t get it right every time. There will certainly be times when we fall short of our objectives, or when the marketplace of ideas feels more like chaos than collaboration. Those occasions are an opportunity to improve, not to disengage.

We must embrace these dialogues as necessary components of a healthy university and a healthy society.

Because at its best, higher education is …

A conduit for opportunity and social mobility,

It’s a training ground for engaged citizenship,

It’s a convener of experts committed to solving the complex problems of our time,

And it’s a force multiplier for activities promoting the public good. 

The university’s purpose is not simply to prepare the nation’s workforce but, just as importantly, to prepare the nation’s citizens for a lifetime of service to our global society.

Thank you for everything you do in service to CU Boulder, to our community and to democracy itself.

And thank you all for being here today.