McConnell Steps In

Joyce McConnell, 15th President of CSU
Photo by Mary Neiberg

New president rings in semester and launches 150th anniversary celebrations

It was December 2018, and Joyce McConnell stepped off the dais at West Virginia University after a presentation titled “Meet the Presidents.” The panel discussion – about the future of higher education – featured the current and former presidents at WVU. McConnell, as provost and vice president for academic affairs, the No. 2 campus leader, had opened the event and introduced the panelists. She called herself “the warm-up act.”

“Our institutions of higher education must change, and are changing, to meet the demands of this increasingly globally connected, technologically dependent world that has seen a pace of disruption unlike any other time in history,” McConnell told the audience. “Even as universities adapt, they need a beacon, a single figure to look to in times of crisis and in times of celebration. That’s who our greatest presidents are.”

Moments after the event, two former WVU presidents chatted with McConnell at a reception. “You’ve been provost long enough. You need to be a president,” they told her. “We’re going to start nominating you.”

Nine months later, McConnell is ringing in fall semester and launching 150th anniversary celebrations at Colorado State University – in her new role as president. She is the first woman to lead the University.

That heart-to-heart in December, back in Morgantown, West Virginia, was the first step in a process that brought McConnell to the attention of the Board of Governors of the CSU System, which hired her in late March, from a pool of 80 candidates, to become 15th president of the System’s flagship campus in Fort Collins. She started July 1.

McConnell succeeds Tony Frank, who recently became full-time chancellor of the CSU System after 11 years as CSU president and five years in the dual roles of University president and System chancellor. As chancellor, he leads initiatives involving the System and its three campuses: CSU, CSU-Pueblo, and CSU-Global.

Before becoming CSU president, McConnell, a lawyer, worked at West Virginia’s land-grant university for 23 years. She started as a law professor, became a widely respected dean of the WVU law school, and then was chief academic officer for five years. Like Colorado State, WVU is a top-tier public research university; it is home to professional schools of law, medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy. There, McConnell was responsible for academic policies, curriculum, budgetary matters, facilities, libraries, outreach programs, and research. She also worked closely with local, state, and national policymakers and helped lead WVU’s recent $1.2 billion fundraising campaign.

After growing up near Washington, D.C., McConnell earned degrees at Evergreen State College and Antioch School of Law. She was a graduate teaching fellow at Georgetown University Law School and taught law at City University of New York and University of Maryland before starting at WVU.

In her teaching, McConnell has focused on property, development, and natural resources law and has gained expertise in water rights, energy, and sustainability – some of the very issues that command attention in Colorado and provide a basis for significant teaching and research at CSU. She started the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development in the WVU College of Law.

Her own studies and writing have centered on a much different topic: the legal rights of women, especially victims of domestic violence. Her scholarship contributed concepts to the federal Violence Against Women Act, which was signed into law in 1994 and has been congressionally reauthorized four times since; the act established the National Domestic Violence Hotline, among other national programs.

At CSU, McConnell has a big task: The University is riding a wave of momentum, with remarkable gains in enrollment, graduation rates, research and scholarly activity, fundraising, and campus construction. It has a $1.2 billion annual budget, student enrollment approaching 35,000, total faculty and staff of 7,600, a fundraising campaign that has surpassed $1 billion, and statewide offices serving every county in Colorado.

I think access is so important because if a student has what it takes to succeed at this university, they need to be here. They need to be here because this excellent education will not only transform their life, it will transform their family’s lives for generations to come.

Joyce McConnell
President, Colorado State University

Joyce McConnell walking up the steps of the Administrative Building on CSU's campus
Photo by Mary Neiberg

As she stepped into the presidency, McConnell sat down with Colorado State Magazine to discuss her new job.

COLORADO STATE MAGAZINE: We talked about some of the metrics that describe the scope of operations at Colorado State. What attracted you to the position of president here?

McCONNELL: Well, those data points are very similar to WVU. In my job as provost there, I was both internally and externally facing, and that gave me a lot of insight into the complexity of a university this size, what it means to be a state’s land-grant, and all the responsibility that comes with it. There were also certain aspects of Colorado State that really spoke to me. One was it seemed very similar to West Virginia University in the sense that it is a historic land-grant. It is classified as a Carnegie Research 1 university, so it takes its research very seriously. And it is very authentic in its messaging about the importance of access and success for all students. CSU is also really future-focused in its work on sustainability. All of those factors are very important to me. Looking at it as a whole, it just seemed like the most perfect fit I could have imagined.

CSM: You are the first woman to become president at CSU. To put that in perspective, the American Council on Education reports that 30 percent of U.S. college presidents are women. What does it mean to you personally, and what do you think it means for students, University employees, alumni, donors, and other stakeholders?

McCONNELL: I don’t think I initially understood the impact of being the first woman president at CSU. My focus was on being the best president I could be. Then I realized being the first woman has its own significance. Everyone around me was telling me, “This is amazing. There aren’t that many women presidents of large universities.” But the moment it really clicked for me is when my 33-year-old daughter called, and her friends were with her. She said, “My mom just became the president of Colorado State University,” and I could hear these wonderful women just yelling and screaming and saying, “That’s incredible!” That was the moment when I went, “Oh, this really has meaning.” It’s not just for me, not just for my family, but for women who are looking at, “What can I do in my life? What is possible?” This delivered a message that it is possible.

CSM: How do you think your role as CSU’s first female president relates to our land-grant mission in access to education?

McCONNELL: I believe the strength of pioneering women was really reflected in the fact that Colorado State, as a land-grant, was open to women from the very beginning. That speaks volumes about the independent spirit in Colorado. I think access is so important because if a student has what it takes to succeed at this University, they need to be here. They need to be here because this excellent education will not only transform their life, it will transform their family’s lives for generations to come. President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 and created land-grant universities so that higher education would be available to all people; it wouldn’t be just wealthy people who could afford private universities, and that remains a mission today. Think about the power of that. It’s awe-inspiring.

CSM: What other aspects of our land-grant roots and mission remain especially important 150 years later?

McCONNELL: The language in the Morrill Act of 1862 refers to colleges established to teach agriculture, the mechanical arts, and other scientific and classical studies that help people develop practical solutions to problems. I think the greatest legacy for land-grants – 150 years later for Colorado State – is that same focus on, “How do we solve the world’s problems?” We’ve seen an evolution in what it means to take education, research, and service to improve the lives of people who live in Colorado, the United States, and the world, yet that land-grant mission of local discovery with global impact is something that has really lasted, and we see it every day on campus.

The connection of CSU to the state of Colorado also remains very important. I truly believe the return on investment for state funds used in educating students returns over and over and over again, even with something as straightforward as expanded tax base from the higher earnings of college-educated students. Given Colorado’s trend toward more high-tech industry including high-tech needs in agriculture, for crop production, protein production, and animal care – we have a huge responsibility to Colorado and its economy to make sure we are meeting needs in research and workforce education.

CSM: You touched on investment in higher education, which raises the topic of tuition costs. This academic year, tuition will remain unchanged for undergraduates who are Colorado residents. But over the past couple decades, CSU and other land-grant universities have faced decreasing funding from states. How do you communicate the problems to families faced with rising tuition, if not from year to year, then over time?

McCONNELL: I am grateful to the governor and state Legislature for support that allows us to hold tuition flat for resident undergraduates this year. When I’ve talked to alumni, they didn’t always know tuition was inexpensive when they went to school because the majority of University funding came from the state, which kept tuition low. Over time, declining state support has shifted the tuition burden onto students and their families. For a Colorado resident graduating from CSU, the average debt is about $25,000. What I share with parents is, that’s the price of a car, and it’s reasonable indebtedness for graduates just starting out. There are ways to go to college and for it to be affordable. In the end, studies show that every person who has an undergraduate degree as opposed to a high school degree is going to earn, on average, a million dollars more over a lifetime. That’s a good investment.

CSM: What are some of the aspects of campus that have made an impression on you in these first several weeks?

McCONNELL: My first look at the Oval, and my first walk through the elms, was very powerful. I’m struck by the natural beauty of the area, but even more moved by the warmth and authenticity of the people. My husband and I went to the Recreation Center for a tour, and we were holding the door as a group of students came out. Every one of them said, “hello,” and every one of them said, “thank you.” That was wonderful. I really love the way the faculty and staff are engaged and committed to CSU, and even more significantly, to students. The passion for students here is palpable.

“Our institutions of higher education must change, and are changing, to meet the demands of this increasingly globally connected, technologically dependent world that has seen a pace of disruption unlike any other time in history.”

Joyce McConnell
President, Colorado State University