Not many students get the chance to meet their president at a university as large as Colorado State.
I’m lucky to have met our president, Dr. Albert Yates. I’ve talked to him after fall and spring addresses and other occasions but I especially remember a visit I made to a State Board of Agriculture meeting at the University of Southern Colorado. After leaving Fort Collins early in the morning for a three-hour drive, I was able to make it to Pueblo just in time to catch Yates and get a few quotes as he was walking to lunch.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was witness to the eve of one of Yates’ accomplishments: the transformation of USC to CSU-Pueblo. Yates shook my hand like an old friend (even though we had barely talked before) and asked me with concern if I had ever been to USC, what my impression of the place was and how students in Fort Collins felt about the coming name change.
Flash forward to last Friday morning, where Yates announced his retirement in a modest press conference. Now I am the one asking questions. Why did someone who has accomplished so much decide to resign?
Yates joked that for the last six years, he has said he’d be president for only two more years.
“I’ve hinted at retirement and complained about the pressure of competing personal priorities – always wanting to do as well as I could for the university and our system,” Yates said at a podium in the Administration Building with the CSU seal behind him. “As well, I’ve wanted to spend more time with my family, to write more, to read more, even to smile more. And now it’s time to find a better balance.”
After this year, he will have served 13 years as president of CSU. Only Charles A. Lory (1909-1940) and William B. Morgan (1949-1969) served longer. On Friday, the manic mix of joy and pain on Yates’ face showed that with every year as president he lived with a bittersweet balance of rejoice over the university’s accomplishments and the weight of its responsibilities.
“You live this place 24 hours a day, every day. Over time, it takes its toll,” he said. “The responsibility for anything that happens at the university rests with the president. My hope in all of this is that I’ve served well.”
Yates certainly has dealt with adversity in his tenure as president. In 1992, rumors circulated that aggressive football coach Earle Bruce was abusing his players. In 1993, CSU was named in a lawsuit for not adhering to guidelines for women’s sports under Title IX. Skinheads attacked an African American high school student in downtown Fort Collins that year as well. A 1997 flood wiped out parts of the campus, including half of the student center and library. And in 2001, shockwaves from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks rippled through CSU.
However Yates, the son of Memphis, Tenn. diner owners, seems to be gifted in turning lemons into lemonade.
“I believe this is a characteristic of CSU, we are at a place that reaches high,” Yates said. “We try to remain undaunted. It is our ability to turn adversity to advantage in uncertain times that allows us to take advantage of opportunity.”
Yates fired Bruce and hired Sonny Lubick who helped turn the football program into a ranked power. After the 1993 lawsuit, the university fully complied with Title IX and its women’s sports such as basketball and volleyball are national contenders. Yates helped to create multicultural festivals at CSU to expand diversity in Fort Collins. The university received funds to rebuild after the flood and there is hardly any evidence today of the muddy waters that tore through the campus. And this year’s “Bridges to the Future” campaign has helped heal some of the pain of Sept. 11.
So after living through all of these events what will Yates do now?
“I like to write about people,” he said. “I am interested in the question: Why do leaders fail? What are the pitfalls in leadership? I want to offer my own take.”
I’m interested in what kind of take Dr. Yates could possibly have on the failures of leadership. You have to wonder is he worried about impending state budget problems that are looming threateningly over the horizon? Does he feel slightly guilty about leaving the university that has been an integral a part of his life for more than a decade? Will he miss the emotional roller coaster of being the big man on campus?
“Nothing is ever done completely,” Yates said pausing and fighting back tears. “What I will miss the most about the university is people. A university is about people, relationships and ideas.”
Well said, Dr. Yates. We’ll miss you, too.