In the 1960s, Ray Chamberlain played a small role in a proposed initiative to intentionally cover the Arctic ice cap in black soot and divert arctic rivers to slow what scientists were saying was a troubling trend of global cooling.
Scientists had for years predicted that the farming season would grow shorter, resulting in famine, and the world would slip into a minor ice age.
The idea behind the project was that the black soot would draw more sunlight, melting the polar ice cap, which, as evidenced since by an overwhelming number of scientific projects there, is now diminishing at an alarming rate.
With the newest trends in climate change being quite the opposite from those of that time, Chamberlain, who led the CSU System through the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, says if such drastic measures had been approved, the world would be in much worse shape than it is now.
â€œIt has probably taken at least a decade to begin to assess that it probably was a mistake,â€ said Chamberlain, 80, last week in a conference room in CSUâ€™s Administration Building. â€œObviously, the uncertainties were so huge that nothing was done, fortunately.â€
The idea that plans that seem good at one point might have disastrous implications down the road doesnâ€™t just apply to scientific community. Policy measures that have been implemented in Colorado since Chamberlainâ€™s long tenure as a CSU professor and administrator have created what many say is an unhealthy political climate here.
Good intentions and unintended consequences
A black and white photograph in a book that documents the entire history of CSU until the mid 1970s shows Chamberlain as a graduate student working with two men in tweed suits. Itâ€™s not obvious in the image precisely what they are doing, but Chamberlain, wearing a white T-shirt tucked into belted trousers, is pointing energetically at something.
Since then, itâ€™s clear that his active life has taken a toll.
His hands are cracked and weathered by decades of wilderness expeditions from the Arctic to the Equator. The flesh on his neck is a little looser than it used to be. The edges of his eyelids are red.
But somehow, he doesnâ€™t look tired. His grayish blue eyes are clear and intelligent. His style of speech is slow and refined from working on more than 100 advisory committees for various projects, some with Nobel Prize winners.
His work on the large number of scientific and political initiatives has taught him many things, but one of the most important is that when uncertainty looms, restraint may be the best mode of action.
Some of the people he frequently conversed with for these activities thought and rethought paths to success.
That hasnâ€™t been the general mode of operations, though, for the state of Colorado over the last three decades.
During Chamberlainâ€™s leadership at CSU, Colorado was a middle-of-road state in terms of its taxing policies and funding allocations for its public programs.
â€œWe were not a runaway tax and spend state,â€ said CSU political science professor John Straayer in a recent interview.
But since Chamberlain left the presidentâ€™s office in 1979, Coloradoâ€™s constitution has become a bit of a mess.
A number of constitutional amendments and statutory rules have been implemented, some requiring state leaders to generate less taxes and others requiring the same people to spend more taxes. And in the two economic downturns of the last decade, the state has become increasingly hampered in funding its public programs.
Itâ€™s quite the pickle. You might say that, much like the black carbon would have melted the Arctic, the conflicting policy initiatives have melted Coloradoâ€™s ability to fund itself.
â€œWe need to modernize our constitution and remove the conflicts in it as well as remove some of things that restrict the capacity of the legislature to make decision in an appropriate manner given the circumstances of the time,â€ Chamberlain said.
Regardless of what would have happened in alternative scenarios, Chamberlain, a long-time advocate for state programs that are not mandated to grow like transportation and higher education, says the state is stuck in the thick of the conundrum, and it may be a long walk out.
CSU System chancellor Joe Blake, Pueblo president Joe Garcia and Fort Collins President Tony Frank, along with the entire higher education community in Colorado, face a steep uphill battle in winning the hearts of the voters, but many, including Chamberlain, remain confident in them.
But as the interview in the Administration Building conference room wound down, he stressed the leadership in the CSU System is top-notch.
â€œI really believe that â€¦ Joe Blake, Joe Garcia and Tony (Frank) that these two campuses making up Colorado State University â€¦ constitute a leadership that weâ€™re very, very fortunate to have,â€ he said.
Projects Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.