Colorado State University’s College of Liberal Arts has only existed under its current name and structure since 1992, but the liberal arts have been essential to CSU’s curriculum from the very beginning.
Leaders throughout the University’s history have understood the importance of the liberal arts in preparing graduates to be engaged citizens and effective leaders in a rapidly evolving world. As Elijah E. Edwards, the first president of Colorado Agricultural College, said, “A one-sided education produces an un-symmetrical man. By a liberal education increased power and versatility is gained.”
Liberal Arts and the Land Grant Mission
With the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, land grant institutions across the country began to consider how to fulfill their directive: a college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.
The state of Colorado answered this directive by establishing Colorado Agricultural College in 1870. Early college and state leaders debated the meaning of a “liberal and practical education” and how best to serve the citizens and state interests of Colorado. Ultimately a curriculum was developed, and in 1879, President Edwards and two faculty members welcomed a class of five students. During their first year, these pioneering students took courses in English Composition and Analysis, U.S. History, and Rhetoric, along with more technical coursework in Horticulture, Farm Economy, and Practical Agriculture.
Changes & Challenges of the Early Twentieth Century
The turn of the century brought new challenges to the country, especially the American west. World War I drained U.S. resources, and less than two decades later, the country was devastated by the effects of the dust bowl. These events underscored the importance of advancing agricultural production at the land grant institutions. The early twentieth century was also an era of social change, with the country following Colorado’s lead on women’s suffrage and the rise of manufacturing beginning to shift what had been a primarily agricultural economy.
Colorado Agricultural College kept pace with the changes and continued to prepare its students with an education that was both liberal and practical. By 1930, 1,072 students were enrolled at the College, a major leap from the first class of five. Growth and shifting priorities prompted the creation of the Division of Arts & Sciences in 1934, followed by a new name for the College – the Colorado State College of Agricultural & Mechanic Arts – in 1935.
Higher Education for American Democracy
The “golden age of higher education” was a time of rapid growth for Colorado A&M. After a slight dip in enrollment during World War II, student enrollment grew to more than 4,000 as returning veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill. This era brought with it an emphasis on the liberal arts, as President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education emphasized the importance of a well-rounded education to create an informed and engaged citizenry, stating, “It is urgently important in American education today that the age-old distinction between education for living and education for making a living be discarded.”
The influx of students brought structural changes to the College as well. In 1951, the Division of Science & Arts became the School of Science & Arts, then changed again to the College of Science & Arts in 1959 after Colorado A&M officially became Colorado State University. As the Baby Boomer generation headed to college, the University’s population jumped to more than 15,000, creating an immediate demand for more buildings and more choices in curriculum.
Demand for Cultural Relevance
Higher education’s “golden age” drew to a close amidst the cultural turbulence and activism of the late 1960s. As the country once again experienced sweeping social change, questions emerged about whether institutions of higher education were being responsive to society’s needs. Students and faculty alike began to call for a university that reflected the struggles for equality and social justice taking place across the nation.
In 1968, the School of Humanities & Social Sciences split from the College of Science & Arts, in part to meet the demand for broader curriculum. The School continued to grow in both enrollment and programs, adding eight undergraduate and graduate degrees between 1969 and 1979. In 1974 the NCA approved Colorado State University for mature status, an indication of its sense of purpose, growth, and receptivity to interdisciplinary programs. Two years later it was designated a Carnegie Class I Research University. As the University continued to expand its liberal arts offerings, including a robust fine arts program, the School of Humanities & Social Sciences was elevated to the College of Arts, Humanities, & Social Sciences in 1977.
Renewed Emphasis on Outcomes and Undergraduate Education
After the rapid enrollment growth of the “baby boom,” colleges across the country experienced a “baby bust.” Student populations stagnated, and higher education was forced to once again reimagine its purpose. A changing economic climate prompted an focus on student outcomes. Would graduates be prepared for the world they were going to graduate into?
This question led many universities, including CSU, to re-evaluate their undergraduate curriculum. Beyond career training in STEM fields, students needed essential skills to keep pace with rapidly evolving technology and globalization – the ability to think critically, the ability to communicate, and the ability to analyze and synthesize information, and the ability to understand culture and context. These skills were learned through the liberal arts, and in 1992 the College of Liberal Arts was established at CSU. Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Loren Crabtree said of the name change, “We wanted to give ourselves a real identity, to say that we were an integral part of this institution. Not just integral, but foundational.”
In 2019, CSU celebrated its 150th anniversary.
Mary Crow, English 1964-2005
“One of the most memorable experiences I had while teaching at CSU was the recognition I received when in 1996 I was named by the governor to the post of Poet Laureate of Colorado. To celebrate, then President Al Yates hosted a lovely dinner for me and 40 guests at his home in Fort Collins at which he presented me with a stylized crystal ram. The College of Liberal Arts also recognized my term as Poet Laureate by reducing my work load and providing me with funds for support/travel.”
Bob Lawrence, Political Science, 1971-2008
“Special moments were when former students would call or write they had been accepted into law school thanks to a letter of recommendation I had written. Twice former students asked me to lunch to say they had established scholarships with my name on them.”
Derry Eynon, Journalism & Media Communication, 1968-1991
“One [memory] that stands out (and affirmed my classwork standards) is an F grade I assigned to a writing submission during the first week of the quarter. The student came up after class, visibly upset, and told me I would have to change her grade because during her entire time in school she earned nothing but A's; maybe a few B's. I told her to see me in my office to review her paper and find out why she got an F. We met and she reluctantly accepted her grade. Years later, she won a Pulitzer Prize. Subsequently, she was named Liberal Arts outstanding alumna. I attended the awards banquet and, after the ceremony, congratulated her. She told me that F was a key to her success. Because she obviously was bright and talented, her previous teachers allowed her to slide by. She claimed I was the first to challenge her to reach the level of excellence of which she was capable. I suspect I felt almost as good as she did at that moment.”
Sue Ellen Markey Charlton, Political Science, 1967-2010
“The memories are hazy given the number and diversity of courses taught, from the quarter system (with 3-3-3 loads) when I started my career to my transitional retirement. Likewise, the diversity of student interests and personalities stand out, from the very best students to those who struggled with basic vocabulary. In the end, the interdisciplinary course on women and international development, which I introduced and taught for a long time, was special because it drew students from sophomore to Ph.D. levels, from every college, and a variety of countries (Saudi Arabia, China, Yemen, Ghana, Britain, Mexico....).”
David Freeman, Sociology, 1967-2005
“By 1972 highly divisive Vietnam war issues were dominating campus life socially and academically. In the midst of all this I regularly taught S-460, Technology, Culture, and Society. Students were a vociferous bunch, polarized, and not the easiest to encourage to practice civil discourse. Among them were two especially articulate advocates each opposed to the other, each active in mobilizing students. One was fine young man in the ROTC program soon headed for Vietnam; the other was an equally fine character, majoring in journalism as I recall, who also went to Vietnam as a journalist. The officer survived; the journalist was killed. As I write this, tears still come to my eyes.”
Charles Revier, Economics, 1974-2010
“In my first year at CSU, I was assigned to teach two lecture sections of Principles of Macroeconomics in A-101 Clark. The assistant department chair, Bob Keller, was very experienced at teaching in A-101, and he was of enormous help in preparing me for the experience. But what an experience it was! The sea of faces seemed overwhelming, and it was hard to even see the expressions on the faces in the back row. A few years later we decided to limit the size of these sections to 210 so they would fit in the lecture halls on the second floor of the A-wing, and this was a big improvement. These rooms were wide with a more limited number of rows, and it seemed a little easier to actually engage the students.”
Martha (Marty) P. Tharp, Journalism & Media Communication, 1986-1999
“It was a treat to take news majors to the State Colorado Press Association and the Society of Professors Journalism conferences. Some may even remember the one in Chicago where I ended up in the hospital and the students came to visit me before heading home.”
Purposeful learning. Impactful scholarship. Meaningful engagement.
The College of Liberal Arts is a community of arts, humanities, and social science scholars who study the cultural, social, environmental, and historical context in which we live, and examine what it means to be human.
As one of the largest colleges on campus, the College of Liberal Arts enrolls more than 6,500 undergraduate and 500 graduate students. Within its 18 departments and programs, it houses 19 majors, 40 minors, 50+ concentrations, and 23 graduate programs.
Excellence in teaching, engaged scholarship, and research and creative artistry define the College. Organizations ranging from NASA to the National Endowment for the Arts fund CLA research and creative artistry projects. Students and faculty within the College share a commitment to the well-being of the human community, the natural environment in which we live, and to the inspiration of the human spirit.
Value of the Liberal Arts
As the 21st century develops, land-grant institutions face new challenges for which the liberal arts will be essential partners, if not central players: the need for an educated citizenry, addressing social and cultural dimensions of technological change, developing and understanding key resources of the knowledge economy, meeting a critical need to educate civically engaged and productive citizens.
We in CLA, through carefully chosen investments in key people and programs that support and make visible CSU’s excellence in areas of its traditional land-grant strength, will continue to develop our own distinctive brand as a place that connects an engaged liberal arts education to civic education and local, state, and regional democratic institutions.
Ben Withers, Ph.D.
Dean, College of Liberal Arts