Radical Generosity: Women & Philanthropy 2018
Dr. Tony Frank, President
March 21, 2018
Thank you all for being here. It’s great to see how this group has grown from its inception last year – I think that all of you are going to be a part of something very special.
Having spoken to the launch of this group last year and spoken about our overall thinking about the Women’s Initiative at CSU, I have to admit that I struggled with what to say today. Part of that may be the season – my mind is locked into the pre-graduation mode of complimenting people on their accomplishments and motivating them toward making a difference as they commence upon their post-collegiate journey. Part of it may be that my fallback for reference material, Abraham Lincoln, said very little regarding women and the suffrage movement, and there’s debate about the context of some of the quotes attributed to him. Part of it could be that our work around improving the climate for women on our campus is ongoing, and I’m less inclined to speak about efforts while we’re in them than I am about outcomes when we start to see them.
So I looked for some new material. I considered following up on the recent literature describing the increasing power of women in philanthropy:
- the influence of partners (à la Melinda Gates and Priscilla Chan),
- connection to Giving Circles,
- to Debra Mesch’s work out of the Lilly School at Indiana University on gender-based differences in philanthropic motivation.
Some of these behavioral observations beg additional questions concerning the basis of differences, and that tempted me to retreat back into my own discipline of the life sciences. I thought I could spend some time on the increasing body of literature comparing male and female brains, moving beyond neurochemical differences into the structural differences:
- a 10X increase in white matter and the influence that has on processing capacity in the female brain;
- an increase in the volume, neuronal density and blood flow to the hippocampal region dealing with emotional memory;
- or the impact of bilateral verbal centers in both the so called left and right brains.
But – again – observational biology begs interpretation, and if biology teaches us anything, it is that for every rule there exist exceptions; and our evolving understandings of the complexity of gender identity will almost certainly defy a physio-anatomic framework.
All of which left me stumped and led me back to wondering how I found myself giving a speech on a topic I know so little about. That, in turn, took me back to how we launched the women’s initiative several years ago. As with many of my ideas, it couldn’t be characterized as having been overly well thought through (perhaps that gray matter density and jumping from focus topic to focus topic really does play a role?). In fact, its genesis was extraordinarily simple: one of those light-bulb, pseudo-epiphany, “duh” moments where something readily seen by others is now seen by you. The thinking was no more or less complicated than this: We have fundamental inequities in how women are treated in our society, and these are mirrored in our own organization, a place where we could choose to behave differently. By making this choice we could activate the full capacity of our greatest asset – our people – and improve how we perform as an organization. And in the process, we’d scratch that psychic itch that occurs when we implicitly ask someone to accept something that we would find unacceptable.
From that extremely simplistic beginning came a line at a Fall Address, and then a mad scramble to figure out what actions were needed to create positive change. What structures were needed to support those actions? What cultural change was needed to allow the structures to breathe? And so on….until one is reminded of the bridge maxim, “Never open without having a follow-on bid.” (And how I’m now reminded how few people still play bridge….)
But one of the great gifts of being the president of a university is that you are surrounded by amazingly talented and creative people who have built their careers by unraveling complex problems and proposing ways to improve things. And CSU is blessed with people who like to roll up their sleeves and get to work, who are not afraid of getting dirt under their fingernails, and who focus, in the end, on outcomes – big and small.
In fact, as I look around this room, I’m reminded of how little I have to say “to” this group and how much I have learned “from” people in it. Paula Edwards taught me to never lose a focus on excellence. Nancy Richardson taught me to hang onto a vision. Amy Parsons taught me to always hire people who are smarter and more energetic than you are. Lynn Johnson taught me that things that last are only built on solid foundations. Mary Ontiveros taught me that a choir isn’t a choir unless you hear all the voices. Cori Wong has helped me in my own journey of understanding feminism and race, and to see my blind spots. Irene Vernon, Sue James, Ellen Fischer, Jane Kneller – so many other great women leaders here at Colorado State. And of course Blanche Hughes – where I can’t even begin to list all the things that I have learned. Cara Neth, who has taught me that there isn’t a lot of point to having a voice if you won’t use it.
Where do we learn things? Who influences us? Who nudges, directs, or shoves us as we move along our path?
Just as one looks back after hours of hiking and sees the trail so differently from the way it looked with each upward step, watching where your feet were placed, I look back and see this amazing influence of women along my trail.
- My mother, getting up in the cold, dark Midwest winter mornings – sick to death from the early chemotherapy of the 1970s – going to teach 3rd graders because she was a teacher. Period.
- A 9th grade teacher convincing me I could do more than I was showing in a remedial language arts course.
- A woman whose death taught me that sexual violence and the loss that comes from it cannot be ignored or silently wished away and so we – as men – must own that and confront it and hold ourselves accountable.
- My daughters, whose growth into amazing young women with independent voices and views of the future remind me every day of the blessing of working with the next generation, and their fearlessness.
- And my wife. A professional woman strong enough to chart her own path – balancing a career, a family, and a sense of self in the face of a role that would consume these and define her by her connection to me if she allowed it. She was strong enough not to, and I couldn’t be prouder of her for that.
Strength, courage, tenacity, ingenuity, inspiration.
One of the great things about giving is that it advances change. I look around this room and back across the trail of my life, and I see so much that has been given to me and so much that has been changed within me by women I met along the way. As I stand here in my 10th year as president, I can’t help but wonder about the change that all of you will lead in this university over the next decade through your philanthropy. Where will you direct, nudge, or shove CSU? My prediction is that whatever direction that change takes, it will be spectacular.