Skip to Content

Founders Fest

Back to Article Listing


Rebecca Chopp

Speech  •

Thank you for coming out today to celebrate—as a community—our history and our future. I have always been fascinated by the difference between schools on the east coast and schools in the Midwest and, specifically, the Rocky Mountain West. Throughout its history, the University of Denver has had a willingness to approach things differently. Perhaps it is the pioneering spirit of the people who have come to live here. Our founders embodied the same characteristics that I think define us today: resilience and grit, individual accountability combined with a deep sense of obligation to our neighbors and community, and an egalitarianism that rejects the “ivory tower” and insists on true partnership with the city.

Many times through its history, DU has had to reinvent itself—finding new ways to realize its mission in a changing world. I believe that higher education finds itself in a moment of fundamental change, and DU is poised to pioneer a path that combines the best of our liberal arts undergraduate program with the advantages of our graduate and professional programs.

Our modern history begins about three decades ago, around the time when Dan Ritchie became chancellor. Many of you know the story: DU was in dire financial straits, but we saved ourselves from near collapse by building the academic core and investing in the beautiful buildings that have become a hallmark of DU. What mattered most about DU was—and is—its people. Thus began a tradition of investing in buildings that inspire us and also serve us in practical ways. We moved to Division-I athletics because our community understood the power of athletics to bring community together. We similarly understood the power of the arts, and now the Newman Center for the Performing Arts is one of the best performance spaces at any university in the country, again drawing together our community as well as our neighbors. Faculty-student relationships distinguish DU from other research universities. During the era of Chancellor Bob Coombe, our community decided to increase substantially the number of tenured faculty positions at DU. Over the past seven years, our student headcount in traditional programs increased by 73, or less than 1 percent. Our faculty FTEs in those programs has increased by by 110, or 17 percent. That was in the thick of the recession, so while others were loading up on students, increasing class size and cutting faculty positions, we were doing exactly the opposite. Our dedication to academics strengthened the core of the University, and in recent years DU began work to draw together our diverse community and make possible the efforts we now undertake.

Today, we envision a future for the University of Denver that builds on its incredible strengths. Our strategic plan—DU IMPACT 2025—underscores the need for One DU to accomplish its goals. Our top fundraising priority will be financial aid so that we can attract, retain and support an increasingly diverse and talented student body. We will facilitate an environment that frees our faculty to pursue research, scholarship and creative work that changes the world. We will continue to promote the relationships our faculty and staff have with students that are the basis of a transformative educational experience. We will further realize our commitment to the public good by encouraging and fostering partnerships in the Denver region and beyond—recognizing that our impact is both local and global.

And to do all of this, we will nourish an intellectual community. Events like this bring us together, and we will support more opportunities to come together—to celebrate, to get to know one another, to build partnerships and goodwill. As a university, we will and must remain a diverse community, with plenty of disagreement and dialogue—but we will unite around a common mission and visit. We will support students, faculty and staff and encourage growth and development among all of us.

The tenets of the plan already exist in our DNA, and many of you are expressing these ideals in your work and studies every day. But we need to support a cultural and structural change that supports what I call interstate highways—between departments and disciplines, between the classroom, lab, studio, dorm room and field—breaking down as many barriers as we can and encouraging us to work more closely to create solutions that address the increasingly complex and interrelated problems of our world.

This vision for the future—which we crafted in input from thousands of faculty, staff and students, as well as alumni and friends throughout the region and across the country—depends, as we always have, on alumni and friends who support the University. I have come to realize that donors support universities that, like DU, are changing the world. In this way, they get to contribute to something larger than any of us. Indeed, as I look at our history, I see numerous examples to illustrate this point.

Rufus “Potato” Clark, who described himself as “a confirmed drunkard, a slave to drink so deep in the mire of sin and drink I never cherished a hope of getting out,” ended up giving up alcohol after a religious conversion. He reinvented himself as a man of character who lived his life in service to others. Potato gave, along with a few others, 150 acres to the University of Denver. Reinvention has allowed us to survive, adapting the way we live out our mission as times change.

Henry Augustus Buchtel served as DU’s third chancellor from 1905 to 1924. DU, quite truthfully, had a hard, hard time getting started. When Buchtel arrived as chancellor, faculty were being paid in IOUs. There was talk of selling Old Main (now University Hall) to be a glue factory. Buchtel said quite simply, “I do not know how to give up.” And with grit he and others went to work. The University flourished. Grit and resilience have supported these changes and have always given us the courage to try new things.

Now one of the things I like about this campus (compared to others I have been on in the past) is that buildings and rooms are named for women with funds given by women. This is exceedingly rare in higher education. I work in Mary Reed Building, named for a woman whose husband made a fortune in mining, ranching, banking and irrigation. When he died, Mary inherited what today would amount to about half a billion dollars. She became a member of the Board of Trustees and a major patron of the University. Her gifts helped to reinvent the campus: Mary Reed Building in 1932 replaced the Andrew S. Carnegie library. She also committed $100,000 to build another campus structure in 1928 to honor her late daughter, Margery Reed Mayo (DU class of 1919). Generosity, the value of helping others, has always guided the University.

And now, today, I want to thank all of you for the ways you contribute to DU—giving generously of your time and talents and supporting our mission in so many ways.