Each year around CMU commencement, I reflect on how fortunate I am to serve the community as a university president. This spring, between CMU's Entrepreneurship Day and annual Student Showcase, the value of a Colorado Mesa University degree was on full display.
Perhaps this value was most crystallized for me during Entrepreneurship Day. In the face of ongoing college admissions scandals that left some institutions around the nation soul searching, this spring's E-Day celebration was an inspiring reminder: universities like CMU help everyday people bring to life the ideals of American democracy in their everyday lives.
Leading the E-Day inspiration was CMU alumnus and software company TSheets co-founder Matt Rissell. Rissell was the event's keynote speaker. The TSheets journey remains one of the most inspiring startup stories to emerge from the tech-world in recent memory. He sold TSheets to Intuit for $340 million.
Rissell's triumphant return to CMU, as a high-profile graduate, was by itself enough to capture the imagination of campus. More compelling than the physical presence of Rissell was his story. And more compelling than his story was his message to CMU students.
From bantering with former professors while on stage to dazzling students with a showman stage presence, Rissell embodied the heart of CMU's mission with conviction and authenticity. During his post-presentation question-and-answer session, he expressed a belief in the value of a CMU degree. This expression inspired a standing room only University Center. The message slashed at the cynics and inspired belief that the American dream is alive and well; and, he reinforced that a degree from a place like CMU is a part of that dream.
Perhaps most provocative was his declaration that, "I'm often the only one in the board room without an Ivy League degree, and I'm here to tell you that CMU is an extraordinary school, with extraordinary professors that gives you extraordinary opportunities." Rissell stands as living proof of his message and isn't alone in his belief.
Echoing Rissell, Dr. Denise Pope, a Stanford researcher, wrote a recent essay about the most important aspects to student success in college. Pope points out data for students and families is clear: How you go to college generally matters much more than where you go to college. Pope communicates in the Wall Street Journal that a student's attitude and approach to their learning matters more than "whether they attend an Ivy League school or a local community college."
What better proof of this truth than a former CMU Maverick, beating the best of Silicon Valley, living a purpose-driven life and leading a mission-centric company all inspired, in part, by his college experience at CMU. Rissell was indeed a pitch perfect messenger for CMU students.
Upward mobility and social equity are societal values engrained in western culture. Universities like CMU, which serve a socioeconomically diverse student body, are the best places for students from all walks of life to learn to think and behave in ways that encourage upward mobility and self-actualization. Rissell is a great example of this — but not the only one.
Earlier this year CMU Professor of Accounting Craig Fossett forwarded me an email received from a former student. The note was a heartfelt, unsolicited thank you from the student to Fossett sharing the fact that this CMU alum was going head to head in law school with people from UCLA, USC, Harvard, Yale and Columbia. The former Maverick went on to say his degree from CMU more than prepared him to stand toe to toe with the best and brightest and that he owed much to Fossett. For a university president with a law degree, who also teaches, it's hard for me to imagine a more rewarding note to receive from a student.
Sometimes major milestone events like E-Day are grounding because they bring people together under a common theme to contemplate fundamentals. The festivities around E-Day and other end-of-semester events this year were very much appreciated from a university president who has never been more proud of what the faculty, staff and students are accomplishing together.
On May 18, CMU Mavericks will walk across the commencement stage giving me the honor of shaking hands with each graduating student. Not all of them will be the next Matt Rissell. I like to believe, however, that their experiences at CMU taught all of them to think more like him. And I know the skills acquired at CMU have better prepared them to be the architects of their own great life — one designed around purpose and higher calling. The value of a college degree is ever-present in the mind of a university president. Rissell and students just one again made it top of mind for me this spring.
Tim Foster the president of Colorado Mesa University.