The Liberating Arts: Studying leadership, civic engagement, creativity, and innovation at CSU

On the fourth floor of the CSU Denver Center is the office of CSU System chancellor emeritus Joe Blake. His bright blue eyes complement his friendly demeanor and the genuine interest with which he greets visitors, colleagues, alumni, educators, and business people. His work for, and on behalf of, Colorado State University started with his appointment to the Board of Governors in 2006 and continued in his role as chancellor (2009-2011). In 2018, Blake made another significant impact on CSU by founding the Blake Leadership Scholars Program in the College of Liberal Arts.

“I'm a liberal arts guy and went to Dartmouth college. Very seldom do you remember what the president said when you matriculated, but I recall Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey said that the liberal arts was really the ‘liberating arts,’ and I've stayed with that.

I really believe in my postgraduate days that that's been true; that the liberal arts is liberating and it has no boundaries. It makes life so much more interesting, and your perspectives are broader and more diverse as well.” – Joe Blake

The Blake Leadership Scholars Program is available to high-achieving first-year students who have a high school GPA of 4.0 and who have demonstrated leadership and civic engagement during their high school career. The scholars program provides a variety of experiences and opportunities, such as connection to leadership roles on campus, education abroad, and undergraduate research. The students are also part of a scholar cohort that meets weekly with a faculty mentor to discuss leadership and personal development.

“We [CSU] are preeminent with our veterinary medicine, engineering, and agricultural sciences. We are leading not just the nation, but the world in so many areas. And my thought was that we needed to highlight the incredible faculty and excellence we have in the College of Liberal Arts,” he says. “I have nothing but the highest regard for the faculty at CSU. They’re just remarkable. And how do you enhance their prestige and their value better than bringing the best young minds for them to light up.”

To do that, Blake started this merit-based program, which also provides scholarship funds, to encourage the student who could go to school anywhere in the nation to choose Colorado State. “The money is not so important as the opportunity,” Blake says. “We're really giving several pathways to success. Not just during the four years at Colorado State University, but pathways to success afterwards.”

The way that Blake likes to describe the scholars program is through a “Dear Mom” letter.

“Dear Mom, Why am I going to CSU?

“Because they are affording me an opportunity that few, if any, other scholarship programs allow. We are given opportunities and encouragement to get involved in the leadership of the college and the university.”

In the inaugural year of the program six students were selected from Colorado and Kansas. They range in their high school leadership interests – from Boy Scouts to marching band, debate to cultural district teen council – and their college majors – from history to philosophy to political science to journalism.

Gunner, history major with a social studies education concentration, says, “I truly believe that being a part of the Blake Scholars Program has expanded my college experience and has given me an avenue to participate in conversations that have changed the way I view the world around me.”

Peter, double major in English literature and philosophy, says, “The program has completely opened my eyes. It isn’t just about how to lead using the skills found in the liberal arts. It is a program that offers opportunities, resources, and faculty mentors. It helps you apply the valuable liberal arts skills to all aspects of your life, and will enhance how you view academics and your experience at CSU.”

Micaela, journalism and media communication major, says, “Community has always been important to me--I love interacting and connecting with others in meaningful ways. I value being surrounded by people who pour into me and help me to better understand what it means to be me and what it means to be human. I value meaningful conversations with people who have different backgrounds and perspectives than my own. The Blake Leadership Scholarship program has offered me all of these opportunities and more.”

Corinne, history and political science double major, says, “I applied to be a Blake Leadership Scholar to broaden my knowledge of what leadership looks like, and to be connected to a community of like-minded students who were passionate about the liberal arts. There are so many different paths the liberal arts provides for leadership, in a variety of disciplines that I was previously unaware of!”

The Blake Leadership Scholars participating in a service project for National Public Lands Day. Photo by PHOCO.
The Blake Leadership Scholars participating in a service project for National Public Lands Day. Photo by PHOCO.

“The students in this first cohort of Blake Leadership Scholars are everything we hoped they would be: driven, gregarious, empathetic, and wise beyond their years. Meeting with them in our weekly seminar, to craft individual development plans, to consider how the liberal arts shape public policy, and to introduce them to all Colorado State offers its students was always the best hour of my work week,” says Zach Hutchins, faculty mentor and associate professor of English.

“Our group service project, on National Public Lands Day, was a highlight, as was our visit to the University Center for the Arts for a showing of A Midsummer Night's Dream.”

Blake’s hope is that these students will use their degrees in the political, civic, or business arena.

“[In these arenas] you've got to have some thoughtful people who are critical thinkers. And I think the liberal arts is the fount of all that. [We are] creating phenomenal citizens for a world that’s in desperate need of phenomenal citizens,” he says.

The long-term goal for the scholars program is clear: to produce the highest quality graduates from Colorado State University’s College of Liberal Arts. “These will be our beacons,” Blake says.

Joe Blake

Joe Blake is chancellor emeritus of the Colorado State University System. During his career, he also served on the Board of Governors for the CSU System, was the president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, helped to build Highlands Ranch, worked for the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, and was a special agent of the FBI.

In addition to an incredible professional career, Joe Blake is a history buff, particularly Civil War history, traveling around the country with friends to explore historical battlefield sites. He also is involved in community theater in Denver. He most recently portrayed Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind, an American play about the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.