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CMU President Embraces Political Ceremonies and Traditions

Attends State of the Union address in Washington, D.C.

CMU President John Marshall believes the best way to help students understand the importance of civility and civic engagement is to model it. On Tuesday, February 7, 2023, CMU President John Marshall stood in the gallery of the United States House of Representatives as the House Sergeant at Arms announced President Joe Biden had entered the room. As an attendee of the annual State of the Union address, Marshall arrived in the nations’ Capitol as a guest of U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert whose western Colorado congressional district includes communities home to the university.

The invitation to attend the State of the Union address came shortly after Marshall also was invited by Governor Jared Polis to attend the State of the State address in Denver — an annual speech delivered by Colorado’s Governor to the Colorado General Assembly. The State of the State address by the Governor included an exciting highlight about geo-exchange heating and cooling innovation taking place at CMU.

Marshall accepted both invitations to highlight important rituals in democracy that model the importance of civic engagement for CMU students.

In addition to serving as president, Marshall teaches in the classroom where he often speaks to students about the significance of political ceremonies, like the State of the Union address. He shares with them his view that these speeches often include milestones in history, and are symbolic of a healthy, functional democracy.

“There are some political traditions that when practiced in good faith, symbolize shared values among us,” said Marshall. “Being present for President Bidens’ State of the Union speech and being a part of Governor Polis’ State of the State address, were a high honor for CMU, and participation allows us to model for students what civic engagement, and sometimes civil disagreement, looks like.”

The annual State of the Union address is a tradition where U.S. presidents provide an update to Congress through a ceremonial speech highlighting political happenings, policy goals and priorities of the President. While the address allows for partisan gestures - such as applause or sitting during standing ovations - these partisan gestures are a small part of what is mostly an aspirational, optimistic and unifying democratic tradition.

“Regardless of who applauds for any given portion of the speech, the more important symbolism is found in the fact that in attendance are most members of both political parties, the appointees of United States Supreme Court, members of the executive branch representing federal agencies and the military and a long list of congressional stakeholders,” said CMU Professor of Political Science Justin Gollob, PhD. “All of these people together act out a display of reverence for the office of the President, and the event symbolizes the role the executive branch of government plays in relation to the Congress.”

Colorado’s State of the State address is a similar ritual modeled after the nation’s larger State of the Union address. Each year the Governor of Colorado speaks to the General Assembly where legislators from both political parties join along with other elected and appointed state and local officials in the gallery.

CMU alumnus and current State Representative Matt Soper asked Marshall to sit on the floor of the State House with him during the speech — an invitation that allowed Polis to reference CMU directly, highlighting campus leadership in pioneering community-scale geo-exchange technology.


“It was important to me that President Marshall be by my side on the House floor to hear CMU being honored in person during the State of the State address," said Soper. "It was a proud moment for CMU and for me representing campus in the Colorado General Assembly."

 Many local governments surrounding CMU also engage in annual reflections about the state of the local community. Like their state and national counterparts, cities and counties often celebrate through similar annual reports to their constituents. The City of Grand Junction and Mesa County are two examples where Marshall also finds open invitations on an annual basis.

Beyond elected politics, Marshall draws parallels between the university’s own time-honored traditions to those of the legislative and executive branches of government noting that events like commencement are filled with the same symbolic representations of shared governance, reason, civility and the pursuit of truth.

“Those of us who hold public positions have a responsibility of being temporary stewards of our social and political rituals — those moments that give democratic institutions stability and longevity,” said Marshall. “Just as we invite all elected officials from both parties to our commencement ceremonies, I am pleased to accept invitations to important traditions, like the State of the State or State of the Union addresses, regardless of the politics or personalities of the day. These traditions are larger than any one-person, political party or moment in time.”

Marshall not only embraces participation in democratic pageantry off campus but has worked to grow campus initiatives that bring civic awareness and engagement to CMU’s doorstep. The CMU Civic Forum is a programming effort that celebrates the potential of all people to understand the fundamental principles of representative democracy, and to accept the moral imperatives required for sustaining it.

In 2022 national commentator and civil rights leader Bari Weiss visited campus as a guest of the Civic Forum to speak about antisemitism, its causes and what should be done about it. Weiss was the last in a long list of other individuals and organizations who have visited CMU including the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Steamboat Institute, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, Colorado Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, Club 20, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, CPR’s Turning the Page radio program and a wide array of local and regional elected, appointed and non-profit organization leaders and officials.

The CMU Civic Forum is a convening mechanism that brings people from all walks of civic life together in a place where civility and the exchange of ideas is not the exception, but is the goal and rule.

CMU and President Marshall continue to embrace these opportunities including joining Colorado State University and University of Colorado Boulder leaders and presidents this summer for the annual Colorado Capital Conference where the Colorado universities join United States Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper to bring students, business leaders and elected officials together in the nations’ capital to practice Colorado’s time-honored tradition of bipartisan civic engagement.


Written by David Ludlam