Alumnus aims to create a more diverse future for agriculture in honor of late professor, mentor

A large family standing at the edge of a fence with a mountain backdrop
The Hillard family — including Steve ’70 and his wife Sharmaine (top left) — in Grand Junction.

As a student in Professor Bernie Rollin’s introduction to philosophy class in the 1960s, Steve Hillard always sat in the back. Despite his elusive seat choice, it did not take long for Rollin to recognize Hillard as a star student. That class set Hillard on a path that would lead to a lifetime of personal and professional success, an influential relationship with Rollin as a mentor and friend, and a debt of gratitude to Colorado State University.

“CSU was where I discovered that I could study and accomplish things and have a point of view that I could defend,” said Hillard, a political science alum. “I owe a huge debt to the institution.”

Six people standing outside a round classroom
Steve ’70 and Sharmaine Hillard (left) stand outside the Bernard Rollin Knowledge Well with Mike and Linda Rollin ‘73, ‘78 and Kayla and Jeff Tovar ’89 during the grand opening celebration for the Nutrien Agricultural Sciences Building.

To honor Rollin’s life and legacy as an inspiring educator and tenacious animal ethicist, Hillard recently contributed $750,000 to the College of Agricultural Sciences to support strategic initiatives and catalyze the college’s commitment to creating a more diverse and inclusive future for agriculture. In recognition of Hillard and others’ gifts, the college named the new Nutrien Agricultural Sciences Building’s centerpiece classroom the Bernard Rollin Knowledge Well. The innovative learning space features a unique round shape that supports an engaging and egalitarian learning environment that, fittingly, makes it seem as if there is no back row.

An ally and advocate

Hillard has had a lot of titles in his career – from lawyer and television producer to author and entrepreneur – and among them, two of the most important have been those of ally and advocate. He has dedicated much of his life to creating opportunities that encourage equity, particularly for women and minorities, something he credits in part to Rollin.

“Bernie valued and embraced all people of whatever heritage, position or persuasion,” Hillard says.

As a lawyer representing Alaska Native groups seeking entitlements through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act – the largest claims settlement in United States history – Hillard witnessed firsthand the importance of empowering marginalized people to have a voice and to support them in creating their own success. His experience in Alaska inspired Hillard to help others “make more pie, not just re-cut the pie.”

“The world needs less rhetoric and more action,” Hillard says.

For the next decade, he worked with land management groups to ensure that every dollar of dividends earned by Alaska Native corporations earned was distributed to support basic needs and serve the interests of local tribes and communities.

Through his communications firm, Council Tree, Hillard has ensured that people with underrepresented identities have seats on boards of directors. The firm also intentionally makes deals that involve significant investment, control, and management by minority populations, the most famous of which was bringing the first Telemundo network station to Denver.

Though his career has focused primarily on law, politics, and media, Hillard’s connection to agriculture dates to childhood, when his grandfather lived on a ranch in Hotchkiss and he would spend his summers putting up hay, herding and shearing sheep, and changing irrigation water.

“Our family has been blessed with learning the value of hard work combined with the ethic of giving back,” Hillard says. “We expect to continue this effort, including our interest in diversity in agriculture.”

Inclusion, Diversity and Equity in Agriculture

As part of the College of Agricultural Sciences’ strategic plan, the college is making investments in people, programs and places that serve to guide the college forward in alignment with the University’s Courageous Strategic Transformation process. One college initiative, propelled by Hillard’s recent gift, is IDEA – Inclusion, Diversity and Equity in Agriculture. The IDEA initiative will build upon CSU’s strong leadership in inclusive excellence to formalize and elevate existing efforts toward nurturing a diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment for faculty, staff, students, and external constituents.

Hillard’s investment in the IDEA initiative will fund the hire of an experienced director to work in close collaboration with university and industry partners to develop strategies, policies and programming that will position the college as a model for its peers and the greater agricultural community. This fall, the college will host listening sessions with the CSU community and industry partners to help inform the position description and prioritize the next steps of the hiring process.

“Steve’s investment honors Dr. Rollin as a remarkable teacher, thought leader and friend,” said James Pritchett, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. “We are grateful for Steve’s generosity because it enables inclusive pathways in agricultural careers for our students and promotes an ethic of inclusive excellence in our community. Steve’s legacy betters tomorrow for everyone.”

Learn, then do

Taking action to create a better future is where Rollin and Hillard’s legacies coalesce. Rollin challenged his students, and anyone he encountered, to do more than just talk – to act.

“Bernie lived the principle that CSU is a platform to not merely learn, but to do something,” said Hillard. “His efforts changed long-standing practices in veterinary medicine and the nutrition industry. In so doing, he taught us about ourselves.”