BOISE• Stability at the top has emerged as a key ingredient as the State Board of Education begins its search for the next leader of the University of Idaho.
When Nellis departs this summer, the university will be on its sixth president — four interim and two who stayed four years each — since the resignation of Robert Hoover in 2003.
“We need to find someone who is going to be there,” Ken Edmunds, immediate past board president, told the Idaho Statesman. “It is highly detrimental to keep having this turnover.”
Churn in the president’s office isn’t the only tough issue the school faces as a 16-member, State Board-appointed search committee starts looking for candidates to replace Duane Nellis, who is leaving to become president of Texas Tech University, a school nearly three times the size of U of I:
• Enrollment, at about 12,500, needs to grow as the state pushes for 60 percent of adults age 25 to 34 to get some kind of post-high school degree; the percentage is 35 percent now. That means the U of I will need new faculty in an era of limited dollars.
• Campus buildings are in need of repair, with a deferred-maintenance bill of $200 million, against which the Legislature put $6 million for next year, Nellis said.
• Faculty and staff have had just one raise in seven years. Scarce resources threaten to create “serious” morale problems, Nellis told the Statesman. “We are bleeding in so many different ways,” Nellis said.
“Funding has been a real challenge,” he said. “We are losing good people.”
• Then there is an insult: U of I staff and alumni still smart from the perceived snub last year when the State Board excised the word “flagship” from the mission statement that described the university compared to other Idaho universities. It rankled Nellis, too.
Many saw it as one more example of fighting to define the U of I in the growing shadow of Boise State University. The board said it was simply trying to edit the hype out of the universities’ mission statements.
Talk to people at U of I and “you would find a distinct feeling that the University of Idaho is being tracked to second-class status while all the emphasis is going on Boise,” said Tom Bitterwolf, a U of I chemistry professor for more than two decades.
Establishing a Vision
But highest on the list of qualifications may well be a desire for the next president to stay put.
State Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, has lived near U of I for 30 years, and seen presidents come and go. The recent turnover has her concerned.
“We can’t afford to have this feeling of insecurity,” she said. “We need someone who is ... not using U of I as a stepping stone.”
Edmunds said he thought that was who they had in Nellis, now 58. Nellis said he told the board when he was hired that he wanted to stay at U of I “assuming I felt supported, things were going well and I was having impact there.”
U of I has been well supported by alumni, faculty, staff and corporate leaders, Nellis told the Statesman. But sagging resources — the state cut $30 million out of U of I’s budget during the recession — made things difficult. “Even though the cuts have stopped,”?Nellis said, “we were very lean with our ability to move forward.”
Continually hiring and appointing presidents stops that forward progress.
“You have to build a relationship with faculty and the community,” Edmunds said. “In this case, the community is the entire state.”
Frequent change makes it hard for presidents to establish and communicate a vision, Bitterwolf said. “It takes a year or more to find out where the bathrooms are,” he said.
U of I’s goal of increasing enrollment from approximately 12,000 to 16,000 by 2020 dates back at least three presidents, Bitterwolf said. “Without sustained leadership to point the way, how we are going to do this?”
Boise State University, by contrast to University of Idaho, has had the same president for 10 years. In that time Bob Kustra has clearly left his imprint on the school. He pushed to cut the community college function out of the school, which eventually resulted in creating the College of Western Idaho in 2007. He’s begun to transform the school into a regional research university. The school has enrolled thousands of new students and built high-profile new business, athletic and academic buildings.
Shifting leadership has kept U of I from establishing the same sort of long-term vision, Bitterwolf says.
For some U of I faculty and alumni, concern about revolving presidents is overblown.
Kenton Bird, who chairs the U of I Faculty Senate, met with faculty after Nellis announced his departure.
“I told the Senate that presidents come and go as circumstances present themselves, but that the faculty are the real foundation of this place,” said Bird, director of the school of journalism and mass communications. Teaching, creative work in the arts and the university’s research continues: “All of that is unchanged by the president’s departure.”
In the 2008 search for Nellis, the committee was inundated with qualified applicants in difficult financial times, said Bill Gilbert Jr., a Boise businessman and a member of the Nellis search committee. He thinks it will be that way again.
Plenty of Good Candidates
U of I is a desirable place to be president, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an association that represents presidents of 1,800 colleges and universities. U of I is a mid-sized university with 12,000 students, not a mega school with 60,000 enrollment and all the headaches that implies.
He expects lots of well-qualified applicants. But that means other schools could be looking to hire them as well.
The past two permanent presidents, Tim White and Nellis, went onto larger jobs. White became president of the University of California at Riverside and ultimately chancellor of the California State University system; Nellis is going to Texas Tech, where resources are ample.
Good candidates can be?“something of a curse,”?Hartle said, “because they don’t necessarily stay for as long as you would like them to.”
Other similar-size universities are having the same problem holding on to presidents, Hartle said, because good presidents are more mobile.
Money problems aren’t specific to the U of I, either. States are regularly reducing their commitments to public schools, Hartle said. At the U of I, lawmakers gave the school $127 million in 2009; that dropped 21 percent to just over $100 million in 2012. The school made part of that up with hefty increases in tuition, raising tuition income from $42.4 million in 2009 to $65 million in 2012, an increase of 54 percent. Additional students also contributed to the revenue growth. Tuition increases, however, runs the risk of denying students access to college.
“The University of Idaho is going to be fine,” Hartle said. “The challenge will be to get a president and keep them in light ... of state support.”