Virtually every Idaho college has seen presidential turnover in the past two years, and every one of those changes has meant both challenge and opportunity, even more so this year with the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting slowdown of Idaho’s economy, now only beginning to recede.
The College of Southern Idaho is no exception as it transitions to its fifth permanent president in the school’s 50-plus history. The new president, L. Dean Fisher, begins his official duties tomorrow, replacing retiring president Jeff Fox, who has led the college since 2013.
Fisher has been provost of a multi-unit community college in central New York state at Corning, He spent some childhood time in the Magic Valley, and it’s not a stretch to think this special place in the American West has now kindled his past positive memories. That’s the way it often is with people who find a way to “come back home” to what they once knew.
In Fisher’s case, he’s taking leadership of CSI at a precisely opportunistic moment. The Magic Valley is growing economically and is now approaching 200,000 people. CSI is its leading academic institution and there are surely many roles for a new college leader.
There are also a host of challenges, many of them growth opportunities. It’s surely different than New York state which is weighed down with high taxes and a fleeing population.
One certain challenge will be state funding. The governor’s office has already signaled a 4-5 percent holdback and Idaho’s Legislature won’t likely stray too far from that. Community college funding in Idaho comes from a variety of sources, and that pattern will likely continue despite the slash-and-burn-down appeals of the GOP’s Know-nothing wing.
The pandemic means further likely parsing of the state budget numbers. There will be consolidations where they make sense and a broad transition of CSI and other schools to more virtual programs. There will be less money for capital expenditures, but with student body counts declining, that may not be needed immediately.
Fisher will also face some other changes, including a shift in CSI’s demographics to more Hispanic students; it’s now more than 20 percent and rising. That means more Spanish-language courses delivery and special needs educational content.
Another issue is the continued strength of the CSI Foundation, which is also under a new director, Brandi Turnipseed, who replaces the retiring Deb Wilson.
The Foundation’s assets have grown past $40 million, one of the largest community college endowments in the nation, which disperses more than $2 million in scholarships annually. Maintaining that growth and scholarhip support will be an important goal.
Beyond these issues, Fisher will face the usual faculty requests for pay and benefit increases, as well as faculty concerns about where cuts might fall and concerns from classified staff.
The Legislature has a long record of supporting community college needs. I served on the House Education Committee for two terms and witnessed repeated examples in Boise of how Idaho’s governance worked to protect educational investment. Now, with a louder “hell no” faction within the GOP, it’s an open question as to whether CSI’s funding will remain secure.
Hotheads on the GOP’s political right are always looking for ways to cut programs. One such local legislator, Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, is on her way to the Senate but has shown little appreciation for CSI or its missions.
It remains to be seen how these issues will play out. Key roles will be played by House Education Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, and Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls.
Fisher will get up to speed on those kinds of tensions early. He has a background that includes Congressional staff work and broad experience in community college governance. On these fronts, he should do just fine.
And his childhood roots in the Magic Valley won’t hurt him either. CSI’s selection committee seems to have touched all the bases in its decision. He looks well positioned to become the next of a successful line of CSI presidents, from James “Doc” Taylor, Jerry Meyerhoeffer, Jerry Beck. Curtis Eaton (interim) and Fox. CSI is an important “feeder” school for four-year institutions in the state, so Fisher’s efforts in many areas will be closely watched.
With new presidents at Idaho State University, Boise State and the University of Idaho, there’s no reason that Fisher can’t be a new statewide community college leader. We welcome him to the Magic Valley.
Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of the new book “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” This column was first published in www.idahopoliticsweekly.com. He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com
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