Printed on: April 30, 2013

UI wants staying power

By BILL ROBERTS
Idaho Statesman

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 Idaho President Duane Nellis departs this summer, the university will be on its sixth president -- four interim and two who stayed four years each -- since Robert Hoover's 2003 resignation.

"We need to find someone who is going to be there," said Ken Edmunds, immediate past board president. "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 the 16-member state board-appointed search committee starts looking for candidates to replace Nellis -- who is leaving to become president of Texas Tech University, a school nearly three times the size of UI:

Enrollment, at about 12,500, needs to grow as the state pushes for 60 percent of adults ages 25 to 34 to get some kind of post-high school degree; the percentage is 35 percent now. That means UI 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 said.

"We are bleeding in so many different ways," he said. "Funding has been a real challenge. We are losing good people."

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 UI for 30 year and has 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 UI, "assuming I felt supported, things were going well and I was having impact there."

UI has been well-supported by alumni, faculty, staff and corporate leaders, Nellis said. But sagging resources -- the state cut $30 million out of UI'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, said Tom Bitterwolf, a UI chemistry professor for more than two decades.

"It takes a year or more to find out where the bathrooms are," he said.

UI'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?"

Turnstil presidency

Boise State University, in contrast to the 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 UI from establishing the same sort of long-term vision, Bitterwolf said.

For some UI faculty and alumni, concern about revolving presidents is overblown.

Kenton Bird, who chairs the UI 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."

Plenty of good candidates

UI 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. UI 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."