Tom Bitterwolf, a University of Idaho chemistry professor, couldn't believe what he heard Friday.
Duane M. Nellis, the man Bitterwolf rooted for when he served on the search committee to hire a president in 2009, is the sole finalist for the presidency of Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
"I am personally devastated," Bitterwolf said. "This had to be held by a very few number of senior people."
Nellis, then provost at Kansas State, walked away from the U of I's first job offer because the state couldn't meet his salary terms.
Pushed by Vandal boosters, the State Board of Education found the money by changing a policy to let the university's foundation contribute to Nellis' salary. He accepted the job when Idaho came through with additional funds. Nellis and the board settled on $335,000 a year. That led to the other university presidents getting a boost in pay. Nellis now earns $341,700 annually.
Now he is on the verge of taking control of a university with more than 30,000 students, nearly three times the size of the U of I, which has 12,500.
"I grieve because he has left so much unfinished," such as increasing enrollment, said Bitterwolf, a former Faculty Senate chair.
Nellis backed expansion of the U of I law school in Boise. When the university faced cutbacks in the recession, and staff had to be furloughed, Nellis handled the situation about as well as anyone could, Bitterwolf said.
Nellis also expressed dismay with Bob Kustra, Boise State University president, after Kustra in 2010 referred to Vandal culture as "nasty" and "inebriated."
"Both the University of Idaho and the city of Moscow take great pride in the friendly, welcoming and warm environment that a quintessential college town like ours can uniquely provide," Nellis said then.
VOTE EXPECTED SOON
Nellis was chosen as the sole finalist after a meeting Friday of the Texas Tech University System Board of Regents. The regents will take a final vote in late March, U of I officials said.
Texas Tech is in Lubbock and is a member of the Big 12 Conference.
The Idaho State Board of Education expects to conduct a national search for Nellis' replacement.
Nellis, 58, said Friday he had not expected to be presented with an opportunity like the Texas Tech job.
"When Ruthie and I made the move to the Northwest and the University of Idaho almost four years ago, we believed I would be completing my career as president of this special place," said Nellis in a U of I news release. "We care deeply for the University of Idaho and are so proud of Idaho's 'flagship' national research university and all the people who make it successful."
He declined further comment.
In a statement released by Texas Tech, Nellis said, "Texas Tech University is one of the nation's rapidly emerging public research universities, and I am grateful to be a part of the university's exciting and promising future."
Kent Hance, chancellor of the Texas Tech University System, said Nellis has an outstanding record of accomplishments in higher education. "I am confident Nellis will advance Texas Tech University," Hance said.
Nellis' tenure was marked by the August 2011 shooting death of Katy Benoit, a graduate student from Boise, by her psychology professor, Ernesto Bustamante. Bustamante then killed himself. The university settled with Benoit's family and made safety and security improvements recommended by an independent task force, including a process for identifying inappropriate behavior by faculty or staff.
His tenure also was marked by several high-profile incidents involving drunken students, including the January death of an 18-year-old Hailey student from hypothermia after he wandered away from a fraternity house. The university announced in February that it would form a task force to study policies on alcohol and substance abuse and another to explore the university's relationship with fraternities and sororities.
He also faced controversy when the State Board of Education last year struck the word "flagship" from a description of the university in its mission statement, a move Nellis said that could have negative consequences. The deletion upset many loyal Vandals.
Nellis also has had to deal with a changing athletic landscape for the Vandals. Idaho, a member of the Western Athletic Conference, will play as a Football Bowl Subdivision independent in 2013 when the shrunken WAC stops sponsoring football. The Vandals are scheduled to move their other athletic programs to the Big Sky Conference in 2014.
"I am disappointed that President Nellis is leaving, but I understand this is a tremendous opportunity for him and his family," Athletic Director Rob Spear said.
Kustra did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Patrick Orr and Brian Murphy contributed. Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts