MOSCOW - Even though he graduated from Harvard University and the University of Chicago Law School, Don Burnett said he got a "warm feeling of tranquility and well-being" upon hearing the University of Idaho fight song many years ago.
"I mentioned that to my folks, and my mother said, 'There's an explanation for that,'" Burnett said. "When you were a baby and we had trouble putting you to sleep, we would walk the floor and sing 'Came a tribe from the north brave and bold.' I was imprinted. I'm part of the University of Idaho."
On Wednesday, the State Board of Education unanimously selected Burnett as interim president. Burnett, 66, will lead the university as it searches for a successor to Duane Nellis, who will become the president at Texas Tech in June.
Burnett didn't attend U of I, but his parents came from Wallace and were Vandals during the Great Depression.
"To them, the University of Idaho became the gateway to the world, and everything they became and passed on to my brother and me, we owe to the University of Idaho," he said during a news conference in the school's Administration Building.
There is a picture in one of the hallways of Burnett's mother working in the library for 35 cents an hour. And his father hunted along the corridor between Moscow and Pullman to help feed his fraternity during the hard times of the 1930s.
Burnett also knows U of I history. He tells the story of how its original three regents selected a judge from among their ranks as the university's first president.
"James H. Forney served for one year, and he built framework of the university we know today," he said. "Now, standing before you 12 decades later is another servant of the law, and another servant of this university. I will endeavor to strengthen our frameworks of excellence, and to advocate for the special character and special mission of this university."
The law school's faculty, working with the administration, will begin the process of selecting a new dean in the coming days, Burnett said. He added that he will not return to the dean's office after his interim tenure in the president's office.
The State Board also stipulated that the interim president will not be able to apply for the permanent position. Board Vice President Don Soltman explained that national search firms believe the rule brings in a more robust pool of applicants.
Nellis, answering questions for the first time since he became the sole finalist for the Texas Tech job almost a month ago, said any perceived negative attitudes toward education in state government did not factor into his decision to leave Idaho.
"This year and last year, we're getting a 4 percent (state funding) increase," Nellis said. "When I go around the nation and talk to other university presidents, they're envious of that. We went through $30 million in cuts before that, but still, I think the message is resonating with the Legislature about how important the University of Idaho is."
He said he was frustrated with some State Board decisions, especially when it didn't allow U of I to officially call itself the state's "flagship" institution.
"But ... the State Board has been very supportive on a number of initiatives that I have advocated for," he said. "That doesn't mean we haven't had disagreements, but that's part of the ebb and flow of these interactions."