Bob Kustra remembers a very different campus when he took over as president of Boise State University in 2003. It was more of a commuter school, with about 18,500 students.
Now, it’s bustling with more than 24,000 students from all over Idaho, the West, the country and the globe.
“I think walking out of this office and trying to get across the quad when classes change is a remarkable feat these days,” he said. “You need a traffic light to pull that off. … We’ve created this entire new culture that was a longtime — probably 10-year — effort.”
Kustra, 74, counts that growth and vibrant campus culture among his crowning achievements during 15 years as president. He will retire from that job next summer, he announced Wednesday.
Other leaders in education, commerce and government said Kustra has been a forceful leader who sliced through red tape; a visionary who seized the opportunity to raise Boise State’s profile; and an education advocate who helped to create the popular College of Western Idaho.
From STEM to STEAM
Sculptor Benjamin Victor came to Boise State in 2015 to teach and work. Kustra, said Victor, was one of the reasons he made the move. Victor praised Kustra’s leadership of projects like the $42 million fine arts building now under construction on campus.
“That captured me when Kustra was recruiting me,” Victor said. “He wants us to be a ‘STEAM’ school,” adding the arts to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Kustra includes the fine arts building project among his accomplishments, along with rising student GPAs and the increased number of students enrolled in the honors college.
“This is a comprehensive university, and we should respect students’ and the community’s interest in arts and humanities as well,” said the president who, during his tenure, also recorded 500 episodes of his radio show devoted to the humanities.
It is hard to sum up the impact that Dr. Kustra has had on not only the campus of Boise State University but on our entire state.
Dee Mooney, executive director, Micron Foundation
Kustra’s office is a room filled with bright modern art; piles of hard-covered tomes on politics, fiction and history; and a framed Chicago Cubs jersey. Among the objects is a small clay turtle he received as a gift. It reminds Kustra that, to make progress, he has to stick his neck out.
Victor highlighted that fearlessness in making decisions: “You can’t have a university grow as fast and be on the trajectory BSU is on without that kind of leader, someone who’s not going to go back five steps, then involve 15 committees. With someone like Kustra, you’re able to have growth because he could say, ‘Yes, this is a good thing. Let’s just do it.’ ”
No time for bureaucracy
Anthony Fernandez is the president of Lewis-Clark State College and will also retire next summer. Under Kustra’s leadership, he said, BSU and LCSC partnered to expand BSU’s School of Social Work to the LCSC campus. Kustra also took the lead in 2010 to push for a bill that streamlined colleges’ and universities’ flexibility in buying equipment for educational programs, Fernandez said.
College of Western Idaho President Bert Glandon said Kustra was instrumental in creating CWI — and fostering a collaborative relationship that helped CWI become one of the largest schools in the state. CWI is now the largest feeder school to BSU, Glandon said, thanks in part to Kustra’s efforts to streamline the transfer process for students. “This relationship here, between CWI and BSU, is probably one of the most productive and positive relationships I’ve been in, in any state,” Glandon said.
There is a lot of fun to be had, for me anyway, in cutting through that.
Bob Kustra, referring to red tape
It was that characteristic drive and ambition for higher education that made Kustra’s retirement a surprise to University of Idaho President Chuck Staben.
“Bob always seems to have that next project that he wants to complete, and the fire in the belly to do it,” Staben said. “But we all retire sometime, and certainly he’s done a great job for Boise State.”
Kustra came to BSU with a vision, said Linda Clark, president of the Idaho State Board of Education. “And you can see his hand everywhere on campus,” she said, from the high-demand programs he supported in computer and material science and engineering, to state-of-the-art buildings, to increases in research funding and student retention rates. “It’s a success story.”
Part of the challenge for a newcomer will be knowing how to continue that, including the art of forming partnerships: with Boise, with other cities in the Treasure Valley, with the business community.
The personal approach
Many know Kustra for his easy, plain-spoken manner and affable energy, something undoubtedly honed during his pre-BSU political career. He served two terms as Illinois lieutenant governor and 10 years in the Illinois Legislature. Kustra credits his approach to early teachers, including one “Sister Dolores,” who helped him learn to “project” and “present” himself. He’s been a tireless salesman for the university.
“If one of our coaches or recruiting coordinators of any sport reached out to him and said, ‘Can you visit with this recruit and the family’ when they came on campus, the answer was always yes unless he had no way of fitting it into his schedule,” said Boise State Athletic Director Curt Apsey. “… When families and potential student-athletes come on campus and are able to meet with the head guy in charge, that sends a pretty important message that it matters here.”
Chase Baker was a defensive lineman for Boise State’s football team from 2008 to 2011. After college, Baker spent two years playing for the Minnesota Vikings and is now studying for his master’s in sports management in Texas.
Kustra was able to create a sense of balance on campus, Baker said, “utilizing athletics to keep building the academic side. Every year it felt like there was a new building on campus, for the school, or an addition to the stadium.”
As an alum, a former player and a coach, I will be forever grateful for what (Kustra) has meant to Boise State, Boise State athletics and Bronco football. I wish him the best in his retirement.
BSU head football coach Bryan Harsin
Baker returned to his alma mater, Rocklin High in Rocklin, California, to coach football for a time. A few Rocklin grads followed in Baker’s footsteps and came to BSU to play football. But several others who made the trip were drawn to the university’s other attractions outside the athletic realm, Baker said. He credits Kustra.
Kustra experienced dazzling high points, notably the Broncos’ 2007 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, the favored team.
“I was gobsmacked,” said Kustra.
He didn’t have a sense of what that win would mean for the university — helping catapult it into an era of growth and national recognition — until he came in to work the next morning and found 300 emails from fans and friends across the county.
The thing that comes to mind for me is transformation. … When he looks back at everything that happened here since he’s been president, I think he can be proud of it and he can certainly go away knowing he made a difference.
Curt Apsey, Boise State athletic director
Congratulations have also filled his inbox since he announced his retirement. He’s trying to answer each one personally.
But the outgoing president’s 15 years at Boise State were marked by some controversies, as recent as the decision this year to cut the school’s wrestling program in favor of launching baseball.
There was the “nasty” and “inebriated” comment that echoed for years — Kustra’s characterization of University of Idaho sports fans turned two schools’ good-natured rivalry into a grudge.
There was the massive cut to the school’s history department that exiled adjunct instructors and lecturers from the department. And there is an ongoing complaint about how much the school relies on adjuncts to fill out its teaching staff, while paying them extremely low wages.
There was the decision in 2011 to fire longtime Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier, who had served in that position for 29 years and helped bring the athletic department to national prominence. That decision, in the wake of NCAA sanctions for rules violations in the department, remains a point of contention for some fans — and the lead donors for the football team’s new facility insisted that it be named for Bleymaier.
And there is the long-standing criticism of Boise State’s tuition — which has risen dramatically, though Kustra is quick to note that Idaho students pay far less than students in other states. One of his regrets is that he didn’t have more success in his long campaign to change how money is allocated to Idaho universities.
With funding tied to old metrics, he said, “There is no question there are a few million dollars more available for other universities to spend on scholarships and support of students than there are at Boise State.” He said that’s one of the reasons for the severe tuition increases during his tenure. As the school grows, its funding allocations have not kept pace. It has to make up the difference by raising money from donors or by charging students more, he said.
“[I am disappointed] I couldn’t wave the flag of victory around that issue,” he said.
But when it comes to reforming education spending in higher education, he said, “The good news is we have a State Board of Education that is, I think, singularly focused on this issue.”
When I met Bob in the first few months of his tenure, I knew he was the right person for the job. But since then, Boise State’s trajectory has been astounding — he’s accomplished much more than I could have ever anticipated in 2003.
Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, whose time in office has coincided roughly with Kustra’s tenure
Kustra said he had been considering retiring for the past two years. He would attend academic conferences and notice more of his peers had retired, replaced by a new generation of leaders. But after Kustra’s grandson Brendan Quinn chose to come from Chicago to study at Boise State, Kustra decided to stay long enough to welcome Quinn as an incoming freshman in 2017.
Kustra and his wife, Kathy, love living in the West and have no desire to return to Chicago, he said. And now, it sounds like a second grandson is interested in attending Boise State, he said, joking that the grandparents’ Sunday dinners and laundry are becoming quite popular.
Kustra will continue to do his radio show, “Readers Corner,” on Boise State Public Radio, and also looks forward to doing election analysis on television for KTVB.
He expects to remain active in academics at the university’s School of Public Service; working with national organizations for higher education and public land grant universities; and in the community, supporting organizations like the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and the Idaho Humane Society.
He is also interested in working with children, possibly volunteering for reading programs that serve immigrants and refugees.
As far as who might take his place, they might be “out-of-the-box candidates,” Kustra said.
“And in this day of higher education, threatened today more than it ever has been, with loss of funding and loss of stature and loss of credibility, you better have somebody up there who really knows how to sell the widgets and do it publicly and effectively and ethically.”
Chadd Cripe contributed.
State Board must now fill 3 high-profile jobs
Kustra’s retirement from Boise State means that three of the four Idaho four-year institutions of higher learning will lose their presidents next year. Tony Fernandez, president of Lewis-Clark State College, and Art Vailas, president of Idaho State University, will also step down in June 2018.
“It’s unusual for sure,” said Linda Clark, a member of the Idaho State Board of Education, which will be responsible for selecting new university leaders.
“I don’t think the board is concerned because each institution is different, with different realities. I think we’ll get a strong core of interest for each one. The groups won’t necessarily overlap,” Clark said.
The board is working with a national firm and has begun a national search for the ISU and LCSC positions. The board hopes to have those jobs filled by April. The board has not yet met to discuss Kustra’s retirement, but Clark said the selection process for his replacement will mirror the other two.