Boise State’s Marlene Tromp: Emotional about community
Boise State University President Marlene Tromp refuses to sit around in her new, spacious office. She’d rather be on the move, quite literally.
Yes, Tromp has a physical office, located in the BSU administration building on the second floor. But you’d be hard-pressed to find her in it. And even when she is there, she’s not lounging. The treadmill desk located in the back corner ensures that much.
In her six weeks or so as president, Tromp estimates that she’s spent the equivalent of two full weeks traveling to various parts of the state — and in some cases, around the country. Whether it’s Burley, Caldwell or Moscow, Seattle or Cambridge, Massachusetts, Tromp has been on the road a lot in a short amount of time.
Tromp, 52, was named Boise State’s seventh president, and its first female leader, in April. She officially took over July 1. She was at Harvard in early July for the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents, as she transitioned from her old job as provost and executive vice chancellor at UC Santa Cruz. Prior to that she was dean of Arizona State University’s New Interdisciplinary College of Arts and Sciences, and vice provost of the university’s West Campus.
Tromp’s constant activity comes as no surprise to everyone who knows her. She is a woman of action, they say. She wants to feel part of something bigger. Her travels since becoming BSU president have been well-documented on Twitter, and that’s not by accident.
“I wanted people to know that I wasn’t going to just sit in my office with the door closed. I wanted to get out and meet people and connect with people and connect with the state,” said Tromp, a Wyoming native. “And it’s summer.”
Tromp’s selection as president
Tromp’s choice as president was met with applause. When the Idaho State Board of Education’s Linda Clark made the announcement, spectators gathered in Albertsons Stadium’s Stueckle Sky Center stood, clapped and roared their approval. The State Board of Education’s choice of Tromp was unanimous, and she arrived in Boise with great fanfare.
But the first few weeks of Tromp’s tenure were met with challenges. As any university administrator will tell you, if it’s not a meeting that needs to be attended, then it’s a figurative fire that has to be put out. In late June, 28 Idaho House Republicans voiced objections to Boise State’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, addressing Tromp directly and urging her to extinguish the programs.
Tromp has already met with many legislators in her short time and travels to discuss their complaints.
“ ... I want to understand what the concerns of our legislators are in a fundamental way,” Tromp said. “... When I had a number of those conversations with folks ... it helped me understand so that I could try to pare down and really feel like I had a good understanding (of) what had motivated them to express concerns about those programs.”
Those who know Tromp best — former colleagues, friends and even classmates from small-town Wyoming — say that she’s just the person to steady the ship at BSU and take it to uncharted territory. Tromp’s ability and her desire to hear all sides, they say, make her uniquely qualified to lead a university that is now ranked as one of the most innovative in the country by U.S. News and World Report.
Tromp’s desire is to learn; it’s one the reasons she got into academics in the first place, she said. And there is a lot of learning that has to be done outside the office.
“If you’re just an administrator, you’re just minding the store,” Michael Crow, Arizona State president and Tromp’s former boss, told the Statesman in a phone interview. “She’s not a minding-the-store person. She’s an academic, and she knows how to make decisions.”
Green River, Wyoming, and community building
To understand Tromp’s desire to connect, look at the small corner of Wyoming where she grew up. Green River is a city of not quite 13,000 people. It is nestled in the mountains of Sweetwater County, about 6,000 feet up, right along Interstate 80.
There are less than 10 schools in Green River. A Yelp search shows a lone supermarket in town, a Smith’s Food and Drug Center; the next closest market, Albertsons, is a good 20 minutes away, in Rock Springs. Green River is home to a lone McDonald’s and Subway. In fact, most amenities the general public takes for granted — a Walmart, for instance — are located in Rock Springs.
Green River is known for its outdoorsy lifestyle, making her transition to Idaho pretty easy. The city’s slogan is “Fish it. Float it. Live it,” after all. Hunting, fishing, kayaking and rafting are high on the to-do list, just as they are in Idaho, where Tromp has already shared photos on social media of hikes and other outdoor activity.
The main industry in Green River is mining and oil/gas extraction. Tromp’s father was a miner, and she was a first-generation college student.
Tromp said growing up in small-town America formulated her sense of community. She has joked that she knows everyone in Wyoming who is her age.
When working at Denison University in Ohio, a friend came over to her house to introduce a peer from Wyoming. He wanted to see whether Tromp knew who she was. It was supposed to be a joke. It turned out that the woman’s father was the Tromp family’s veterinarian.
“There’s an interconnectedness. And that probably shaped how I think about community,” Tromp said. “I really think community matters.”
To this day, Adam Robles, who attended and graduated from Green River High in 1984 with Tromp, said he “admired her kindness” and still does, though he hasn’t seen her in years.
“(She was) outstandingly kind. A great student, a member of choir and a top-notch track team member,” Robles told the Statesman in a message. “I always thought highly of her, but in high school she just seemed to blossom. I’m happy it’s followed her.”
Tromp said her thoughts on community are why she loves college campuses. Open communication, shared experiences and a sense of the sum being greater than its parts are vital in towns and college experiences. And she said she feels the same way about higher education as a whole, which is why she has gone out of her way to create a good relationship with new University of Idaho President C. Scott Green.
“People should be proud of their alma mater,” she said. “But when it comes down to what we’re doing for the people in this state ... we should all be linking arms.”
All of these notions have sparked her quick love for Boise: Its identity is intertwined with the university, with her work on campus affecting the city at-large.
“Any decision that a university makes has an enormous impact on the community. So there’s a lot of dialogue back and forth between the community and the university,” Tromp said. “I think every university has that responsibility to the community.”
‘Stay in college forever’
As her graduation from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, approached, Tromp wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. A tutoring session with a friend changed that course.
Tromp, an English major, was tutoring a friend in calculus — yes, she admits that was “unusual.” Her friend had already dropped the course once but was rapidly improving with Tromp’s help. One day, the friend closed his book and posed a question.
“You’re really good at this. What do you want to do when you graduate?” the friend asked. She had no idea, but knew one thing for sure:
“I just want to stay in college forever,” she said. “So I did.”
A love of learning and teaching, of helping students expand their minds, has led Tromp to college campuses time and again, she said.
Tromp is an academic — a Victorianist with a bachelor’s from Creighton, a master’s from Wyoming and doctorate from Florida. The shelves of her office bookcases are lined with hundreds of books and scholarly accolades. She does not want to outsmart you, though. She would rather engage in a dialogue.
“She has a 10-cylinder motor,” Crow said with a laugh. “But she doesn’t overpower you with it.”
Crow is also a first-generation college student in his family. In fact, he was the one who told her to apply for Boise State’s presidency. Why? Because she understands better than anyone what it means to be a student. She can connect.
“She, like me, would cry at emotional moments,” Crow said. “You want your college leadership to be emotionally driven. It gives you an understanding of great empathy of what so many families have to go through to send their children to college.”
Accessible education is important to Tromp, but she understands what a battle that is. It isn’t affordable for everyone, and not all families see the value in sending a child to college. Tromp even said that her 17-year-old son won’t go to college right away because “he’s not ready.”
But Tromp always will tout higher ed.
“Education changed my life,” Tromp said. “The idea of someone in our family, you know, being a university president? Gosh, that felt like it was a million miles away from where we stood. But it was education that made it possible.”
The first thing Sarah Latham noticed about Tromp was her presence. Latham, the vice chancellor of business and administrative services at UC Santa Cruz, worked just down the hall from Tromp for two years. Latham reported to Tromp directly and was also on the committee that ultimately hired her for a bigger job.
“She is extremely dynamic and engaging,” Latham said. “You really sit up and listen to what she has to say. She’s extremely intelligent. She is able to eloquently articulate challenging situations and get to the core of them ... She just owns a room when she walks into it.”
Tromp has dealt with challenging issues at her previous stops. While working under Crow at Arizona State, Tromp was essentially in charge of starting a new school, the Interdisciplinary College of Arts and Sciences. She helped launch entirely new departments, degrees and programs. Doing that requires more than being an administrator. It requires a grinder, and someone willing to listen, Crow said.
“How do you innovate the university, whether it’s Boise State or Arizona State, to be of greater service to the people? That’s what she’s committed to,” he said. “She’s a driver of dynamic positive enhancement.”
Arizona State is the template for innovative universities, ranking No. 1 in the U.S. News and World Report’s list based on “making the most innovative improvements in terms of curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities.”
Not every university in the country is willing or able to take leaps of faith the way Arizona State has. Crow told Tromp that Boise State was willing and that it was a can’t-miss opportunity.
“If I go into a classroom and do exactly what I did 20 or 25 years ago, I’m underserving our students, because our students are different than they used to be,” Tromp said. “How can we help them be the great thinkers that are going to produce the next great thoughts?”
While at UC Santa Cruz, Tromp was able to install a five-year academic plan that identified areas of innovation and program implementation. It was no small feat, according to Latham. Consultants had previously tried to create a plan, she said, but it never came to fruition. Tromp was able to get it done in her two years.
“When you’re dealing with challenging topics, you can either move forward too quickly, when no one feels heard, or you can spin. You have to find that middle ground,” Latham said. “She demonstrated the ability to do that.”
Tromp said that goes back to a constant desire to learn and listen.
“I want to learn as much as I can from as many perspectives before I make a decision, because my decisions have a big impact on a lot of people,” she said. “I’m a lifelong learner. That desire to be a learner is a part of what makes me seek feedback and seek input.”
‘I’m very lucky’
As she watched Boise State’s presidential announcement, Latham got a bit emotional about her friend and colleague, she said.
“When they made the announcement and all of a sudden this loud applause broke out, I got choked up. That’s a person you admire and care about,” Latham said. “That right there isn’t that common when you’re getting an announcement.”
From a young age, Tromp said she was taught by her father that the sky was the limit. No, she wasn’t from a big city. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t have big dreams. She could be the president of the United States, her father told her.
As she stood on the mound at a Seattle Mariners game recently, preparing to throw out the first pitch at “Boise State Night” at T-Mobile Park, which had a small sea of blue and orange in it, Tromp said she didn’t stop to think that her career path was unbelievable. Instead, she just found herself appreciative.
“I’m very lucky,” Tromp said. “Every time I get to do one of these really cool things ... I just feel fortunate. Every time I get to stand in front of an audience of people and talk to them, I feel like it’s this incredible gift.”
Tromp said she has received countless messages, letters and emails from people in Green River sharing congratulations — she joked that there will have to be a Wyoming section at her upcoming investiture.
“This was a pretty big deal. It’s not every day that you hear about a small-town Wyoming woman becoming the president of a large university,” Brayden Flack, a reporter at Green River’s local publication, SweetwaterNow, told the Statesman in an email. “I think that Dr. Tromp’s accomplishments and recent hiring speaks volumes to the talent, skill and potential that Wyoming has to offer ... She reminded me that, while our community may be small, our impact can be felt.”
Tromp said her accomplishments are shared experiences, as she circled back to the subject of community. Being president of Boise State is not hers alone; it belongs to everyone who helped her reach this point. To know that so many people from her past — back home in Wyoming and professionally — have rooted for her forces her to fight back tears.
“I really, really am devoted to the communities that I work in. I really care about people,” Tromp said. “And it means so much to me, because I want every kid in the state of Idaho to know you can come from a small town and go make your mark on the world. Your origins do not determine your future negatively. In fact, they can be a part of the gift that makes you who you are. ... You can go and do incredible things.”