Boise State President Marlene Tromp took the stage on Wednesday morning to deliver her inaugural State of the University speech and urged the need for respectful dialogue on campus in a politically divided time.
Tromp — who addressed research, athletics, rural students and many other topics — stood before more than 1,000 faculty, staff and community members at the Morrison Center and engaged with the audience, sometimes sticking to a written script and other times sharing personal anecdotes, striding confidently across the stage with a mic in hand.
Tromp was named Boise State’s seventh president, and its first female leader, in April. She took over the position in July after leaving her job as provost and executive vice chancellor at UC Santa Cruz.
She told listeners that they live in a moment where “words can be weaponized by unfriendly and fearful audiences and even misunderstood by the friendliest ones. A moment in which it is a sign of bravery even to speak.”
She said she’s seen extraordinary bravery from students, faculty and the community, and she hopes to honor their bravery as president. She made the statement as diversity programs and other parts of campus life have come under recent attack.
“Public higher education was built for the express purpose of transforming people’s lives,” Tromp said. “... Our embrace of all people, especially in this politically vexing moment, means that universities must remain spaces where complex discussion can take place. Where difficult issues can be explored. Where conflicting ideas and opinions can be heard, considered and respected. Where the smallest groups can be seen. And where underrepresented ideas can be spoken. Where all people feel able to voice their truth, and where we respect those with, to, and about whom we speak.”
She stressed that it is possible to foster dialogue and understand each other, drawing applause from the audience.
The statement made by Tromp was telling after she received a letter in July from 28 state legislators, all House Republicans, urging Tromp to abandon the university’s diversity and inclusion programs and initiatives, which the GOP lawmakers called antithetical to what they termed the “Idaho way.”
Tromp did not directly speak of the letter or the lawmakers during her address, but she made her stance on inclusion and respect clear.
“If universities aren’t meant to be bringers of light, then who is?” she told the audience Wednesday, inciting cheers.
She called BSU’s campus innovative, creative and trailblazing, a path she hopes to continue down, she said.
Tromp went on to explain that she hopes to see an increase in people attending college and wants to allay fears that some people might have about attending a public university.
While college gradation rates have increased, Tromp cited studies finding that more people are choosing not to attend college, in part because families and students don’t believe it is worth the cost.
She also said she hopes to end the public notion that schools push students to a certain political viewpoint. The important thing is to let people know the ways a college education can be beneficial to students, both personally and professionally, she said.
“We have so much work to do,” Tromp told the audience.
Tromp, who grew up in small-town Wyoming and was the first member of her family to become a college graduate, dedicated part of her speech to rural students, saying there are too many who are being underserved by higher education in this country.
“Many of them don’t know why they should come to a university, or if they do, they feel like they can’t give up the chance to be where they are at home,” Tromp said. “Their parents aren’t sure what they’ll bring back or who they’ll bring back. We need to find ways to connect with those communities. To help them understand the benefit of a university education and to serve them well. Because if we can do that, it is another place where we will provide national leadership.”
Tromp said she wants to advocate for student resources to drive down the cost of education, support research activity and continue innovative work at Boise State. She focused on BSU’s research activity and its innovation.
“Help people outside of the university understand the transformative power of research,” she told faculty in the audience.
Athletics have been a big part of BSU for decades, and Tromp talked about Broncos who have excelled athletically and academically, such as former Boise State All-American track star Allie Ostrander.
Tromp ended her speech by expressing a desire to make Boise State accessible and affordable for all Idahoans.
“I am confident we can meet our challenges together,” she said.
Members of the Associated Students of Boise State University praised Tromp’s speech.
“Today, Dr. Tromp ushered in a new era at Boise State, and we at the Associated Students of Boise State University are excited to work with her to create a better student experience for all students,” ASBSU President Kaleb Smith told Statesman in an email. “I thought her speech had a powerful focus on the issues that face higher education today and how Boise State is driving the positive change of higher education not only in Idaho, but also the nation.
“The president gave recognition to Boise State’s hardworking staff by highlighting recent accomplishments. Dr. Tromp’s speech was empowering and endearing, especially towards our programs and the people behind them.”