Idaho State U’s president will retire. State says boosters’ threats aren’t the cause

Idaho State President Arthur Vailas announced his resignation Wednesday.
Idaho State President Arthur Vailas announced his resignation Wednesday. Provided by Idaho State University

The president of Idaho State University plans to step down next June after 12 sometimes-tumultuous years leading the Pocatello-based school.

Arthur Vailas, 66, announced his retirement Wednesday, three days after the university’s football booster club threatened to withhold nearly $80,000 in donations unless Vailas and Athletic Director Jeff Tingey were replaced. The football team has earned a 20-70 record since 2009 under Tingey. “Eight years is enough,” a group of boosters wrote in an op-ed published in the Pocatello newspaper.

But a state official insisted Wednesday’s announcement had nothing to do with those complaints. Vailas notified the State Board of Education of his plans in writing two months ago, said Blake Youde, chief communications and legislative affairs officer for the board, which oversees Idaho’s three public universities and Lewis-Clark State College.

Vailas asserted the booster’s recent activity did not affect the timing of his retirement, calling it “ridiculous” and “irrelevant,” according to the Idaho State Journal.

“It doesn’t matter what they think, what I think,” Vailas said during Wednesday’s Idaho State Board of Education meeting at the ISU Pond Student Union. “This was a train already on its road.”

On Wednesday, former ISU football player LD Barthlome told the Idaho State Journal he disagreed.

“President Vailas had definitely clarified that he was going to retire sometime soon,” Barthlome said. “I’m not saying that the letters that have been in the newspaper (caused) his retirement, but it may have sped up the timetable.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Butch Otter praised Vailas’s accomplishments at the 13,000-student school.

“Over the past decade, President Vailas has been at the forefront of many of the remarkable and positive changes, not only at Idaho State University but also throughout our higher education system,” Otter said in a statement. “Through Dr. Vailas’ vision and leadership, ISU has championed numerous programs and opportunities, including one that holds great promise for the future, the creation of Idaho’s first medical school.”

That school, a partnership with the private Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine on ISU’s Meridian campus, gained pre-accreditation status in May and is expected to open in August 2018.

Vailas’ leadership, however, hasn’t always been viewed so favorably.

Faculty members began rebelling six months after he took office by protesting the resignation of the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In 2009, a professor who led a campaign for a no-confidence vote against Vailas was barred from campus. The strife reached a crescendo in 2011, when the Faculty Senate voted no confidence amid accusations of closed-door budget decisions and high staff turnover.

The Vailas administration issued a statement in response, citing “an organized negative campaign ... based upon half truths and fabrications” and saying the president “enjoys widespread support from other constituencies, including the ISU Foundation Board, alumni groups, state policy makers, community and student leaders.”

The State Board of Education, most of whose members are appointed by the governor, stood by Vailas and disbanded the Senate.

Meanwhile, the football team struggled. The Bengals went 11-53 (.172) in the Big Sky over the past eight years. Yet Vailas and Tingey received raises from the State Board of Education in June, with Tingey securing a two-year contract extension.

None of that was mentioned in the state board’s news release Wednesday on Vailas’ retirement. The board ticked off a list of ISU improvements under Vailas’ leadership, including new student internships and a pilot program, unveiled last year, to lock base tuition rates for degree-seeking Idaho freshmen enrolled for four continuous academic years.

The university saw numerous upgrades to its facilities, including an ongoing $10 million upgrade to the Gale Life Science Building, a remodeling of the student union and improvements to Holt Arena and other athletics facilities. Financial reserves increased, and ISU received $28 million in research funding last year.

In 2009, Vailas oversaw the opening of the Meridian Health Sciences Center, which now serves more than 1,000 students and working professionals with 25 graduate and undergraduate programs.

Vailas is ISU’s 12th president. The son of Greek immigrants and a physiologist, he came to Pocatello from a senior leadership job at the University of Houston.

Board of Education member Linda Clark said the state board plans to announce his successor next spring.

Kristin Rodine: 208-377-6447; Michael Lycklama: 208-377-6424, @MichaelLycklama