This is a pivotal moment for Idaho education. How do we get the next Bob Kustra for Boise State?

One of the innovative programs that Boise State University President Bob Kustra created was the College of Innovation and Design, which he welcomed to campus in 2015.
One of the innovative programs that Boise State University President Bob Kustra created was the College of Innovation and Design, which he welcomed to campus in 2015. doswald@idahostatesman.com

Imagine you are an aspiring university president. Would you want to come to Idaho, which has at least three of its big four openings to fill?

The Legislature’s support for education is modest, and for higher ed indifferent at best. A leading candidate for governor recently suggested that Boise State’s president maybe should leave the job when he spoke out on political matters. Still want to come?

When you call colleagues in Idaho to ask if you should apply, what will they tell you? Will they say that Idaho is truly investing in education after emerging from the recession? Will they say that leaders, legislators and State Board of Education members are moving heaven and earth to build a great education system?

We’re left contemplating that question as we consider the extraordinary challenge of replacing Boise State University President Bob Kustra, whose 14 years fundamentally transformed Boise State. He had help much of the time from a good economy, an appealing city and some exciting football teams. But make no mistake: Today’s Boise State is the school that Bob Kustra built.

To their credit, Idaho leaders got it right in 2003. Kustra was an unorthodox choice, more politician than university administrator. He spent 10 years as an Illinois legislator and more than six years as that state’s lieutenant governor before running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. He came to Idaho after three years as president of Eastern Kentucky University.

But Kustra is smart and dogged, a salesman and an ambassador and a visionary, and that turned out to be what Boise State needed. He worked hard. You saw him everywhere, at community and campus events. You heard him on his weekly radio show, talking about writers and ideas. This was not a president locked in the ivory tower.

He made decisions. He ruffled feathers. He alienated some faculty and administrators. But he quieted the snickers about “Boise Junior College.” He built partnerships with some of Boise’s biggest donors and companies. He got buildings built and programs launched. He actually did what other presidents say they’ll do — use athletics to boost academics. Kustra was gifted with the outsized success of Boise State’s football team, and recognized in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl win a chance to bring students, programs, research grants, degrees and faculty to Boise State.

Idaho is replacing three retiring presidents (Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College are the other two), and University of Idaho President Chuck Staben recently interviewed for a job out of state. This is a pivotal moment for Idaho education and leadership.

So we return to our original question, asked a different way: How do we get the next Bob Kustra to Boise?

Idaho is a wonderful place to live and Boise makes all kinds of lists of top places to recreate, to retire, to raise families, to find low business costs, to avoid crime. Sadly, our state never makes top lists when it comes to education, whether it’s finances, achievement, early childhood or success beyond high school. Future university presidents need only Google the last Education Week rankings: Idaho got an overall D-minus, ahead of only New Mexico, Mississippi and Nevada. As Idaho Education News reported, Idaho got poor marks for per-pupil spending and the lowest percentage in the nation of children attending preschool. And Idaho beats just 10 states in the number of residents over age 25 with a postsecondary degree.

Those are big drawbacks, bigger than leaders and legislators will face up to. The state has utterly failed at its old and oft-repeated goal of getting 60 percent of the state’s 25- to 34-year-olds a postsecondary degree by 2020. A higher ed task force meeting earlier this year had to push that target off to 2025.

So what can we do?

Legislators this winter can stop the charade and signal to future presidents (and students and faculty and companies) that Idaho is tired of being at the bottom of the heap. Idahoans do care about education, about future generations and future entrepreneurs, about the businesses they will build and the jobs they will create. Legislators can take concrete steps to invest the state’s rising tax revenues in K-12 and higher education. They can listen to the CEOs who ask and ask and ask for money and graduates for tech and other jobs that still go unfilled.

Boise State and Idaho can hope that lightning strikes twice, hope that we get lucky, hope that the next Bob Kustra sees a challenge and an opportunity awaiting him or her in Boise. We can have a hope, or we can have a plan.

Kustra showed the difference one inspired hire can make. Idaho needs to do everything in its power to ensure we get the best possible successor.

Unsigned editorials represent the opinions of the Statesman editorial board.