A CEO for Idaho universities: Are we deciding before we’ve researched the best solution?

Statesman Editorial Board

Gov. Butch Otter delivers his State of the State to a joint session of the Idaho House and Senate Jan. 8.
Gov. Butch Otter delivers his State of the State to a joint session of the Idaho House and Senate Jan. 8. kjones@idahostatesman.com

When Boise State President Bob Kustra announced his pending retirement, we wondered here how Idaho could ensure that it gets the best possible candidate to sustain the university’s upward trajectory.

We called on Idaho leaders to demonstrate to potential candidates that it is as committed to building its college and university system as it is to investing in K-12 education. So we are encouraged to see Gov. Butch Otter talking about steps to strengthen Idaho higher education, examine its structure and free up dollars that could get more students more degrees and certificates. But we want to see Idaho take the time and get the information it needs to do it right.

The state’s higher ed task force last summer recommended that Idaho find ways to centralize “back office” functions such as human resources, information technology, purchasing and accounting. Savings from such an effort could be in the millions and be reinvested in helping students get to and graduate from college, and possibly address the state’s abysmal rate of high school students who go on to get a degree or certificate.

Seven of the Idaho business executives who served on Otter’s task force subsequently recommended hiring a higher education CEO who could oversee that centralization. Otter endorsed that plan in his State of the State address Monday, saying the executive officer would “coordinate the work of all our higher education institutions.”

“The executive officer also will manage a systemwide consolidation of higher education support operations and the board’s continuing policy functions,” the governor said.

Otter also called for money for the state to hire a consultant to study how best to create the integrated system. In his speech, he said he agreed that a CEO, and not a chancellor who would oversee multiple campuses of a single statewide university system, was the best way to organize Idaho higher ed.

But how do we know that? The higher ed task force focused on how to boost the number of graduates, not how to structure a state university bureaucracy.

We’re not arguing for a chancellor. We’re simply asking: Are we getting this backward? Are we deciding before we’ve researched the best solution? If we’re going to hire a consultant “to study how best to create an integrated system,” shouldn’t we keep an open mind about how best to create that system?

Where will a new Idaho CEO sit in the hierarchy? To whom will she or he report? To whom will the presidents report?

The public is not going to care about the nitty gritty. But citizens are going to care about this: Will these changes help get us the best next presidents for Boise State, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College? Will this uncertainty affect the searches for university presidents now underway? Will the next Bob Kustra want to come to Boise not knowing who will be doing the “coordinating,” or what that coordination will look like?

Idaho has several former university presidents who have served in statewide positions in other states; they would be good experts to consult with.

It’s understandable to have questions early in a session and early in the life of an idea. Legislators, Idaho’s ultimate decision-makers and budget writers, are the proper people to vet these proposals. With new school presidents and a new governor coming this year, this may be the ideal time to remake the system. We just want to know that the right questions get asked in the right order, and that Idaho takes the time to get this decision right.

Unsigned editorials represent the opinion of the Statesman Editorial Board.