From the Opinion Editor

CWI hitting reset button on identity may be exasperating, but recent open dialogue can help

In many ways, the College of Western Idaho is like a teenager hitting a growth spurt who doesn’t yet know what he wants to be when he grows up (hat tip to CWI VP of communications Mark Browning for the analogy). And (channeling my own upbringing) he’s trying to please everybody all the time.

CWI trustees on Tuesday had what I thought was a productive workshop to discuss the fast-growing community college’s building needs. In the end, it evolved into a discussion about CWI’s identity.

CWI officials have tried twice now to pass a bond or a levy to build new buildings, including a health sciences building on its Nampa campus. A $180 million bond to build a series of buildings, including a new campus on 10 acres in the West End of Boise, narrowly failed to garner a two-thirds supermajority, and then a smaller $47 million levy to build a new health sciences building fell 133 votes shy of receiving 55 percent of the vote.

Among the topics at Tuesday’s workshop was why CWI was focusing on health sciences. Surveys of needs and studies of in-demand careers put health sciences at the top of just about every list CWI looked at, going back years.

But trustee Annie Hightower rightly pointed out that while the surveys, polls and lists all suggested victory, in the end, voters said no.

Former longtime trustee Stan Bastian, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said it’s OK to consider the desires of the students, the faculty, the staff, what the community says it wants and all the lists of high-demand careers, but in the end, you really have to consider what voters are willing to approve.

This got me thinking about the Statesman editorial board’s conversation a couple of months ago with Idaho State University president Kevin Satterlee, who said every school has to have its identity. University of Idaho has law school covered, for example, so there’s no need for another school to try to enter that space. In a lot of ways, ISU has made a name for itself in the health sciences field.

If there is such a thing as a collective mood of the voter, I would suggest that the health sciences building failed at the polls because the voters collectively hesitated on Election Day and said, “No, I don’t really see CWI doing that. That’s not their schtick.”

So what is CWI’s schtick, its talent, what it’s known for?

That seemed to be where Tuesday’s discussion was headed, and it was great to see trustees working toward a real conversation, thinking out loud, as it were. Hopefully, they can have more of that open dialogue.

Trustee Mark Dunham, who’s been on the board since the beginning, said CWI has always been envisioned as a multi-campus institution, with a presence in Canyon County and a presence in Ada County. But he conceded Tuesday that maybe trustees should talk about the possibility of one campus in Canyon County. That may be the right answer; it may not be. But it’s a good sign that they’re considering all their possibilities.

Personally, if I had to read the tea leaves, my sense is that CWI is seen primarily as a trades school, teaching things like carpentry, HVAC technician, truck driving, mechanic, construction management, CNC machining. Those are high-demand jobs, especially locally, and I recall that the trades were a big part of the discussion back in 2007 when voters approved the college.

It may seem exasperating to hit the reset button and start thinking about identity. But as CWI has grown from zero students to 34,000 students in just 10 years, it’s clear the college is trying to be everything to everybody. In the end, it might be better to pick a niche, whatever that niche may be, and run with it.

I stand corrected: VP of operations Craig Brown, for whom I have tremendous respect, made a strong point during Tuesday’s work session to correct the record about something I wrote in my column a few weeks ago, and the correction is noted. I know it’s a point of contention and a sore spot. I wrote that CWI did not get an appraisal before purchasing its 10-acre parcel in Boise’s West End. Brown pointed out CWI signed a purchase agreement, which allowed the college to then do due diligence, including getting an appraisal, which the college did before actually finalizing the purchase of the property. Duly noted.

Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.

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Always full of opinions and tolerant of others, Scott McIntosh is the opinions editor for the Idaho Statesman. He has won dozens of state and national awards, including Best Editorial from the Idaho Press Club for 2017.
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