New details, and a fast rewrite: the U of I updates its Phoenix messaging

The University of Idaho has updated its “frequently asked questions” page on the University of Phoenix purchase.

And in one case, the U of I rewrote the page, days after an Idaho Education News story called the university’s facts into question.

Here are a few new nuggets and highlights:

Legal advice from Hawley Troxell, the U of I’s pricey outside counsel:

The U of I attached a July Hawley Troxell memo to the FAQ page. A few items of note:

  • Hawley Troxell basically rejects any constitutional challenges to the Phoenix purchase. The Boise law firm says the State Board of Education — acting as the U of I’s board of regents — has “ample powers” to create a separate nonprofit to buy Phoenix; acquire assets through the nonprofit; allow the nonprofit to issue debt to finance the Phoenix deal; and use “university liabilities” to backstop the nonprofit’s financing plan.
  • Even though the U if I is agreeing to backstop the financing — at up to $10 million per year — Hawley Troxell contends that the nonprofit’s debt cannot “migrate” and become the state’s debt.
  • The university’s nondisclosure agreements with Phoenix were legal. “Nothing in Idaho law prohibits public entities from entering into such nondisclosure agreements.”

Hawley Troxell is a key player in the Phoenix saga. As Idaho Education News reported this week, the U of I paid the firm close to $200,000 for the first half of the year — for largely unexplained legal work.

Comparing the Phoenix purchase to the U of I’s troubled University Place project:

This has been an elephant in the room since May, when the news of the $685 million Phoenix purchase first hit the streets.

Critics have drawn unsavory parallels to University Place and the Water Center, the U of I’s troubled Downtown Boise campus project from the early 2000s.

Turns out that U of I President C. Scott Green, an accountant by trade, has written a book on the topic. (Or, parts of two books.) So here’s the U of I response, in full.

“President Green has written on this topic in one of his two previously published books and more recently on university management issues in a book currently under production that should be published at the end of the year. The president fully understands the flawed structure and execution of the Water Center project.

“But the two projects could not be more different. The Water Center was a real estate development project over 20 years ago that ran into financial trouble due to prolific spending and conflicts of interest between the U of I Foundation and the university, the most notable being that the CFO of the university was also the CFO of the Foundation and was moving money back and forth between the two entities and spending millions in pre-construction costs without oversight. University administrators chose to do all the work themselves, excluding their own general counsel and did not bring independent consultants in to advise. President Green has been involved in high-dollar transactions his entire career and firmly believes the initiative to affiliate with University of Phoenix is quite different from the Water Center. This is a transaction to buy a profitable business and benefit from its technologies and online support strengths. The university brought in the brightest minds to ensure the new entity is set up under modern corporate governance and risk mitigation standards.

“The only thing about this project that resembles University Place and the Water Center is that it involves the University of Idaho.”

A new and rewritten timetable:

The U of I quietly deleted and rewrote a section of the FAQs, which said Phoenix first approached the university about a purchase in March.

The U of I made the change days after EdNews published a story — based on public records received through the university — that refuted this original timetable.

This is, evidently, a sore point for Green. In an email to alumni Tuesday, Green accused EdNews of publishing a “negative narrative” about the negotiations process. But his email — and the rewritten FAQ page — clearly changes the U of I’s official account, and aligns with EdNews’ report.

From the new FAQs: “We were first approached in early February 2023, and while there were preliminary discussions with the seller and the sellers’ representatives to understand the opportunity and determine if it was something we would be interested in, we entered into negotiations and due diligence in earnest mid-March.”

On the Legislature’s role …

The FAQs address a touchy political question — one that came up during a Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee oversight hearing in June: Why didn’t the U of I engage with legislators on the possible purchase?

“This opportunity came to us unexpectedly and very close to the time it was made public. … Until the week of March 22, 2023, there simply was not enough common ground found with the seller to have a meaningful conversation.

“While some may now suggest that a slower, more public process would have been preferred, this transaction moved at the speed of business to get us to this point — the point where we were able to agree to terms with the seller and could fully recognize the potential of this platform for all of Idaho.”

… and on future legislative budget decisions:

The FAQs later broach another touchy question. If the U of I receives a flow of newfound revenue through Phoenix — say, $10 million, a year — could the budget-writers on JFAC simply cut the state’s U of I appropriation to match?

The U of I concedes that such a zero-sum approach is possible. “but we don’t believe that is what the Legislature wants to do. …

“U of I is simply engaging in a unique opportunity to supplement the state dollars and provide an even greater economic return back to the state for that continued investment. … We would hope the Legislature would want to work with us to be successful.”

On Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s lawsuit, alleging the State Board’s closed-door discussions of the Phoenix purchase violated open meeting law:

The U of I didn’t say how the lawsuit might affect the Phoenix project. “This may take time to work its way through the courts, but our board believes they will prevail.”

A hearing on a motion to dismiss the suit is scheduled for Aug. 10.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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