Staben sees ‘some opportunity’ in higher ed CEO proposal

Gov. Butch Otter’s “CEO” proposal is a “pretty reasonable” approach to streamlining Idaho’s higher education system, University of Idaho President Chuck Staben said Friday.

“I actually see some opportunity here,” Staben told Idaho Education News in an interview.

The “chief education officer” would have the job of scrutinizing administrative functions — such as IT, purchasing and personnel — and looking for savings. That money would be moved into student scholarship and academic support.

Staben says this idea is consistent with what Otter’s higher education task force discussed in 2017 — streamlining the universities’ “back office” operations. Staben and other Idaho college and university presidents served on the task force.

Still, the CEO idea has divided fellow university presidents who served on the Otter task force. Retiring Boise State University President Bob Kustra is skeptical about the potential for savings. Outgoing Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas says the move could be a step toward bringing a more businesslike approach to higher education.

On Monday, several lawmakers on the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee asked pointed questions about the plan — which includes $500,000 in one-time money to hire a consultant, and $269,500 for the CEO’s salary and benefits package. And on Friday, Staben conceded that a lack of detail is affecting the debate.

“I think we have to work out exactly what that initiative looks like,” he said.

JFAC spent its traditional “Education Week” studying budget requests from the colleges and universities, the State Board of Education and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra. For higher education, the budget picture is a mixed bag. Staben and other university presidents have praised Otter for seeking a $5 million increase in college scholarships. However, several university requests didn’t make the Otter budget proposal, to the chagrin of some budget-writers.

Otter zeroed out two U of I budget requests: $1.8 million for the university library, and $300,000 to hire counseling staff to work with students with autism spectrum disorders. The staffing needs are more urgent, Staben said. Last year, university counselors served 1,256 students, or 11 percent of the student body.

“Nobody dies when you can’t check out a library book, or at least it’s rare,” Staben said. “Counseling services are pretty critical.”

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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