Business executives push for ‘higher ed CEO’

Idaho needs to spend some money to save money.

That’s the recommendation from seven Idaho business executives.

They say Idaho should spend about $2.5 million of taxpayer money to launch a “higher education CEO” office in 2018-19. The CEO could save the state untold millions by streamlining day-to-day operations on Idaho’s campuses, they say.

“This is a massively complex and difficult undertaking, and an effective (CEO) is critical,” the executives said in a Sept. 27 letter to Gov. Butch Otter. “Unless the new leadership imperative is approached with seriousness, urgency and a deep understanding of the nature of the work and change management, the probability of success will decline to near zero.”

Otter is noncommittal, spokesman Jon Hanian said Tuesday.

But the push for a higher education CEO grew out of Otter’s task force on higher education.

The seven executives who signed the letter served on the task force, a 36-member group assigned to rethink the state’s higher education system and help Idaho improve its languid college graduation rate.

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One of the group’s 12 recommendations was to look to centralize the schools’ “back office functions,” such as payroll, human resources and IT.

Bob Lokken, co-chair of Gov. Butch Otter’s higher education task force, is among seven Idaho business executives pushing for a “higher ed CEO.”

That’s where a CEO needs to enter the picture, say the executives. They don’t necessarily envision someone with a higher education background. They want someone with experience leading institutions through change, said Bob Lokken, a former CEO of WhiteCloud Analytics in Boise, and co-chair of Otter’s higher education task force.

And without a skilled administrator running the process, a restructuring campaign would disrupt the state’s university system, and wouldn’t save the state much money anyway.

“The cost of failure is extremely high,” Lokken said Tuesday.

The potential savings are hard to calculate. A CEO’s office would probably spend the first six to 12 months simply studying Idaho’s higher education system and looking for areas to consolidate.

Other states have tried similar consolidation efforts. Maine was forced to reduce higher education costs during the Great Recession, and still had to cut 800 jobs from the university system, Lokken said. In a stable economy, Idaho can take a “measured” approach to consolidation, and apply its savings to student scholarships or other initiatives.

The executives took pains to recommend a CEO — and not a chancellor to oversee the entire university system. A switch to a chancellor system could affect everything from academics to the branding of the state’s universities.

“We just thought it was an unnecessarily disruptive move,” Lokken said.

Gov. Butch Otter will unveil his 12th and final executive budget proposal on Jan. 8. It’s unclear whether the CEO proposal will make the cut.

Ultimately, it will be up to Otter and the 2018 Legislature to decide whether to fund a CEO’s position — and perhaps at $2.5 million, which Lokken pegs as a ballpark figure.

Otter has the next move. He will unveil his budget proposal on Jan. 8, when he delivers his 12th and final state of the state address. As is custom, Otter isn’t tipping his hand.

“The governor has all the recommendations from the higher ed task force under consideration but will not be discussing his priorities until the state of the state address,” Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said.

In addition to Lokken, six other task force members signed the letter: David Pate, CEO, St. Luke’s Health System; Skip Oppenheimer, CEO, Oppenheimer Companies Inc.; Park Price, former chairman, Bank of Idaho; Mike Mooney, retired Idaho president, Bank of the Cascades; Kurt Liebich, CEO, Redbuilt Inc.; and Steve Myer, partner, Parkwood Business Properties.

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