Marlene Tromp wasted no time and minced no words Wednesday.
Stepping onto the stage of Boise State University’s Velma V. Morrison Center for the Performing Arts — before an audience that filled nearly all of the venue’s 2,037 seats — the university’s new president spoke passionately about free speech.
She lamented a “politically volatile moment” when words are weaponized and speaking out is a sign of bravery, then issued a challenge. “Universities must remain spaces where complex discussions can take place.”
She then reflected on her turbulent start. “We aren’t faultless,” she said, building toward the laugh line. “Sometimes our engagement with one another can cause harm. I’ve had a taste of this myself in the short time I’ve been here. Perhaps you’ve noticed.”
The controversy that has swirled around Tromp since her July 1 arrival is hot-button fodder — ignited by events such as “Rainbow Graduation” and issues such as state scholarships for “Dreamers.” But downplaying the debate is a tempting oversimplification.
The issue boils down to attracting a diverse student population, and helping students adjust to campus and succeed in the classroom. It’s an essential test for public universities and the states they serve.
But political backlash is an inevitable reality of running a public university in 2019. Tromp has responded to her critics by reaching out and listening, while adhering to her core beliefs. The response says a lot about Tromp.
From Green River to Boise
The small city of Green River is tucked into the southwest corner of Wyoming, but it could seamlessly fit into rural Idaho.
Like many communities in Idaho, Green River makes its money off the abundant land that surrounds it. Many of its 12,500 residents rely on jobs in trona ore mining.
Green River skews conservative. In the last presidential election, Sweetwater County, Wyo., supported Republican Donald Trump with a 72.9 percent margin. (Trump eclipsed the 70 percent mark in 17 of Idaho’s 44 counties.)
In many households, college simply isn’t a part of the plan. Less than a third of Sweetwater County’s adults hold a two- or four-year degree, according to the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that tracks college completion rates.
Tromp spent much of her youth in Green River. When she graduated from college, she bucked local demographics and family history. Her father, a miner, attended some college, but she was the first college graduate in the family.
Now 52, Tromp’s vision for higher education reflects her own personal story. She remembers being an overwhelmed undergraduate at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., 800 miles from Green River. There was so much she didn’t know about college, so much to figure out.
She says universities need to do a better job of explaining the value and the versatility of a college degree to rural students and their parents. Students need to see that they can bring a degree back to their hometown. One of Tromp’s ideas, one she has floated with Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, is an internship program that sets up rural students with jobs at home, jobs tied to their majors.
During Wednesday’s state of the university address, Tromp called on her staff to make Boise State a national leader in serving rural students. It was a challenge entirely in character.
“I feel like I’m helping the kind of people I grew up with,” Tromp said in a recent interview.
‘We want students to find a place on campus’
Tromp started at Boise State on July 1.
On July 9, 28 of Idaho’s 56 House Republicans signed a letter to Tromp — calling Boise State’s menu of inclusion and diversity programs divisive and exclusionary. “These initiatives by nature highlight differences and suggest that certain groups are treated unequally now — and that BSU should redress these grievances,” said the letter, written by Rep. Barbara Ehardt of Idaho Falls.
Reactions were swift and divided. Legislative Democrats took their Republican colleagues to task for disinvesting in higher education. A mailer lampooning Tromp bore no signature, a Spokane, Wash., postmark and a drawing of Tromp in clown garb.
While this saga unfolded in the public arena, Tromp responded behind the scenes.
She took an academic’s approach to the firestorm. She said she wanted to understand the root cause of the criticism. As she traveled the state this summer, she met with legislators on their home turf.
She says she learned something in every meeting, and says she felt she was heard at every stop. She now chalks up some of the controversy to confusion — such as the perception that Boise State was holding separate graduation events for black students or LGBT students. And she says the university needs to do a better job of explaining what it does to support all students, not just students of color or LGBT students.
“There are celebrations that cut across many vectors,” she said. “We want students to find a place on campus.”
Grim numbers, big challenges
Helping students find that place on campus isn’t just feel-good stuff. For Idaho’s colleges and universities, it’s an imperative.
The Lumina Foundation’s Idaho numbers are grim. Only 13 percent of Hispanic adults hold a college degree, ranking Idaho last in the nation. Only 20 percent of American Indian adults have a degree. In 25 counties, the college completion rates lag below 30 percent.
These numbers are a far cry from Idaho’s own goal, one based on a different set of metrics. The state wants 60 percent of its 25- to 34-year-olds to finish college or obtain or professional certificate. The rate remains mired at 42 percent.
What happens at Boise State and other campuses will have a huge impact on Idaho’s “60 percent” push. To succeed the state is going to have to attract a new cohort of students into college, and shepherd that cohort through college. That means students of color, rural students and first-generation students.
Boise State is attracting first-generation students; more than a third of its 25,000 students identify themselves as such. But enrolling is only the starting point, a fact not lost on Tromp.
“She’s had a lot of the same experiences that many of our students on campus are facing today,” said Kaleb Smith, president of the Associated Students of Boise State University. “She’s going to fight the fight to make sure that they are successful.”
‘She wants to learn about everybody’
Smith served on the presidential search committee that screened applicants, including Tromp. He has met with Tromp a couple of times since her arrival, and he anticipates a good year ahead. Most of all, he said, students want a president who will listen to their needs.
“She really does make an effort to meet people where they’re at,” he said. “I think she wants to learn about everybody, and that’s a really cool thing for a leader to display.”
Tromp also has earned praise from her adversaries.
In June, before Tromp’s arrival at Boise State, Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman voiced his skepticism. “The fact that she has described herself in interviews as motivated by ‘social justice’ makes one wonder,” he wrote at the time. The conservative lobbying group remains steadfast in opposition to inclusion and diversity programs, but has softened its view of Tromp.
“President Tromp is a breath of fresh air, an active and vibrant voice who is willing to engage in difficult discussions,” spokesman Dustin Hurst said this week. “Plus, her story is nothing short of inspiring and she should be recognized for her dedication, perseverance, and, quite frankly, grit. …
“Our hopes are high that President Tromp will shake up the campus culture, challenge every expense to keep costs low for students, and protect free speech and inquiry.”
On her tour to meet with legislators, Tromp visited the Star home of House Majority Leader Mike Moyle — a powerful Statehouse veteran who has made bluntness a political brand.
“She’s a nice gal,” Moyle said this week. “The fact that she’s been open to discuss things has been awesome.”
Moyle signed the July 8 letter, and believes legislators and university officials are both on a learning curve. He still believes the universities should drop some inclusion programs, but he declined to elaborate.
“We’ll wait and see what happens,” he said.
Moyle says the news media overlooked a key theme from the July 8 letter: college affordability. It’s not quite that clearcut. Lawmakers say the Boise State diversity programs drive up college costs, but university officials say grants and corporate donations pay many of these bills.
But as the letter accurately notes, in-state tuition at Boise State will increase by 4.9 percent this year, eclipsing the $8,000 mark. While the State Board of Education signed off on this number — the latest in an uninterrupted string of increases — board President Debbie Critchfield has said it’s time for universities to contain costs.
Ultimately, university presidents answer to the State Board.
Tromp knows about the affordability problem personally. As a student, she juggled two jobs to stay afloat.
Institutional solutions can take several forms.
Tromp likes the State Board’s ideas about streamlining administrative functions and cutting overhead; as a veteran of the powerful University of California system, she says she knows universities can use their purchasing power to drive down costs. She says Boise State has to build up its own in-house scholarship offerings. She wants to use private donations to bankroll university programs, freeing up other dollars for financial aid.
Idaho’s tuition costs remain among the lowest in the nation, but Tromp takes only so much comfort in that fact. Again, it comes down to perception.
“It doesn’t matter where we rate if students don’t feel they can get access to education,” she said.
‘We cannot remain outside the fray’
Two years after taking a job as UC-Santa Cruz’s provost and executive vice president, Tromp said she had no thoughts of leaving. But she says she couldn’t pass up the chance to lead Boise State, a growing university that has an opportunity to innovate. So she moved this year, with her 91-year-old mother and her 17-year-old son to Boise.
“I couldn’t resist your magnetic pull,” Tromp said during Wednesday’s address.
Consider this the infatuation phase.
Tromp received rock-star treatment Wednesday: bookend standing ovations, several rounds of applause. Perhaps the loudest came when Tromp revisited the issue of free expression: “I don’t want a student to set foot on this campus and feel they can’t speak.”
For her part, Tromp praised the Boise State community for work that preceded her arrival: accommodating record enrollment, building its research mission and receiving “glowing praise” from national accreditors.
But Tromp has no interest in complacency. She spent a good deal of her speech pacing the stage and exhorting her new university community to step up. To better explain the value of a college degree. To find new ways to deliver an education. To counter the perception — predominant in conservative circles — that a college education costs too much and pushes a political ideology.
“We cannot remain outside the fray,” she said. “The faith of the mainstream in higher education has diminished.”
Even in the infatuation phase, Tromp is wasting no time and mincing no words.