In a time of transition, presidents discuss challenges and opportunities

Showing no parochialism or favoritism, a roomful of business leaders and legislators applauded the presidents of Idaho’s four-year institutions.

But the crowd saved its most robust applause for a mention of a statewide tuition freeze.

“It is the right thing to do,” said Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee, during a Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce legislative forum Thursday. “This really came out of the fact that among the four of us there is a genuine commitment to the needs of our students.”

Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee fields a question during a Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce forum. He is joined, from left, by Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton, University of Idaho President C. Scott Green and Boise State University President Marlene Tromp. (Sami Edge, Idaho Education News.)

Satterlee shared the stage with Boise State University President Marlene Tromp, University of Idaho President C. Scott Green and Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton, to discuss the future of higher education in Idaho.

The forum — and the 2020 legislative session — comes at a transitional time for higher education in Idaho.

All four presidents are new; Satterlee and Pemberton were hired in 2018 and Tromp and Green were hired in 2019.

The four institutions also face budget cuts — some cuts ordered by Gov. Brad Little, and deeper cuts designed to erase a $14 million shortfall at the U of I.

Meanwhile, the institutions agreed to freeze in-state undergraduate tuition next year, for perhaps the first time in state history. That means the institutions will do without millions of dollars they would ordinarily collect from tuition hikes; for 2019-20, they will receive $16 million from tuition increases.

During a brief question-and-answer session, the presidents focused instead on other challenges and opportunities.

Green said universities have to fill a unique niche or provide a low-cost option — or risk being left behind. The challenge could be even more acute in Idaho, as schools in other states will look to recruit high school graduates from a growing state. “We’re all going to be fighting for a smaller pool (of students).”

Tromp sees an opportunity in one piece of an otherwise flat budget request from Little: $1 million to develop a cybersecurity program at Boise State, U of I and ISU. Tromp hopes the program could make Idaho a national cybersecurity leader, creating clean industry for small towns across Idaho.

Pemberton said Lewis-Clark is already serving Idaho’s needs; 80 percent of its students come from Idaho and 60 percent of its graduates stay here. But Pemberton urged business leaders to work more closely with her college, helping to align academic programs with a changing economy.

Thursday’s forum was a scene-setter of sorts for the presidents. They will be back in two weeks for “Education Week” at the Statehouse, speaking to the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and the Legislature’s education committees.

Coming Jan. 21: Idaho Education News’ Kevin Richert and Idaho Public Television’s Joan Cartan-Hansen will co-host an hour-long program examining the future of education in Idaho. The program will air on Jan. 21, and will feature a panel discussion with the four college and university presidents.

Kevin Richert

About 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 KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at krichert@idahoednews.org

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