Kustra suggests change to higher education structure

Bob Kustra floated a change in higher education governance Monday — appointing boards of regents to set budgets and hire university presidents.

The retiring Boise State University president said boards would give Idaho universities a powerful core of local advocates, and ease the burden on an overworked State Board of Education.

During a luncheon address to business leaders — sponsored by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce — Kustra didn’t endorse the change outright. He instead urged the chamber and Idaho Business for Education to study the idea.

Kustra is retiring June 30, ending a 15-year run at Idaho’s largest university. The tenor and the setting of Monday’s luncheon suggested a farewell of sorts. Speaking at Albertsons Stadium’s Steuckle Sky Center — one of the many building projects that have transformed Boise State’s skyline since 2003 — Kustra said he wanted to avoid talking about budget shortfalls and a need to restructure the universities’ funding formula.

But he did say the state has faced a “perfect storm” over the past year. Kustra was one of three presidents to announce their retirement in 2017. While the State Board has found new presidents for Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College, the Boise State job remains on the market. Former provost Martin Schimpf will succeed Kustra on an interim basis while the State Board starts a new search.

Now the State Board has to fill yet another high-profile vacancy, since University of Idaho President Chuck Staben is stepping down in 2019.

Kustra didn’t criticize the State Board for the aborted search for his successor. Instead, he said the board has too many responsibilities — setting K-12 policy, overseeing Idaho Public Television and assorted other agencies and serving, at least in name, as the state’s board of regents.

“Give me a break,” Kustra said. “That’s not for real. That can’t work.”

A local board of regents could assume some tasks that now fall to the State Board, such as hiring or firing presidents or setting tuition rates. A governor could appoint regents, or the regents could appoint their own colleagues.

An appointed board of regents is common practice. Most private colleges and universities have them, Kustra said, as do public colleges in universities in many other states. Even Idaho has a similar model; elected trustees govern the state’s community colleges.

Kustra’s pitch for local boards comes as some state leaders are rethinking the state’s higher education structure.

Last year, a gubernatorial task force pushed for an overhaul of the higher ed system — recommending a streamlined, systemwide approach to administrative functions. Kustra and other university presidents served on this task force.

At the urging of business leaders, Gov. Butch Otter took the streamlining idea a step further. He made an unsuccessful bid for a higher education “chief education officer” to consolidate functions such as IT, personnel or purchasing, and move the savings into scholarships or other programs for students. Kustra opposed the idea, to Otter’s chagrin.

But now, as Kustra and Otter both near their retirement, any hard feelings were set aside Monday. As Otter watched from the head table, Kustra said he enjoyed working with the governor during his three terms in office.

Kustra also praised two other local leaders. He said Boise Mayor Dave Bieter gave Boise State the partner it needed in local government. He credited College of Western Idaho President Bert Glandon with creating an academic “force” over the past decade.

And Kustra reflected on his own time in Boise — a city he knew little about when he applied for the president’s vacancy.

“This has been such a tremendous opportunity for us,” he said.



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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