Lifelong Idahoan takes on challenging presidential position

POCATELLO — Kevin Satterlee thumbed through a stack of old family photos in his new office at Idaho State University.

In one, his great grandfather, a logger, stands next to a hulking stack of felled timber. In another, men pull a struggling lumberjack from a logjam in the Priest River in North Idaho, where some of Satterlee’s ancestors helped transport logs to a mill downstream.

“If you fell off you’d get trapped under the logs,” said Satterlee, a lifelong Idahoan who graduated from high school, college and law school in the Gem State. “That’s when people died.”

For Satterlee, a self-described amateur historian, the photos provide a glimpse into Idaho’s past. They also reflect some of the challenges he sees as the new president of a university beset with its own range of struggles.

“I have a very difficult job,” said Satterlee, who last month officially became ISU’s 13th president. “But if I can surmount any of the challenges we have (at ISU), it’s nothing compared to what (my ancestors) did.”

Satterlee recently sat down with Idaho Ed News to discuss some of those challenges, including controversial enrollment drops that have nabbed national headlines and contributed what he calls a “financial crisis” at the university.

He hopes a renewed push to attract and retain students and promote the value of higher education will, with time, fuel a turnaround.

“Higher education has a story to tell,” Satterlee said. “We have to make sure the value is clear if we want things to improve.”

Enrollment declines have fueled ISU’s financial woes

Outgoing ISU president Arthur Vailas outlined his budget request to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in January. Idaho’s overall increase in college enrollment has defied a downward national trend in recent years. But not at ISU, Vailas reported.

The university’s fall student headcount had come in at 12,505, down more than 400 students from 2016-17. As a result, Valias expected 2017-18 tuition and fee collections to fall $6.1 million short of projections. Vailas’s replacement would have to weather the shortfall.

The exodus of hundreds of Mideast students had contributed to the situation. At one point, nearly 1,200 Saudi and Kuwaiti students had enrolled at ISU. Supported largely by foreign scholarship programs, these students brought in up to $20,000 per head in annual tuition, replacing income lost from previous declines in enrollment and state funding.

University leaders welcomed the foreign influx of money, despite criticism from some faculty members, including one who likened the Mideast students to ATM machines.

The increased revenue didn’t last. In 2016, the New York Times reported that deep funding cuts to a major foreign scholarship program and a cultural clash between the foreign enrollees and community members were enticing Mideast students to leave ISU.

Decreased enrollment accompanied another factor. Over the past four decades, state leaders have engineered a conscious and continuing cost shift. They now expect students and their parents to pick up a greater share of the cost of college.

Enrollment declines and languishing state support hit ISU “all at once,” Satterlee said, adding, “It’s not just a crisis for Idaho State, but for higher ed in Idaho.”

‘Enrollment needs to be our No. 1 priority’

Satterlee said he saw “opportunity” and “promise” amid ISU’s enrollment and financial struggles.

“This is the presidency I applied for,” he told the Idaho State Journal after being hired. “I didn’t have resumes all over the country looking for a presidency. I wanted to come here and help Idaho State University.”

To counteract enrollment declines and state funding cuts, Satterlee is setting his sights on ways to attract more students.

“Enrollment needs to be our No. 1 priority,” he said.

Though Satterlee said he’s still getting a sense for how to do that, he supports student-outreach programs already in place at the university, including one aimed at building relationships with high schoolers in rural East Idaho. The university’s on-campus dual credit offerings are also growing, and could expand further this year.

More than anything, however, Satterlee stressed the need for a paradigm shift in the way people view higher education today.

“Higher education used to be viewed as an investment,” he said, adding that he believes many modern scientific innovations, civil reforms and technological advancements have stemmed largely from an influx of college students benefiting from the GI Bill signed by President Franklin Roosevelt after World War II.

For Satterlee, the emphasis on higher education isn’t as strong as it was in decades past.

“We put more through college than ever and look what happened,” Satterlee said. “That’s the philosophy that we have to start hitting home on again.”

Satterlee takes a longterm approach on improvements

Noticeable enrollment increases will take time — at least four years, Satterlee estimates. He’s not expecting the numbers to jump by this fall.

“I got here in June,” Satterlee said. “There’s only so much we can get done before fall. In higher ed, we harvest seeds years later.”

Still, Satterlee said some short-term wins will accompany the broader push to attract and retain students. He’s already committed to one: replacing the university’s iconic orange “I” that once graced a hill overlooking campus. Officials had the “I” removed in 2014. Despite periodic plans to replace it, it never happened.

Similar fixes will provide a sense that things are moving forward, Satterlee said, “but what’s really important is the longterm view.”

‘He really likes challenges’

State Board president Linda Clark defended Satterlee’s hiring in response to claim’s that the ISU presidential search process had failed this spring.

Satterlee is a “a top-tier leader with the experience, skill and vision to build Idaho State for the future,” Clark wrote in an editorial to the local paper. Clark bolstered her support for Satterlee with endorsing statements from Pocatello’s mayor, an ISU alumnus and a local business owner.

One ISU official, who’s “still getting to know” Satterlee, said one attribute is obvious.

“I can tell he really likes challenges,” said Stuart Summers, ISU’s associate vice president of marketing and communications.

Satterlee — whose educational background is in law, not education — admits he likes a good challenge.

“The magnitude of my job can be a bit overwhelming, but I’m coming in energized,” he said.

More on Satterlee’s background

Here’s a look at Satterlee’s professional experience:

  • Chief Operating Officer at Boise State University since 2015.
  • BSU vice president since 2010.
  • Deputy attorney general in the Idaho attorney general’s office for six years. While there, he was lead counsel to the State Board of Education, State Board of Pharmacy, State Board of Nursing, and the State Liquor Dispensary.
  • Special counsel to the president at BSU.

Satterlee graduated from Priest River Lamanna High School in North Idaho, received his bachelor’s degree in political science from BSU and was named a “Top 10 Scholar” of the university. He received a law degree from the University of Idaho.

Satterlee will earn $370,000 a year as ISU’s president. His predecessor, Vailas, earned $392,000 per year.

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