University presidents pledge collaboration during all-star panel discussion

For perhaps the first time all year, Gov. Brad Little was not the main attraction during an Idaho speaking engagement.

On Tuesday night, Little moderated a “fireside chat” with college and university presidents during Boise Startup Week. The very nature of the program flipped the normal script. The chance to watch Little ask the questions — as opposed to answer them — surely attracted some of the dozens of entrepreneurs and tech gurus in the audience.

But the real draw was the chance to watch Boise State President Marlene Tromp, University of Idaho President Scott Green, Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee and College of Idaho co-President Jim Everett and Little, all on the same stage, all interacting cordially and pledging to work together to increase Idaho’s college go-on rate and prepare the next generation’s workforce.

“I don’t know if this has ever happened before in Idaho,” Little said, speculating it may have been the first time the general public could watch so many heavy-hitters talk strategy and policy from the same stage.

The one-hour chat was geared toward entrepreneurs, and the dominant themes were the power of collaboration, the value of research and innovation and the urgent need to increase Idahoans’ education attainment.

“Idaho has plenty of high school graduates, but they are not going on right now,” Satterlee said. “That is what we need to impact right now.”

Everett agreed.

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“We have got to talk about going on… to something,” he said. “High school is not enough in the world we’re heading into.”

Tromp said there will be obstacles along the way.

“We’re in a moment where there is a lack of faith in higher education and the impact it has,” she said.

The seeds for that discussion were actually planted during an earlier panel at Startup Week, when four Idaho execs were asked whether the biggest problem they faced was the ability to attract talented employees or access investment capital.

“Talent,” Brad Wiskirchen, CEO of Kount fraud prevention, said without hesitating. “There is a dearth of that here.”

Referencing her background as a former waitress, a small-town Wyoming native and the daughter of a mineral miner, Tromp pledged to use her story to recruit students and demonstrate the value of education. Although the go-on rate in Green River, Wyo., was not as high as other communities, those who pursued higher education became judges, surgeons, anesthesiologists, government officials and, yes, a university president, Tromp said.

“I know what kind of talent is in those communities,” she said. “I want to go into these communities and churn them out to you.”

The context of Tuesday’s meeting is important. Idaho has recently undergone unprecedented leadership changes at the higher education level.  The State Board has hired four new university presidents in about a year: Satterlee, Lewis-Clark State College’s Cynthia Pemberton, Green and, most recently, Tromp. During that transition, Idaho legislators largely held off on implementing major higher education policy changes. In that regard Tuesday night felt like a significant moment.

The real question is what will state leaders do with this moment, and where will it take Idaho’s education system?

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