Writings and observations

Among the more peculiar pieces of legislation at the Oregon session this year is House Bill 2442 – “Prohibits use of word “independent in name of major or minor political party.”

It seems an odd and arbitrary choice. You could as well ban the use of the words “Democratic” or “Republican” since those are basic descriptors of our form of government. But those are the parties in power, and the Independent Party of Oregon, while growing at a rapid clip (and it may have had some effect on some major-party races last year), is still well shot of major-party status. And has few shields against snipes form the major parties, including shots aimed maybe at its heart.

The House Rules Committee held a hearing on the bill this afternoon. One Republican candidate who won the party’s cross-nomination last time, in opposition to the bill, said there are reasons people are attracted to other than the major parties – including a lot of younger people.

Linda Williams of Portland, one of the founders of the Independent party, pointed out that her group has explicitly described itself as a party, not as a category for non-affiliateds. “I’m a little skeptical if people who tell me that’s very confusing,” she said. The party has invested a lot of time, money and publicity, after all, in promoting itself under its banner.

But the new bill may be specially problematic because of the likelihood that it’s unconstitutional.

Sal Peralta, one of the party’s organizers, said he wasn’t sure how seriously to take the bill since it seemed so clearly unconstitutional. (Two former secretaries of state suggested that it probably ran afoul of the constitution.) “This bill is cynical political mischief at its worst,” Peralta quoted. (He also pointed out that the current Independent Party isn’t the first with that name in Oregon; one set up by Ross Perot did so as well.)

“There is no apparent proponent of the bill signed up to testify,” the chair, Representative Dave Hunt said, and the backing of it remains a little unclear. No legislator visibly supporter it as a sponsor. (There was some suggestion that it came from an interim committee, but that idea was spiked by a member of the interim committee.) Hunt acknowledged that the lack of visible support was a little unusual.

Representative Chris Garrett D-Lake Oswego said it was “inherently confusing” that the party called itself “independent” in the face of lots of voters who consider themselves independents. Might a quarter of the party members really think of themselves as lower-case independents?

Williams said that the party ran surveys to that effect – to try to sift out people who didn’t think of themselves as member of an Independent Party. They simply didn’t find a significant number of them. “People make mistakes with forms all the time,” she said. “If someone had intended to be nonaffiliated voter,” she said, they would not have been deprived of any voting opportunity. Where, exactly, is the harm?

A committee decision on the bill still lies ahead.

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Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Ten years ago, if anyone asked which university in this state was the “flagship” institution of higher ed, the top undergraduate and graduate school, the state’s Land Grant school, the University of Idaho at Moscow, would have been the response.

Today that is not the perception. Many Idaho residents, especially in the Treasure Valley where one-third of the state’s population resides, would without hesitation say, Boise State University. The fact is indisputable: people equate success on the football field and the hardwood court to dominance as an educational institution.

Boise State’s remarkable run of success in imprinting itself not just on the consciousness of the state but the nation as well, as a legitimate contender for the national championship in Division I football, is rewarded. And those rewards are tangible in greater donations from alumni and student applications.

You have to doff your hat to the five-year strategic game plan conceived, implemented and executed by BSU president Bob Kustra. He and his staff have even done a brilliant job of changing perceptions by little things, such as always referring to the school as Boise State University. Rarely does one hear or see in print a reference to BSU, or the initials. Even the logo on the football helmets changed.

If nothing else, one has to concede that President Kustra and his team know how to market success.

To a large extent, Idaho’s Legislature and Board of Education have bought into the perception that BSU is No. 1, a notion that has been fostered skillfully. The bottom line is Boise State appears to have garnered ever more of the diminishing pie of state support. Without question, the highest paid person on a public payroll in Idaho is Boise State’s football coach, Chris Peterson.

Most of the time, perception is reality. In the world of academia, however, reality is the ranking of universities in terms of real dollars expended for research and in attendant doctoral offerings. Here is where the rubber meets the road.

Despite new marketing programs that tout Boise State as a research university, the facts belie the claim. It is here where even the adoring Idaho Legislature is shirking its responsibility to decently fund Idaho higher education. The consequence is a real dearth of Idaho’s top students attending its leading universities; they chose to seek their higher education out of state, and usually never to return.

Idaho’s major businesses can also be indicted for getting caught up in the fervor of football success, largely ignoring that the state’s system of higher education isn’t producing the quality workforce many of these businesses need to succeed in the world marketplace.

There are eight classifications that academia follows in ranking colleges and universities, put out by the prestigious Carnegie Institute. The highest category is for research universities, private schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Rice and public schools like the Universities of Washington, Michigan and California.

The next category, the second highest, are universities with high research activity.

The University of Idaho and, surprisingly, Idaho State University, despite being constantly subjected to less state support, are in this second tier.

When the list came out this year some observers were surprised by ISU because the Pocatello school has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country (16%) and its enrollment declined 2.5% this year from last.

The enrollment decline for ISU was predictable as the state stood by and watched as the LDS Church converted the two-year Ricks College in Rexburg into Brigham Young University-Idaho with four-year course offerings and graduate-level courses. BYU-Idaho’s enrollment is approximately that of ISU with the Mormon school on the rise and ISU on the decline.

And where is Boise State University? Carnegie puts it in the fourth of eight tiers where it is classified neither as a research or a doctoral university but rather master’s colleges and universities (larger programs).

Those are the facts. No amount of football success, marketing, or political cheerleading can erase this academic evaluation. It will take real dollars invested in real research tied to real doctoral programs. The perception may be that BSU is the flagship. The reality is that the University of Idaho retains the title as far as the world of academia is concerned.

The real question, though, given declining state support, is how long Idaho and ISU can even retain the second-tier status, let alone a flagship designation?

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