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Carlson: The flagship?

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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  1. BrandenDurst BrandenDurst April 13, 2011

    While the point made is accurate, it is missing a huge factor. Boise State WANTS to be a research institution. Unfortunately, OSBE and Idaho Legislature aren’t willing to let it become a research institution. The fact is that BSU can’t start doctoral programs without financial support from the Legislature and approval from OSBE. This problem could very easily be solved in the Legislature were to pass a law requiring funding equalization for all public universities on a per student basis. In other words, if BSU got its fair share, there would be no problem funding doctoral programs and BSU would quickly become the largest research university in Idaho. That is meant to denegrate U of I or ISU, but simply points out the reality of the situation.

  2. Alan in Boise Alan in Boise April 17, 2011

    The column asserts that “Boise State appears to have garnered ever more of the diminishing pie of state support” but, in fact, Brandon Durst is correct. For all of its history Boise State has received fewer dollars per student than the University of Idaho or Idaho State. This is not because the other institutions have more students in expensive programs; both external studies and the Board’s own studies have shown that a student taking English 101 at Boise State is supported by fewer state dollars than a student taking the same course at U. of I. or I.S.U. The same with Math 108 or French 202 or any course which is given at all three universities. People in southwestern Idaho should be asking the State Board of Education why their students are less important than the others.

    The main problem is that Boise State is growing, U. of I. is stagnant, and I.S.U. is shrinking, but state allocations don’t reflect that. My personal sense is that the State Board feels that it is just too expensive to bring Boise State to comparable funding and it is absolutely unwilling to hurt U. of I. or I.S.U. in order to provide fairness for the newest and fastest growing member of the system.

    The Carnegie classifications basically measure how many doctoral programs a university has and how many doctoral graduates (or master’s degrees and master’s graduates for some classifications). If Boise State had fair funding that reflected its enrollment, it would be in the same classification as the other two state universities.

    By the way, Chris Peterson’s salary is primarily paid from private donations to the athletic program; he is hardly proof that Boise State is receiving an increasing part of the state pie. Try checking the AAUP figures for faculty salaries at the three institutions. and scan down to Idaho. They’re all pathetic, but Boise State is definitely not doing any better than the other two.

  3. Will Will April 18, 2011

    Isn’t Kustra the one who slurred and insulted one of the other Idaho universities? Incredible. Never heard of anything like that before. Low/no class any way you look at it.

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