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Carlson: An indecent proposal?

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Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Let’s engage in one of those exercises where one speculates history taking a different course. Let’s imagine that for one day you could be any one of the 30 men who have been Idaho’s governor. Who would you choose and what would you do?

To no one’s surprise this scribe would choose four-term Governor Cecil D. Andrus.

What I would have done, though, may surprise. But it would have been in the best interests of the taxpayers, higher education and the city of Pocatello. The date of this action would have been sometime in the week following the November 1994 election of Phil Batt as my successor.

In utmost secrecy, I would have loaded the state plane with Governor-elect Batt, his defeated rival for the governorship, Attorney General Larry Echohawk, then Idaho House Speaker Mike Simpson, and then Senate President Jerry Twiggs, and flown to Salt Lake City.

There we would have met with the appropriate authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and negotiated the sale of Idaho State University to the Church.

Under this scenario, ISU would have become BYU-Idaho, and RicksCollege in Rexburg would have remained a two-year feeder college for BYU-Provo and BYU-Idaho.

About to leave me? Stop a minute and think about how much better the entities involved would have been. There would be no losers in this deal.

What we have today is a major state university in an under-funded higher education system with declining enrollment – a trend that will continue as the converted Ricks College continues to grow at the expense of ISU. BYU-Idaho already has exceeded ISU in enrollment.

At the beginning of 2011 at BYU-Idaho total enrollment (full-time and part-time students) was 14,100 students, up from the previous year’s total of 13,375. At ISU, it was 12,595 down from the previous year’s number of 14,209.

One could easily look over the horizon 15 years ago and see this coming. Ricks was undergoing phenomenal growth as many LDS “returned missionaries” were either starting or resuming their education following conclusion of their two-year callings. It is no coincidence that the Rexburg Journal and Standard contained an unusually high number of engagement notices and marriage announcements.

Some contend many college-bound Mormon young women being more intent on obtaining their “MRS” instead of their “BS” degree in a culture that encourages young women to find eligible husbands among the ranks of those having returned from missions. Regardless, Ricks was clearly growing by leaps and bounds.

In the meantime, on the other side of Idaho, Boise State was rapidly expanding, as well. With the University of Idaho ensconced as the state’s leading research university and “flagship” school of the system, internecine fighting for state dollars was on the rise.

Despite a supposed unified State Board of Education overseeing all of Idaho’s universities and colleges, the political realities were clear. Boise State inevitably would receive more and more of the state allocation and it would come at the expense primarily of ISU as the legislative supporters of the booming Treasure Valley and the established north Idaho took care of the “home” schools first.

For its part Boise State, embarked on a path of cultivating athletic success rather than scholastic excellence (“A football team in search of a university,” as one colleague put it), and has been rewarded with far more alumni donations and private corporate contributions than ISU could ever hope to match.

Assume LDS Church authorities in Salt Lake would have seen the logic in having an already built up institution negating plans to expand in a smaller almost out-of-the-way community. What would they have paid for ISU? Probably in the range of $100 million at the time.

How much further Idaho would be ahead today, as well as the renamed ISU and Pocatello itself, if that had occurred? As the Church’s primary higher education institution in Idaho, ISU would be more financially secure, larger and off the taxpayers’ back. Even President Arthur C. Vailas’ dream of having a medical school would be more achievable.

There would be more state dollars to divide among the remaining institutions. And there would have been $100 million to put into the State Building Fund, earmarked for future higher education needs.

Such an unprecedented move would have had some difficult hurdles to overcome, not the least of which would be legalities involving contracts negotiated between a public institution and its various employees being turned over to a private entity. All would have been surmountable.

All, that is, except the political realities. Somewhere, someone would have filed a lawsuit and another perfectly rational idea in the public interest would have foundered on the altar of one group’s self-interest. Sound familiar?

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