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Carlson: All hail the new flagship

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Idaho media recently carried reports that the State Board of Education had unanimously voted to strip the word “flagship” from the University of Idaho’s mission statement.

President Duane Nellis appeared stunned by the move. He should not have been – even this scribe pointed out a year ago in several columns that shang-haing the title of flagship away from the land grant university was part of BSU President Bob Kustra’s five-year game plan to have the Boise State campus be perceived by the public and politicians as the real flagship in Idaho’s university system.

The apparent ease with which President Kustra pulled off the move not only is a testament to his political and p.r. skills, it also says much about President Nellis’ passive nature. Vandal partisans should ask pointedly why their president, despite all the obvious signs, failed to see this coming and did nothing to block it.

One has to ask pointedly also, where were the two Idaho board members with the most obvious connections to the University of Idaho, Bill Goesling and Emma Atchley, and why did they go along? Surely they could not help recognizing from a p.r. standpoint alone how insulting to the University of Idaho this slap in the face would be.

Looking over the horizon and anticipating what is coming is clearly art and not science. Some see various pieces of information, connect the dots more quickly, and draw pretty good conclusions about what’s coming around the bend. Then there are those who one can present with all sorts of data showing the loaded dump truck around the corner and still refuse to believe it until it is seconds from running them over. The latter is the case with Duane Nellis and the University of Idaho.

Set aside for a moment the stupidity of such a move by the board which offered up the weak rationalization that the University of Idaho should not be so singled out when course offerings and instruction were equally good (?????) at Boise State and Idaho State.

Set aside too the tier system American universities are rated by a standard which is largely a reflection of the amount of research done at a university, the dollars attracted from both public and private resources for research, and the number of Ph.D’s awarded by the school. By all these measures and by accreditation associations across the country the University of Idaho clearly predominates.

Yes, the Vandals and Bengals field lousy football teams compared to Boise State but that should not matter to the academicians of the world, and in fact it doesn’t. But to a politically appointed Board of Education, such as Idaho has, it clearly does matter.

One cannot help noticing that despite a long tradition under previous governors for selecting members of both parties for board spots so as to foster the clear impression that the board was expected to be bi-partisan and non-partisan with Governor Otter that tradition has gone by the wayside. All the members now appear to be Republicans.

That, however, easily leads to the question whether the governor and/or his staff were aware that Kustra, with the able assistance of his government affairs aide, former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, knew in advance that Kustra was going to make the move.

Someone in the daily media ought to be asking what did the governor know and when did he know it?.

What should be clear to all is that perception is reality. Removing the word “flagship” from a university’s mission statement can be seen in no other context than a demotion no matter how much lip stick President Nellis tries to put on this pig. It ain’t pretty and what the U of I lost will be seen by all others as a clear gain for BSU. Just watch now as BSU’s share of the state funding pie continues to grow.

Frankly, I loved the skillful way Bob Kustra pulled off the board vote and stuck the stiletto into Nellis (metaphorically) while smiling and looking him in the eye. Just before the surprise vote by the board Kustra granted the Statesman’s political editor, Dan Popkey, a lengthy interview in which his acute political skills shone and his ability to act ethically in the rough and tumble political world, especially that in Illinois, also was apparent.

Remember, in politics there are no coincidences!

Some folks may ask why now? The answer is easy: Kustra is declaring victory. It’s over and done. BSU as far as public and political perceptions are concerned is now the state of Idaho’s “flagship” university.

UI had ample notice and still could not avoid being run over by the loaded dump truck. It doesn’t take a fortune teller looking into a clouded crystal ball to predict they may never get the title and the public perception back.

My congratulations to President Kustra and his team; my sympathy, somewhat shallow, to President Nellis and his. All hail the new flagship!

CHRIS CARLSON is a former journalist who served as press secretary to Gov. Cecil Andrus. He lives at Medimont.

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  1. fortboise fortboise February 22, 2012

    It’s a fine and colorful rant you’ve got there, Chris (welcome to the fray), but the information I received from the SBOE’s communications and legislative officer, Marilyn Whitney, yesterday puts this in a slightly different light. While the U of I (and Duane Nellis, personally?) took it upon itself to celebrate the “flagship” metaphor, it turns out that it was not, actually, ever officially in its mission statement. See my post, and the linked documents, from this morning: In search of our missions.

    Rather than removing the word, the Board declined to add it.

    The verbiage war is of course a sideshow to the larger question of how the state divvies up the budget for higher ed, which I’ll have more to say about shortly.

    (UI ’78, ’82)

  2. fortboise fortboise February 24, 2012

    Turns out the SBOE spokeswoman didn’t know the score, either! The contentious adjective was added, Sept. 2011. Thanks to Joel Mills of the Lewiston Tribune for digging that up. More: “Flagship” fracas still flapping.

  3. Diego Diego March 2, 2012

    As a former student and as a former instructor at both BSU and the U of I, neither one of these schools really earns the title of “Flagship” in my mind. BSU does some good things and the U of I does some good things.

    If you want a degree in a hard science area, you shouldn’t be going to BSU. Likewise, if you want a degree in the arts or humanities, U of I shouldn’t be anyone’s first choice.

    Overall, however, I did have a better experience at BSU, but that might have been because of timing. I attended the U of I as a graduate student for 2.5 years beginning in 2001 and then taught there for about 2 years as an adjunct faculty member. During the time I was there, all hell broke loose at the U of I. In addition to funding cuts due to the economy as well as other unexpected hold-backs of state money, the U of I also suffered a financial disaster caused by poor management of its own funds. This poor management is what lead to the resignation of U of I president Bob Hoover. In the time I was there the U of I was falling to pieces all around those of us who were students and who worked there. Faculty were jumping ship left and right for better jobs and were not being replaced because there wasn’t enough money to hire new people. The only reason that I got to teach 300 level courses with only a masters degree is because there was no one else left to teach these courses. I had a hard time finishing my masters thesis because it was difficult to find enough faculty willing to be on my committee and twice I had to reorganize my committee because faculty left U of I for jobs at other schools. The U of I has had 5 different presidents and a provost acting in the role of president since 2002 when the financial problems were at their worst (Bob Hoover, Gary Michael (interim), Tim White, Steven Daley-Larsen (interim), and Duane Nellis) not to mention the 1/2 semester when the Provost was in charge after Bob Hoover abruptly resigned amid financial scandal.

    I think things are looking up at the U of I, but, overall, I found BSU to be a better environment as a student and as an instructor and I also felt more challenged academically at BSU as an undergraduate than as a graduate student at U of I. But I also think that the chaos at the U of I might have created a situation that was atypical for the period from 2001-2008.

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