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The choice in front of you

idaho RANDY
The Idaho

The departure of Duane Nellis as president of the University of Idaho has kicked in a nationwide search for a replacement, standard procedure these days for filling such jobs as university presidents.

It will take about a year. It will involve dozens of people, vast amounts of time, and considerable money and angst. How much money for the search? That varies, but similar searches around the country these days tend to cost upward of $100,000, for consultants, travel, advertising and more.

The president it generates probably, if history is any guide, will have an impressive resume but little or no experience with either Idaho or the university, and so necessarily will have to spend a year or two getting acquainted and learning the ropes. Because the search is national, salary and benefits will ratchet up to the national marketplace level, which has been racheting ever higher and higher.

How long will this investment – assuming the choice is a good one, which isn’t always the case – last? Maybe not long. In the case of Nellis, chosen by a nationwide search, about four years. His predecessor as permanent president, Timothy White, also lasted four years. His predecessor, Robert Hoover, lasted a little longer, about seven years, but left under a cloud.

Something like this probably will be the university’s, and Idaho’s, experience again.


Last week an interim president – to fill in between Nellis and a permanent successor – was named. He is Don Burnett, the dean of the university’s law school.

The state Board of Education could do a lot worse than to just make his appointment permanent, right now.

If he’d take it (his age, in his mid-60s, might be his argument against). But consider his background.

He’s an Idaho native (born in Pocatello), was an attorney by profession, clerking for the chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and working as an assistant attorney general for entering into private practice (which is where I met him in Pocatello, in the 70s). He was also, I learn in reviewing his bio, a military JAG officer. He became involved enough in politics to earn mention often as a prospective candidate for various offices, including legislature; he would have been a highly skilled campaigner. He became president of the Idaho State Bar and one of the first judges on the Idaho Court of Appeals, where his opinions were some of the best written I’ve ever seen. He knows Idaho extremely well.

On the academic side he has degrees from Harvard University and two other institutions, and served 12 years as dean of the University of Louisville (Kentucky) law school, before returning to Idaho to become dean at UI. This shorthand resume just scratches the surface.

A national search would have a hard time improving on Burnett. And his learning curve would be slight. Bear all that in mind if the Board of Ed does what it usually does in the months ahead.

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