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Undisputed champion

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The most successful university president in Idaho history, Boise State University’s Bob Kustra, is rapidly approaching retirement. He is 72 years young, and has accomplished more in his 12 years than all other Idaho public university presidents combined, with the possible exception of former Idaho State University President William E. “Bud” Davis.

Many factors combined fortuitiously to generate his success, but one key is from day one Kustra understood the job is primarily one of mastering the politics. To succeed a university president must concede they are a politician—-not an academician, not a researcher, not a teacher, not a scientist.

Kustra came to his job almost straight from the jungle of Illinois politics where it is truly a contact sport riven with internecine fights and plagued with a history of corruption. He served two years in the State House, eight years in the State Senate and seven years as the Lt. Governor working with one of the few, competent, ethical and untainted governors in modern Illinois history, Republican Jim Edgar.

Kustra resigned his office in 1998 to go into higher education, a long-time secondary avocation of his (he holds a Ph.D in political science), to accept the presidency of Eastern Kentucky University and by 2003 was named the 6th president of Boise State.

Credit Kustra with understanding both the potential for dynamic growth at BSU and the importance of putting together and implementing strategic plans. As the man with a plan he quickly converted all the multiple constituencies from alumni to faculty to students. All recognized they had in Kustra a smart, tactical leader who knew how to make decisions, win over critics and unite diverse interests around goals beneficial to all.

Kustra also intuitively understood that everyone loves being associated with a winner, especially in the game of football. Boise State was already moving in the direction and had achieved real success on the gridiron but credit Kustra with understanding how crucial football success is to generous alumni giving and substantial funding from state legislators. Credit him also with ensuring that the minor sports were well supported as well as womens sports in full compliance with Title IX.

Kustra, working with his athletic director, deserves credit for elevating a fine football coach like Chris Peterson and hiring Leon Rice as head basketball coach. They took Boise State to the top tier of college football and basketball. Neither was he afraid to leave a rival like the University of Idaho, which couldn’t keep up, behind.

Credit Kustra also for hiring as his director of government affairs former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, one of Idaho’s saviest political practitioners. Only one University of Idaho president, Tim White, working in conjunction with the Vandal’s equally adept government affairs director, Marty Peterson, could have possibly matched the Kustra/Newcomb combination.

White got fed up with continual harassment by Ed Board member Blake Hall from Idaho Falls and walked away. He landed in California where today he is Chancellor of the entire University of California Higher Education System. It didn’t take Kustra long after White was gone to not so subtly have removed from the University of Idaho’s mission statement the characterization of the U of I as the “flagship university.”

Kustra understnds the importance of perception. Too smart to appropriate that title directly, he knows today Boise State, though it describes itself as a “metropolitcan research university of distinction,” is nonetheless Idaho’s flagship university.

During Kustra’s tenure BSU has grown into the state’s largest public university. It grants over 40% of the bachelor degrees awarded in Idaho each year. Yes, the U of I for a while longer may continue to lead in research dollars and be considered academically better, but Kustra knows reality often follows perception and it is only a matter of time until BSU leads in those arenas also.

Like all successful politicians, Kustra has his detractors. He can be imperious and downright arrogant at times, and more than one person has called him a jerk when he acts less than his capability to charm. Decisive people though can often alienate those who dislike their decisions. Kustra knows success can cover a multitude of sins.

It appears the University of Idaho’s new president, Chuck Staben, doesn’t begin to understand the nature of the challenge Kustra’s aggressive leadership has created for him and his university. One example, is indicative. After being in office over a year he has yet to meet with the editorial board of the largest daily newspaper in his own backyard, the Lewiston Tribune. Vandal boosters better wake up..

When Bob Kustra hangs up his spurs he’ll do so secure in the knowledge that he is retiring as the uindisputed champion of the title “best university president,” bar none, in the history of Idaho.

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