Gov. Otter: fund our budgets, not higher ed CEO

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist

Even though it was not recommended by his Higher Education Task Force, Gov. Butch Otter took the advice of seven business leaders and proposed a new position of “chief education officer.” Initially, this person would consolidate the “back-office” functions at ISU, BSU, LCSC, and UI. As far as I know, this would not affect the four community colleges, which have their own local boards.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.

Otter is asking for $270,000 for salary/benefits and $500,000 for “integration” consultation fees. The savings would be used to fund scholarships and academic support. There was no mention of increasing Idaho’s abysmal faculty salaries, which, especially among full professors, lag 20-30 percent behind their peers. The new CEO is supposed to make our colleges and universities more “student-centric,” but students are hurt when some of our best faculty are hired off at higher salaries elsewhere.

Otter Proposes 2.3 Percent Increase for Higher Ed

The three universities and LCSC have asked for $307 million in general fund monies for FY 19, a 6.8 percent increase, but Otter has countered that with 2.3 percent. This is at least a small advance on the 1.5 percent appropriated by the Legislature for FY 18. A key statistic for higher education funding is spending per student. The Lewiston Tribune (9/11/17) reported that “Idaho is spending $2,012 less per student than it did on the eve of the Great Recession—the 14th largest gap among the 50 states.”

Despite Great Needs, Another Tax Cut is In the Wings

Instead of addressing this issue, Otter is proposing yet another tax cut, described by House Majority Leader Mike Moyle as “arguably the biggest tax reduction bill we’ve seen since I’ve been in the Legislature.” Idaho will actually have an annual gain of $216 million with the Trump tax cut, but Idahoans themselves will lose $149.5 million in dependent deductions.

Support from SBOE, Vailas, Staben, but Kustra Demurs

The State Board of Education (SBOE) has approved the CEO plan, and ISU President Arthur Vailas and UI President Chuck Staben are also on board. Staben said that it is a “pretty reasonable approach to streamlining Idaho’s higher education system.” Vailas explained that “higher education, whether we like it or not, has to evolve as a business,” and it is important for the state to achieve some “business efficiencies.” Only BSU President Bob Kustra has reservations. His main concern is how this person would relate to the current SBOE executive director. Paraphrasing Matthew 6:24, he said: “No man can serve two masters without loving one and hating the other.”

$6 Million in Savings, not $43 Million

Kustra also disputed the projected savings of $43 million. One of his own fiscal officers did his own calculation, and came up with $6 million instead. Incredibly enough, one of the functions included in the consolidation was the five campus’ physical plants. (Those would be very long and costly steam pipes, over hill and dale, from a power plant in Boise!) SBOE Executive Director Matt Freeman was certainly correct when he warned that the consolidation effort would not be “for the faint of heart.”

Key Legislators are Skeptical of CEO Idea

GOP Sen. Shawn Keough, Co-Chair of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee (JFAC), said: “I thought that the executive director of the Office of the State Board of Education was the CEO, so I’m not supportive of that at this point, because I just don’t see the need out there now.” Democratic Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking was worried that money for the chief education officer would “come at the expense of core higher education functions.”

That is exactly what is happening. David Hahn, Otter’s budget analyst, admitted to JFAC that the governor has rejected higher education budget requests in order to reserve money for the new CEO. Hahn contended that the priority now must be funding a move from the current “siloed system to a system-ness,” which would be more “student centric.” I could not find “system-ness” at dictionary.com.

Otter Rejects $11.8 Million in Budget Requests

Statewide, Otter zeroed out $11.8 million in college and university line-items, much more than is needed for his pet project. Otter did, however, approve $800,000 for the WWAMI program, which supports Idaho medical students, $5 million for new scholarships, $389,300 for three full-time positions for career information systems, and $125,000 for a new psychology internship program.

Otter Axes LCSC Budgets Requests

At the top of LCSC President Tony Fernandez’s wish list was $649,200 for eight full-time positions. The money would be used to expand LCSC’s social work program and to add career and mental health counselors. Also rejected, according to the Lewiston Tribune, was $177,900 “to hire a cybersecurity analyst and an environmental health and safety specialist to develop protocols for handling hazardous materials.”

Otter Zeros Out All of UI Line-Items

At the UI Otter has denied the following requests: $1.8 million for the UI library; $3 million for a Nuclear Seed Potato Facility; $323,000 for forest utilization research; and $101,000 for the Idaho Geology Survey.

UI President Staben also requested $320,000 for crisis intervention counselors and two positions for autistic students. In his presentation to the Legislature, he said that the “folks who provide those services are overwhelmed.” One would be hard pressed to find a more “student-centric” need for each campus, and one that obviously cannot be consolidated in Boise.

UI Faculty Senate Silent on CEO Proposal

At a January 25 meeting, the UI Faculty Senate was briefed by UI lobbyist Joe Stegner on the CEO proposal. The minutes show that there were no questions or responses from the senators present. In an email to me the Faculty Senate Chair wrote: “The legislative prospects of this proposal are unclear at this point, and more details are necessary to develop informed opinions. There are no plans for further action from the UI Faculty Senate at this point.” It is my hope that the information gathered here will encourage further deliberation.

What Will Happen to All Those “Back-Office” Staff?

What would happen to all those employees whose “back-office” jobs would be lost in this reorganization? One would assume that salary savings are included in the estimated $43 million cost reduction. New staff would be required in Boise, so would one expect that some of employees be offered similar positions in Boise. But is this a move that most people would want to countenance?

Comparison with Maine’s Chancellor System Flawed

When the CEO idea first surfaced, some thought that Idaho was moving towards a chancellor system. (Speculation even included making UI President Staben its first chancellor.) With three well-entrenched universities, a chancellor system would be virtually impossible to implement in Idaho. That would only have been possible decades ago, when ISU was the UI at Pocatello and BSU was still a junior college.

Re-organizing six relatively small campuses and the University of Maine at Orono, the land grant school, Maine went to a chancellor system in 2012. Consolidating IT, human resources, and finances, the system was able to freeze tuition until FY 18, when a 2.5 percent increased went into effect.

Bob Lokken, co-chair of Otter’s Higher Education Task Force, claims that the Maine system saved “more than $80 million,” a figure that I could not verify. In an email, a colleague of mine at the University of Maine Orono wrote: “I don’t know how much money has been saved. In many cases, very little.” Rebecca Wyke, Maine’s vice chancellor for finance and administration, reports that about $5 million has been saved with IT and purchasing consolidation.

University of Southern Maine Censured by AAUP

The only $80 million I could find in a web search was the amount of a capital campaign at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, 50 faculty were laid off on the basis of financial exigency, but an investigation by the American Association of University Professors, very similar to a UI case in 1981-82, showed that administrators had failed to follow their own criteria. In 1984 the AAUP voted to place the UI on its censured institution list.

Regarding the Southern Maine campus, my colleague in Maine wrote: “Our faculty union had the figures on how over the decades the huge inflated growth had been in the proliferation of administrators and not faculty or staff.” This has been the case all over the nation.

In 2016, the AAUP put Southern Maine on its censure list where it remains to this day. UI faculty will remember that former UI President Elizabeth Zinser refused to take her post in 1989 until the UI was removed from this list. Also significant was the Lois Pace case in which the AFT won over $1 million for her and seven other ag faculty laid off in that fraudulent financial exigency.

In 2016, business faculty at Southern Maine strongly objected to a move to consolidate MBA programs. Robert Heiser, associate professor of marketing and director of Southern Maine’s MBA program, complains that “at this point we have no governance, no curriculum, no processes, no admissions procedure. [The administrators] have created chaos.”

Maine and Idaho Salaries Lag Peers by Same Margins

Maine’s students got a break, but nothing was done to address their faculty. The last year we had national comparisons for Ph.D.-granting institutions, UI full professors were 26 percent behind, associate professors lagged 17 percent, while assistant professors received 19 percent less. (Average salaries at UMaine Orono were $73,300 while UI was at $75,100.) Only minimal raises (2 percent annually in Idaho) since then has kept these salaries non-competitive, and Idaho student faced tuitions increases every year.

Maine Consolidation: “Impersonized, Dehumanized, Confused”

My Maine colleague writes: “[Consolidation] has led to a lot of wasted time and frustration by faculty and others. Often no one can figure out the centralized policies and find out who can give answers. For example, I have colleagues who spend days trying to submit a conference travel request and find that they are wasting hours trying to get a $10 receipt accepted or just to get answers.”

Recruiting New Presidents with this “Half-Baked” Idea?

The ISU, BSU, and LCSC presidents are leaving, and the Lewiston Tribune’s Marty Trillhaase wondered about how prospective recruits would view this “half-baked” idea with no clear lines of authority. The ISU and BSU replacements would be hired at about $400,000, and would naturally feel they out-ranked their $200,000-a-year CEO, whose job description reads like a mid-level manager with “specialized skills.”

Half-Baked” and, and I might add, muddled and confused.

Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. He is President of the Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFT/AFL-CIO. He can be reached at [email protected]

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