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Growing Pains at Idaho State University

  • Growing Pains at Idaho State University

  • 17 October 2011 by 0 Comments

Growing Pains at Idaho State University

By Richard Larsen

Published – Idaho State Journal, 10/17/11

Shared governance is a noble concept and can be symbiotic with both the bureaucratic and political models of a faculty senate when their vision for the university is in harmony with the administration . But we have witnessed over the past couple of years what happens when the agendas and objectives of the university’s components clash.

Robert Birnbuam authored a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1989 titled “The Latent Organization Functions of the Academic Senate: Why Senates Do Not Work but Will Not Go Away.” Birnbuam documented the political role that faculty senates have had over the years. “In this model, the senate is seen as a forum for the articulation of interests and as the setting in which decisions on institutional policies and goals are reached through compromise, negotiation, and the formation of coalitions” and that “at best that they can provide a forum for the resolution of a wide range of issues involving the mission and operation of the institution.”

ISU’s shared governance system attempted to expand the role of the faculty senate to a bureaucratic entity. With this revised model, according to Birnbuum, “the faculty senate is either explicitly or metaphorically identified in bureaucratic terms, as they would ‘deal with the full range of academic and administrative matters (Camegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1983), and their purpose ‘approximates that of the college‘s management.’ (Keller, 1983).”

Birnbuam cites the academic research validating the fact that the faculty senate “exists at the pleasure of the administration and board of trustees,” and that because of this fact, their very existence is “tenuous.” He further explicates that the very existence of a faculty senate is acknowledgement by faculty members that they “recognize and accept the ultimate legal authority of the administration and board.” When faculty politics prevent cooperation with the ultimate authorities of a university, the faculty senate can, and should, be dissolved, as happened earlier this year.

Over the past few years we have witnessed the inevitable outcome when the administration and the faculty senate’s vision of a university and its governance diverge. Especially in light of recent challenges, it’s critical for all of us, especially ISU faculty and students, to acknowledge where the ultimate accountability for the university resides. The president is accountable to the State Board of Education, which is accountable to the state legislative and executive branches, which are in turn accountable to the citizens and taxpayers of the state. While it may be appealing to think of a democratic process governing our university, the reality is that it is a top-down management structure, and he who is most accountable in a public institution is who makes decisions at the top.

The transition to a research institution has obviously been painful and somewhat challenging to some faculty. But it is arguably the most logical move for the university since we are neither the Land Grant school for the state (University of Idaho) nor the most visible school nestled in the state capital (Boise State University). The efforts by the faculty with Vailas’ leadership have earned the university the designation of a Research High university by the prestigious Carnegie Foundation for The Advancement of Education.  This designation places ISU in an elite group of fewer than 100 of the nation’s 4,400 institutions of higher education.

With public resources continuing to decline, a review of the role and mission of the university was critical not only for continued excellence at the university, but for its very survival. The transition to a research school by President Vailas is a brilliant means to increase the diversification of revenue streams to the university, as exemplified by the $100 million partnership announced last week with Scan Tech. Such partnerships become increasingly critical to not only replace lost state funding but to prevent the cost of attending the university from rising to levels which would preclude many from attending. As state revenue has declined, the proportionate share of the costs of operations have been shifted primarily to students in the form of fees and tuition. With higher education inflation at over 7%, the cost of attending a university in the future will become increasingly limited to those who have the means. This is totally contrary to the role of a public university.

I am not privy to all the internal machinations and politics between the administration and the faculty senate. But as an alumnus, a product of, and a zealous supporter of ISU, the conflict between the faculty and the administration appears very self-serving on the part of the senate to retain more governing authority than is perhaps logical or warranted and resistant to the mission change. The vision of President Vailas, while disconcerting to faculty preferring to maintain the status quo, is critical to the future survival and growth of the most important component of the Pocatello economy, and one of the most significant in the state.

To validate that claim, the university employs over 2,100 of our friends and neighbors, has over 14,000 students enrolled, and has a direct impact of over $300 million on the local economy. And based on a 2010 study by candidates in the MBA program at ISU, the “productivity” effect on payrolls and economic impact is over $873 million annually. Clearly the university is critical to the state and Eastern Idaho in particular.

While I find myself sympathetic to the faculty senate and find merit in some of their publicly stated grievances, it seems apparent to me that at the root is an obdurate and unyielding adherence to the status quo, rather than a willingness to make the necessary adjustments and compromises to be “on board” with the new research focus and restructuring of the university. Have there been missteps by the administration in this transition? Undoubtedly. Have there been missteps by the faculty senate? Obviously, as the State Board of Education disbanded them for their recalcitrance.

In the context of these growth pains, one of Abraham Lincoln’s bold statements, a reference to the synoptic gospels, has perfect applicability. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he declared. One of those aphoristic truths, the message seems clear as it relates to the future of Idaho State University. For the sake of the internal climate on campus, and the public perception, which has been tarnished, it behooves all parties to embrace the new research mission and governance structure. Unified, there is virtually no limit to the future greatness and impact, economically and culturally, that ISU can have on the state.

AP award winning columnist Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, and is a graduate of Idaho State University with a BA in Political Science and History and former member of the Idaho State Journal Editorial Board.  He can be reached at

About the

More than anything, I want my readers to think. We're told what to think by the education establishment, which is then parroted by politicians from the left, and then reinforced by the mainstream media. Steeped in classical liberalism, my ideological roots are based in the Constitution and our founding documents. Armed with facts, data, and correct principles, today's conservatives can see through the liberal haze and bring clarity to any political discussion.

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