[Vision2020] Statesman article on a "rebounding" University of Idaho

Carl Westberg carlwestberg846 at hotmail.com
Sun Dec 9 10:31:49 PST 2007

December 09, 2007
	U of I may be emerging from a serious slump
declining student enrollment could be leveling. Donations have
rebounded after dropping by two thirds. Research grants are picking up.
And on campus, the attitude change is tangible.
	MOSCOW - Just a few years ago, Karen Guilfoyle was ready to quit her job as an education professor at the University of Idaho.Class sizes were growing. Faculty was diminishing, and precious research time was vanishing. Now, however, she's not planning to go anywhere. "My husband is afraid I am never going to quit," she said.After years of financial and image problems, the University of Idaho is showing signs of renewal.Key
indicators of a university's health - enrollment and research grants -
appear to be leveling off or increasing after several years' decline.President
George Bush last month presented U of I the government's highest arts
honor for the school's signature Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.Faculty numbers, which were cut in the early part of the decade as the university reined in spending, are beginning to rebound.The
University of Idaho Foundation has restructured itself after problems
that grew out of the university's attempt to expands its Boise campus.U
of I, however, still wrestles with problems. Enrollment, which fell 10
percent in five years, has yet to show a healthy rebound, and that
makes it harder to recruit both students and faculty and makes it
tougher for the school to get more money from the Legislature.But throughout the university, once dark feelings of pessimism are being replaced by hope.U
of I is in planning stages for an estimated $300 million capital
campaign - nearly twice the size of a campaign recently announced by
Boise State University - aimed in part at improving student financial
assistance.University supporters say such a campaign would have been unthinkable just three years ago.Then, the university was:
Mired in $20 million worth of red ink, much of it money U of I owed
itself for overspending in programs such as the Lionel Hampton
festival. The debt is down to $14 million, and there is a credible plan
to pay it off. Caught by state higher education budget cutbacks
that contributed to staff reductions as Idaho's economy shuddered in
the aftermath of 9/11.  Bruised by the failure of University
Place, a proposal for a three-building satellite campus in Boise that
fell apart in 2003 over questions of financial management. The project
led to the resignation of a popular college president and to state and
federal criminal investigations and multiple civil lawsuits. Jerry
Wallace, U of I's former vice president for finance, was sentenced to
three years of probation for misuse of state funds.HARD TO WATCHWatching
the roller coaster ride hasn't been easy for U of I alumni like Peter
Mundt, whose family has a connection with the school both as students
and as faculty."It was emotionally painful," said Mundt, a media
producer for Healthwise, "To watch that name continue to be dragged
around and kicked around was very difficult."Like many
supporters, Mundt credits U of I President Tim White and the leadership
team he brought to the school for salvaging the university's reputation
and future."The administration ... has been able to take what
was a very difficult situation and make very difficult decisions to
steer things in a better direction," he said.The school's leaders trimmed budgets and cut staff in 2005 by about 70 people.But
officials also scraped together money for a 4 percent faculty raise in
2005 and found dollars for seed projects that would bring together
interdisciplinary programs within the university.MENDING A SPLINTERED UNIVERSITYWhite, who took over as president in fall 2004, inherited a university that had lost its way, he said."I
never lost confidence we could make a huge difference here," White
said. "But I was sobered by the magnitude of the job in front of us."White
said he took over a university that had splintered into camps where
colleges and departments were protecting their own turf and hoarding
resources.In a move to bring them together, White set aside $5.5
million for projects that would enhance students' education by bringing
several colleges to bear on a course of study. Faculty presented 43
proposals. Five were selected.Waters of the West, a program that
involves nearly all of U of I's colleges and focuses on one of the
state's most vital resources, began this fall as one of the five
selected programs. It now has 17 students and is expected eventually to
involve up to 60 faculty from eight of the university's colleges.Joseph
Machala is one of the first students in the Waters of the West program.
The 24-year-old Twin Falls student graduated from U of I in 2006 after
studying biological and agricultural engineering.But he came back to join Waters of the West after a stint with a consulting firm in Salt Lake City."I want to make myself more marketable," he said.On
a day in late October, Machala stood on the steep bank of narrow
Paradise Creek, next to the Moscow city sewer system. He measured the
bank's width, which will help tell U of I researchers how much water
moves down the creek at peak flows.The information will help
Machala and professor Jan Boll understand more about the region's
aquifer, which is slowly being drained. Along with getting field
experience, Machala will study water law and other aspects to give him
a broad view when he completes the program.Boll, who directs
Waters of the West, hopes the program will expand from studying the
aquifer to working with the Nez Perce and a nearby irrigation district
on water quality issues."If we can be there in five years, I'd be real happy," Boll said.ENROLLMENT, SPACE CHALLENGES LIE AHEADU of I's uptick doesn't mean the school's problems are solved.While
university enrollment has stopped hemorrhaging, U of I isn't reporting
the gains of other schools. Idaho State University grew by 4.2 percent
this year after a sharp 9 percent drop in 2006. BSU has shown steady
increases for most of the last eight years.Sagging enrollment makes it difficult to pitch the need for more money to the Legislature, some lawmakers say."The big challenge for them now is they are not growing enrollment," said State Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls. Nonetheless,
school officials are optimistic. Visits to campus by prospective
students are up from 2,088 in 2003-04 to 2,626 in 2006-07.Faculty,
who were caught off guard by the university's financial problem early
in the decade, watched their ranks thin as professors were encouraged
to take early retirement. But now, faculty numbers are starting to grow
again, rebounding to nearly the 2001 level. Faculty hit a high of 915 in 2001 but declined to 839 by 2005. By 2007, the number rebounded to 897.As
deans and administrators began to feel the university's finances
solidify, they became more comfortable with hiring, said Doug Baker, U
of I provost and executive vice president. "When you are not sure about
the state of fiscal affairs, you are going to be more conservative and
not overextend yourself," he said. Class sizes, which some faculty say mushroomed during the lean times, are beginning to ease. And
many faculty members say they are pleased White included them in
helping shape the vision for the university through a task force he
started even before arriving on campus in 2004. "It gave us a feeling
we had a say," said Guilfoyle, the faculty council's vice chair.But challenges remain.U
of I's chemistry department, for instance, is nearly out of lab space
for freshman classes, said Tom Bitterwolf, a chemistry professor.If
the schools of engineering or natural resources, which require
chemistry, increase their student load, it could create a bottleneck in
providing the instruction."It's going to put us up against the wall," Bitterwolf said.Baker
knows the chemistry department is short of room. The school is looking
at a number of ways to build more labs or put chemistry labs in a
proposed new science building. U of I could also extend the class day
and run labs in the evening, he said.Those challenges seem more
manageable to faculty than those during the dark days when they were
hit unaware with cuts in budgets and class offerings. "It's not the doe in the headlights of three years ago," Bitterwolf said.Bill Roberts: 377-6408
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