After six tumultuous years, it appears the writing is on the wall for University of Idaho President Elisabeth Zinser.
Having alienated faculty and boosters with a management style that even supporters acknowledge can border on brusque, she is the target of a statewide petition drive asking the Board of Education not to renew her contract when it expires at the end of June.
“She has not provided the open process by which a university ought to run,” said Mack Redford, a UI alumnus, Boise attorney and petition organizer.
Meanwhile, Zinser is busily looking for new work - in Kentucky last week, West Virginia, where she is one of three finalists, the week before.
A week ago Friday, Redford said, she asked petition organizers to hold off while she looked for work elsewhere. Without a promise she would soon step down, they refused.
But Zinser critics shouldn’t rush to chill the champagne.
The petition, run largely out of southern Idaho, is having trouble garnering more than 1,000 signatures.
In Moscow, Zinser supporters are organizing their own drive, forming an alliance with student leaders and writing Board of Education members.
Some petition critics question whether it is an appropriate tactic. Others, say petition organizers, are simply afraid to publicly identify themselves with it for fear of retaliation.
Faculty reaction is mixed, and no one has openly circulated the petition. The Faculty Council won’t touch it and the council head calls it “one of the most hurtful and most divisive moves I have ever witnessed.”
The student senate is weighing a resolution applauding Zinser as tireless, effective, responsive, progressive, brilliant and innovative.
Zinser also stands to gain by the perception that an open move to oust her will hurt the university itself. The school could be painted as a den of wolves that no potential new president would want to run.
While Zinser is blamed for costing the school boosters and supportive alumni, some faculty fear the petition could do the same thing.
“We don’t want to divide any of that group because frankly there’s a feeling of vulnerability at the University of Idaho,” said Larry Branen, former agriculture dean and now a professor.
Faculty Council Chairwoman Bonnie Hultstrand, in a recent letter to the Board of Education, worried about giving control over university actions to “external individuals” who do not always understand college decision-making.
Zinser, interviewing last week to be chancellor of the University of Kentucky’s Lexington campus, declined to talk for this story.
Now 55, she has over the years acquired a reputation as being both lively and domineering, driven and autocratic, depending on whom is asked.
UI’s first female president, Zinser arrived with a good track record in 1989, a year after the protests of deaf students at Gallaudet University, the nation’s only university for the deaf, forced her to resign after two days as president. She soon caught flak for a salary larger than the governor’s - she now earns $130,000 - then for a string of questionable decisions regarding a housekeeper, the Idaho Research Foundation, priorities of teaching and research, and more.
For petition organizers, the nextto-last straw was a yearlong delay in gathering input on a move from the Big Sky athletic conference to the more competitive Big West.
Finally, said Redford, Zinser failed to serve the state’s engineering needs when she set up a joint UI-Boise State University engineering program in Boise that he called mere “tokenism.”
The petition, which at last count had about 1,000 signatures, says among other things that Zinser has failed to retain key administrators, excluded constituents and equivocated on development, athletics and other issues.
“After several years, we have found she provides a lack of openness and discussion in her administration,” Redford said. “She is very curt and at times uncivil to people. She does not listen.”
Petition supporters are criticized for playing into the hands of southern Idaho interests who might strengthen BSU while UI is distracted and consumed with the fight over its president.
The potential harm to the university surfaced in their meeting with Zinser, a no-holds-barred affair that took place after the recent Board of Education meeting, said Redford.
“We told her the short-term harm that might take place to the university is nothing compared to the longterm harm that’s going on now,” he said.
Zinser supporters aren’t so sure.
“When you work for an individual who is a very hard worker and very focused, and at times that focus lays aside normal civilities, people can be offended,” said one member of the university community, who asked not to be named. “… But that doesn’t mean we don’t make progress.”
“She is out there and she is tireless,” said one school official, who also declined to be identified.
“I would have to say that with some of her attributes, were she male, people would say, ‘fine, go get ‘em.”’
Jerry Wallace, vice president for finance and administration, said Zinser is leading the school through a number of key changes: the increased role of computer technology in education, satellite-driven classrooms around the state, and an increased appreciation of the Moscow campus’s potential as a rich “living and learning” environment.
As the focal point of many changes, Zinser is also the target of some people’s frustration, Wallace said.
Damon Darakjy, vice president of the Associated Students of UI, said Zinser was a “hero” in getting legislative support for the school’s engineering program. At the time, the Legislature was under pressure from Micron Technology Inc. to create an independent engineering school run by Boise State.
“She’s the most effective president to speak in front of the Legislature and be effective and get the money that the university needs,” said Darakjy, who drafted the Senate resolution supporting her. The resolution was tabled last week so senators could get more input from their constituents.
For their part, Board of Education members are not saying how they feel about Zinser’s future while they field the comments of her supporters and detractors.
“I’ve been getting letters pro and con,” said Roy Mosman of Moscow. “Mostly pro.”
Come June, the board will be all but forced to make a clear decision, if only to avoid the appearance of being run by boosters and alumni, said one UI official.
“Potential presidents are going to look and say, ‘Who’s in charge there? … The governing board needs to say something about that.”
Curtis Eaton, president of the board, said he is not too worried about scaring off would-be successors.
The job is a public one, he said, and public discussion of it is only natural.
“They would be willing to engage and be involved and be the focus of that,” he said, “or they wouldn’t be interested.”